Lacrosse in Arkansas – From Warriors to Razorbacks Interest Grows

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Lacrosse in Arkansas – Superstars like Razorbacks Travis Swanson and Alex Collins and one of the sport’s best in-state players, Cody Eckes, raise its profile.

The Hendrix College men’s lacrosse program is entering its seventh season, but in previous years has only had a handful of Arkansans who got heavy minutes on the field.

That is changing, in a big way.

Three Arkansan freshmen join the team for the 2014 season. One of them, Cody Eckes, is the most decorated high school lacrosse player in Arkansas history. Last week, he became the first Arkansan to play in the Champion All-American Showcase or any other All-American event sponsored by U.S. Lacrosse.

Ninety-six males from around the nation participated in the six-day event in Florida. Many of them hailed from the east coast and had signed to play with powerhouse Division I lacrosse programs. Eckes relished the opportunity to cross sticks with the nation’s best. Playing the attack position on offense, he finished with four assists and a goal as his team won the event championship with a 3-1 record.

“I was excited to just go out there and show Arkansas has a [lacrosse] college too, that it wasn’t just a sport everybody had been playing on the east coast,” Eckes said.

lacrosse in arkansas cody eckes signs with hendrix

Conor Baird (seated, on left) and Cody Eckes (seated, right) sign with Hendrix College.

Arkansas doesn’t have much of a lacrosse history before this century. But that’s changing, too, in a hurry. Two major lacrosse organizations have popped up in Arkansas’ largest metro areas in the last six years. Eckes joined the Northwest Arkansas Lacrosse Club in 2007, soon after his family moved from Fort Collins, Co. to Bentonville. Playing against other top teams from neighboring states, Eckes ended up as his team’s all-time leading scorer.

Hendrix College head coach Curt Foxx started a Little Rock club league last year. Grayson Tishko, from Catholic High, played on it and is one of the three Arkansan freshmen to play for Hendrix.

As lacrosse gains a widening foothold in the state through clubs and colleges, so does a certain question gain traction in the fevered, sports-addled mind of this writer: “Who’s the best lacrosse player in state history?”

For sure, the answer ain’t clear: No Jermain Taylors, Scottie Pippens or Stacy Lewises in this house.

We have Eckes, who deserves recognition by sheer dint of his high school accomplishments. Curt Foxx, who has also coached in Illinois, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Maryland, says Eckes is “the real deal. I’m really excited about what he’s going to do over the next four years.”

Another candidate is Arkansas Razorback freshman Alex Collins, whom ranked as the nation’s best prep running back last season. Collins plays only football these days, but dominated some Division I lacrosse players as a midfielder for South Plantation High School in south Florida. He wasn’t the most polished player from a skills standpoint, but who needs tons of technique when you can move like this?

Collins’ sheer athleticism and size (6-2, 200 pounds in high school) made him a load to handle in almost any sport. Lacrosse enticed him because it provided a way to improve his footwork, he told the Sun Sentinel. Plus, the sport still has an against-the-grain appeal in many parts of the South.  And Collins has shown he prefers marching to the beat of his own drum.

Agility and endurance are major reasons Arkansas head football coach Bret Bielema encouraged Collins to keep playing lacrosse late in his high school career. “I wanted to make sure he stayed in shape because I knew he wasn’t gonna go out for track,”  Bielema said. He added Beau Allen, a senior defensive lineman at Wisconsin, also benefited from playing lacrosse in high school.

Bielema hasn’t yet seen lacrosse in person. But he couldn’t help but watch Collins’ lacrosse highlights online “because everybody kept saying it was amazing.” The video impressed Bielema, along with almost everybody else who’s seen it. “He’s just this incredible athlete and he’s on a field that doesn’t necessarily have those kind of athletes on it. You know what I mean?”

Arkansas’ All-SEC center Travis Swanson is the other Razorback football player who also starred in lacrosse. He played as defender until the end of his sophomore year at Kingwood High School in the Houston, Texas area, when he began to focus on football. At 6-5 and north of 250 pounds, the young teen was by far the most imposing, physical player on the field, his parents said. “He always bragged he led the league in penalties every year,” Todd Swanson recalled with a chuckle.

Although Travis Swanson wasn’t quite as nimble as Collins, he still believes lacrosse played a big role in him developing into a star lineman. “I think the biggest thing it helped me with was my agility and change of direction,” he said.

Swanson’s offensive line coach Sam Pittman agrees. “Any time they’re running and changing direction – basketball, lacrosse, obviously we don’t get many soccer players, wrestling – anything that has to do with hand-eye coordination and balance” helps, he said. “Anything that shows that they’re competitive.”

Pittman has seen one lacrosse game. He was recruiting highly-ranked Jay Whitmire at T.C. Williams High School, an Alexandria, Va. school which was featured in the movie “Remember the Titans.” At 6-6 and nearly 300 pounds, Whitmire stood out on the lacrosse field. “It was very interesting,” Pittman said. “This great, big kid who’s out there running out there with all these guys.”  Whitmire now plays offensive lineman for the University of Virginia.

Travis Swanson says he still loves the sport and tries to catch some of it on TV. He prefers the college version during spring, but in the summer checks out the pro league.

Arkansas hasn’t yet produced an NCAA Division I lacrosse player, but it appears the Razorback lacrosse club has included a couple former Division I players. Curt Foxx hears news about the club team through one of his former standout players, Blake Whicker, now the coach of the UA lacrosse club team. Foxx said there’s been a Razorback who transferred from Bryant University in Rhode Island. Eckes is also familiar with the club, and recalls hearing about a Hog who transferred from Quinnipiac University.

Harding University, the only other Arkansas college which has had a men’s lacrosse club, was nationally competitive in a small college division of club sports. Competing against schools primarily in the St. Louis area, Harding won the Great River Lacrosse Conference Championship in 2005, 2007 and 2008.  It also made the national tournament three straight years.

For fun, Harding and the University of Arkansas have scrimmaged Hendrix in the past seven years, but as the Hendrix squads get more talented and athletic, the scrimmages have gotten less competitive. For instance, in 2010 Hendrix beat the Razorbacks 21-2 and a year later beat the UA 20-0, Foxx recalled.

While the question of the state’s best (current or recent past) player still remains up for debate, the question of the state’s best team seems firmly settled. Cody Eckes doesn’t care about his state’s best player nearly as much as how he can best help his Hendrix teammates, who include former prep football player and Bentonville High classmate Conor Baird.

“It’s fun to be a part of program that has a lot of potential over the next four years,” Eckes said.

The Warriors were winless in their first three seasons, and in the last three seasons have improved to records of 5-7, 5-10 and 5-10. Eckes’ goal is winning the program’s first conference championship, along with a berth into its first NCAA tournament.

As lacrosse expands within the state, and more candidates enter this “best ever” discussion, no institution stands to gain more than Hendrix College.

Here is a brief look at the intersection between lacrosse and football from around the country

Player Football Team Position
Jim Brown Cleveland Browns Running Back
Brendan Fowler Duke Linebacker
Mark McNeill  North Carolina Wide Receiver
Bill Belichick New England Patriots Head Coach


Evin only crosses sticks on his Twitter account. His most recent blog post explores the intersection of  Usain Bolt, Cammack Village and a new interpretation of what “sundown town” can mean. 

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