Sondheimer: Austin Hicks is the breakthrough lacrosse player in Southland

When Austin Hicks was in third grade, he lost interest in playing baseball. His mother signed him up for lacrosse camp.

“I found my calling,” he said.

He soon joined a recreation league and remembers seeing his coach demonstrating how to put the ball into the goal with the stick.

“The coach was doing a drill and showing us how to shoot,” he said. “He put in a perfect shot in the corner of the goal. The shot was so pretty and mesmerizing. I remember, ‘I want to shoot like that, I want to play like that’ watching him put the ball so effortlessly in the goal.”

Hicks, 18 and a senior at St. Margaret’s High, has become a breakthrough lacrosse talent in California, ranked No. 1 in Southern California and headed to Duke. He’s 5 feet 11, 195 pounds and an example of how players in California can reach the skill level of their counterparts from the East Coast with the right passion and commitment.

“What makes Austin special is he’s physically imposing and highly skilled,” coach Brian Kelly said. “In lacrosse you’re typically one or the other. Austin is a unique combination of both, where he can beat you any way.”

High school players are competing for limited college scholarship money since lacrosse teams are similar to college baseball teams, having to split up scholarship money (12.6 scholarships allowed in men’s lacrosse).

Hicks had 84 points (a combination of goals and assists) last season. He’s a former football player who gave up the sport after his sophomore season. The physicality he learned from tackle football while playing running back and receiver has helped for lacrosse. Yet make no mistake about what turned him into an elite lacrosse player — it was getting experience against the best.

He has played for a club team since eighth grade. When his team traveled to Maryland, Connecticut and New York for summer competition, Hicks learned important lessons.

“That truly has brought my game forward,” he said. “The competition skill level is high. It’s kind of a shock when you first go out there, ‘Wow, these kids are really good.’ The more I realized I can compete with these kids.”

Hicks’ physicality, strength and agility separate him.

“My best ability is to be able to get a shot off and get my hands free and that comes from being a physical player,” he said.

Kelly said top players in California are comparable to others, but the lack of depth leaves the East Coast superior. “I do think the talent is highly concentrated at the top,” he said.

Lacrosse is at a crossroads. After explosive youth growth some 10 years ago, Kelly says he believes it has leveled off or slightly declined. He said focus is needed at the grassroots level, getting sticks into the hands of youngsters and helping recreation leagues develop the next generation of players to high school and beyond.

“Making sure there continues to be opportunities for that beginning level player and continue for young players that want to develop,” Kelly said.

Like many sports, lacrosse has turned into a pay-to-play situation. College recruiters recruit only off club teams. Parents are being asked to spend thousands of dollars to help sponsor club teams. Hicks said he’s grateful his parents could afford the monetary commitment to allow him to develop playing for a club team, but he joins Kelly in warning that opportunities must be maintained for those who can’t afford special training.

“I think inspiring the next generation is one of my goals,” he said. “I want to show them why I love the sport and encourage them to keep playing.”

Kelly is doing his part by teaching P.E. at St. Margaret’s for third-graders and up, opening the door for those who want to take up lacrosse.

“I see my job not just about lacrosse but getting kids excited about sports,” he said.

Hicks also can be influential in turning around a stereotype that follows lacrosse players and coaches, some of whom give off the impression they are better than everyone else and have no patience for anyone not familiar with their sport.

“That’s why I try to be so nice. I want to break that stereotype,” Hicks said.

St. Margaret’s is ranked No. 1 in Southern Section Division 1 lacrosse. It’s the fourth year lacrosse is a sanctioned playoff sport in the Southern Section.

Hicks is in position to show what a player can achieve and serve as the standard for others to follow.

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