This story appears in the May/June edition of USA Lacrosse Magazine. Join our momentum.
The boys’ lacrosse team at Martinsburg High School was undoubtedly West Virginia’s best in 1977, but they weren’t exactly feared by the other teams in the Mountain State.
That’s because, in 1977, Martinsburg was the only high school lacrosse team in West Virginia.
“Those guys will be quick to tell you, ‘Yeah, we won the first state championship in West Virginia,’” said Martinsburg’s current coach Neil Troppman, a former army brat who learned the game 70 miles away in Columbia, Md. “But they’re the only team that ever played.”
That such an exciting game took so long to return to Martinsburg is a little surprising. The Eastern Panhandle juts out from the rest of West Virginia and is almost completely surrounded by lacrosse-mad Maryland. Pennsylvania and Virginia, where the game is long established, are also a quick trip up or down I-81.
“It’s surprising that it’s not more popular,” Troppman said. “I think it could really draw here.”
Part of the problem is how spread out West Virginia is. Many of the schools in the center of the state do not have lacrosse. They’re also still a long way away from having enough programs for lacrosse to be a fully sanctioned sport. So while the work is done to get the program back at Martinsburg, the rest of the state will need to catch up.
Some call Martinsburg the fastest-growing town in West Virginia. Why would it not be the epicenter for the fastest-growing sport in the country?
Troppman and other volunteers put in the work by heading into local elementary and middle schools to give presentations. A USA Lacrosse Physical Education grant helped him put plastic sticks in the hands of gym teachers across the state. In the fall, many now teach a unit on lacrosse. Martinsburg also received a high school equipment grant from USA Lacrosse.
Earlier this spring, Martinsburg’s team was out practicing on the high school field. The track team watched them with interest. Finally someone came up and asked, “What school are you affiliated with?”
“Martinsburg,” came the answer.
The runner responded that he had no idea Martinsburg even had a lacrosse team.
Clearly he wasn’t around in 1977. The history of Martinsburg lacrosse has been forgotten by some. That’s OK. There is finally a future to look forward to.
Back then, Martinsburg played mostly against schools from Maryland. But local interest waned, and within a few years, mighty Martinsburg lacrosse disappeared. For the next three decades, the largest city in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle had no lacrosse program at all.
That changed in 2010, when the Panhandle Pride youth program started through the city’s Parks and Recreation department. Troppman became involved when he signed up his 5-year-old son. He was eager to pass on the sport that he learned to love during his younger days in Maryland. His son was not as enthused.
“I had to trick him to get him there,” Troppman said. “But once he started playing, he was hooked. There was no looking back.”
He wasn’t the only one. Spurred by commitment from volunteers, word of mouth and a grant from USA Lacrosse, the youth program took off. The seeds that were replanted a decade ago finally bloomed this spring. In 2021, Martinsburg, once the default most dominant team in West Virginia, finally had a high school team again.
The lacrosse landscape has changed, but not by much. Martinsburg is one of only about 20 high school teams in West Virginia. But in a move that those state champions of the ‘70s may have found detrimental, Troppman’s goal is to get more teams in the state, targeting schools in Berkeley and Jefferson counties.
“Getting the game into more high schools in this area gives the kids in the youth program something to look forward to,” Troppman said. “They’re not just playing a youth sport. They know they can have something to play in high school.”
The youth program grew, as is often the case, by plucking the kids — and parents — who were bored by baseball.
“It’s a lot more exciting,” Troppman said. “The parents at these youth games seem to be a lot more enthusiastic. You’re not melting in the summer heat of a little league game. You’re watching an exciting game.”