NOVEMBER 5, 2012 BY: MIKE COSTELLO
Historically, the game of lacrosse was played with wooden sticks. The Native Americans invented the game and wood was the material of choice, obviously. It stayed that way into the 70’s. The aluminum shaft pushed the natural material to the back shelf. For the past ten years we have seen titanium, graphite, fiberglass and other materials and alloys being used for lacrosse shafts and you could only find a solid wooden shaft or stick on E-Bay. But, wood seems to be making a comeback – and a company, Blackfeet Lacrosse, is making a playable and dare I say, visually stunning stick. I met the owner of Blackfeet, Rick Coteus and the 7 v 7 tournament this past weekend and he gave me the details on his company:
How did your company get its start?
My older brother is a fellow with IBM, a scientist and by nature an engineer. We grew up questioning things at a core level and then finding better answers. When natural materials can do a job as well or better than materials extracted and processed using metallurgy and chemical treatment processes (i.e. contaminants) then I get excited. Not that every player can benefit from our woods at this time but most can and most that try our woods tell us they enjoy the game more. So our company got started on a very small budget in my modest woodworking shop using quality ash wood boards acquired from my well trusted supplier and they were breaking. We learned the hard way that once a tree became a board it was difficult to yield a shaft. We had to find skilled wood mill workers learned in this art to select trees properly and supply us woods that would withstand the rigors of lacrosse.
View slideshow: Blackfeet Lacrosse
Why the name, "Blackfeet"?
I lived in the great state of Montana for a decade where the Blackfoot people originate. Being a lifelong despiser of the government perpetrated genocide upon the indigenous people of the Americas I have been a student of their history and empathetic supporter of the principles Native Americans have boldly exemplified having never been overtaken or fully subjugated despite the odds. I named the company after them having suffered my own trials and attempted destruction as a way of aligning my energies with theirs for our common victory in the greatest country the world has ever known in the greatest economy (once it’s left alone) the world has ever known.
What's your background in lacrosse?
I couldn't spell lacrosse until my son (he was 10 at the time) took up the sport with a vengeance. We studied the game together and analyzed his play at nearly every practice and game; we loved the action and the strategy of the game. We viewed lacrosse as a pass & catch game - look up field and make good decisions. Pass, catch and pass again, the team that controls the ball wins since defending a goal is at best 40% hopeless.
What has been the initial reaction of the shafts?
Since the first tournament I attended the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Yet we have a ways to go to achieve our goal of every tenth player using our wood. Many players and coaches are still cautious of wood on several fronts - concerns that it is heavy, that it hurts and that wood breaks, all very important issues we have addressed and overcome.
Talk to me about the youth lacrosse plan - having a size and weight that favors the player?
We all talk about growing the sport and that means a lot more than making it more popular and attracting more players, it has to do with making the sport better. One way we can do this is by rules changes that assist young players developmentally. Equipment plays a big part in this. This year 2012, for the first time players up to and including U-11 can utilize a short shaft, one that is 3" shorter in length. Resulting stick skill improvement is marked when boys make use of this change and play a shorter stick - any player would find lacrosse easier in fact. I say boys because girls always could play a short stick - shorter by 5" than most currently play with. I hope the rules changes continue in this direction allowing the 3" shorter rule to extend to U-13. Although I have not yet heard of talk pertaining to a youth ball I do expect this change to be coming soon - a youth ball, less dense and a bit lighter for youth play. Every other sport has made accommodations in equipment for young players and lacrosse will naturally follow suit because it’s good for the game.
Blackfeet has responded to the short shaft rule by providing a stick of maximum shortness, and maximum lightness (lightest shaft available) with a tapered reduction in diameter, optimal characteristics for stick skill development. We firmly believe our Warpath! is the most tactically advanced shaft available at any price.
What about the process, how difficult is it to make a wooden shaft?
We are only as good as our suppliers. Of all the learning and development none has been more beneficial or challenging than our strategic relationships with our solid wood suppliers. They have listened to what we have expressed is necessary for the sport in terms of grain structure characteristics and weight and have chosen to put up with us, our rejects and coaching and coaxing them to give us what is required to pass the muster of competitive lacrosse at all levels.
With excellent quality woods we can instill quality controls of workmanship to complete the relatively uncomplicated process to derive a quality shaft.
Do the different types of wood present different challenges?
Yes and that is why we have different suppliers. When we first set out to make a medium hard wood shaft we asked our ash wood supplier to send this to us. His remark was "that would be like starting a completely new business". Once we have the required woods the differences to us in the wood shop are not too great. Harder woods color less richly than softer woods so we have to make adjustments for this.
How is the business going? How many lacrosse events like this do you do?
Business is very good and growing steadily. Tournament attendance is on the rise because lacrosse is moving toward year round play, but the bulk of the tournaments are still currently in the spring, summer and fall with emphasis on summer. We attend tournaments in seven states so far, furthest being Las Vegas. We have attended 14 in 2012 so far.
Any other comments about the business?
What we are about and what we think we bring to the sport is playable wood shafts, by overcoming the three big objections I mentioned: too heavy, too painful, and too easily broken. There does remain one player for whom we cannot supply a shaft, the big strong guy who works the crease wanting superb strength with superb lightness. Our low six ounce range is strong but not that strong. Shaft technology is an important aspect of the game and we too like some of the offerings beyond wood, but at 1 million cells per cubic inch of wood under hygroscopic pressure - wood remains the heavy hitter on nature's technological front with much yet to be understood. We very much enjoy the discovery process and look forward to supplying the sport more masterful selections and species.
Many, many thanks to all the fantastic people in this great sport. I have received enormous support from players and their parents and I wish them all the best, I would not be where I am without their help!
For further information check out: www.blackfeetlacrosse.com
Rick Coteus – email@example.com - 847.361.7379
Mike Costello is a former Division 1 player at Michigan State University and current High School coach. He has served on the MHSAA Lacrosse Committee and is the Chairman of the Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Mike is working on a book that chronicles the history of high school lacrosse in Michigan. He likes all things "lax" - especially the gear. He's fond of argyle and collects hats. Contact Mike at: firstname.lastname@example.org.