Hayden Esopenko has been playing lacrosse since he was five and his knowledge of the game and skill level put him ahead of most 14-year-old players in the city now entering the midget division.
He knows how to score but prefers to use his speed and quick hands to set up his teammates for goals. His penchant for assists make him an asset for the Prince George Posse, the city's traveling midget team.
Lacrosse is number one for Esopenko and he didn't have to be coaxed to join a group of about 60 players, who signed up for Saturday's Prince George Masters lacrosse skills clinic at Kin 2.
Esopenko wanted to work on his shot and learn from the masters, a group which included some of the stars of the Prince George Senior Lacrosse Association. They offered some tips on shooting, catching, passing, bodychecking and chasing down loose balls. But despite all their combined experience, gained over decades of playing one of the most physical games invented, the masters could do nothing to change Esopenko's stature. At five-foot-five, 101 pounds, he's used to staring up at big behemoths bearing down on him and he's learned to adapt.
"I'm one of the smallest kids and I've tried to put on weight," said Esopenko, who lost 20 pounds in October when he got appendicitis and was hospitalized for 10 days.
They can't hit what they can't catch and Esopenko has been working hard on his conditioning, playing house league hockey and showing up for lacrosse workouts every Friday night since September at the John McInnis Centre.
"We practiced all winter - a lot of the players on the travelling team have been practicing all year," said Esopenko.
"I need to work on getting more power in my shot and I need to work on defending and the penalty kill."
Esopenko, a Grade 9 student at College Heights secondary school, was part of the A2 bantam team that finished fourth last year at provincials. He made the midget rep team in tryouts last week and they'll hit the road for their first tournament, May 6-8 in Maple Ridge. His dad Tom, who used to play senior A for the Vancouver Burrards, is coaching the midgets along with Ken Eyles.
Tom was one of the guest instructors on the floor in the masters clinic.
"We didn't have something like this when I was young," said Tom. "The kids here now, any opportunity they get with the ball and stick in their hands, running drills with different perspectives from all the coaches, they all benefit from it. Like every other kid who doesn't listen to his dad (jokingly referring to Hayden), they need someone else to teach them."
Twelve-year-old Marshall Schonewille is heading into his fourth season of lacrosse and he's made the roster of the Posse bantam A2 team. At five-foot-seven, 160 pounds, Schonewille doesn't get pushed around very often on the lacrosse floor. Saturday's clinic gave him a chance to learn a few things he hopes will get his team to the provincial playoffs in Coquitlam in mid-July.
"I just want to get better at lacrosse," said Schonewille. "I do like hitting, a lot."
His first tournament for the bantam Posse starts April 30 in Kamloops. The bantam age group is the biggest in the Prince George Minor Lacrosse Association with enough players for three teams.
Marshall's dad Doug, who used to play in the Prince George Senior Lacrosse Association for the BX Pub Bandits, offered his help to the kids in the clinic.
"We have a range of skill level, we have kids who are just starting and kids who have been playing for six or eight years," he said. "I find in lacrosse it's very easy for kids to get into some bad habits, so if you can get them started properly right at the beginning. Kids want to turn to catch the ball and that slows them down, they're supposed to catch over their shoulder.
"When they're checking, it's seems to be innate in kids to check the stick, and they're not supposed to do that, they're supposed to control the other player physically with their stick. When there's a loose ball, kids think that the goal is to get the ball, well that's the second goal. The first goal is to prevent the other guy from getting it. We want them to understand the basics of the game and build on it."
Scott Anderson, the clinic's head instructor, says once kids learn how to throw and catch, lacrosse becomes a lot easier to play, but there's no substitute for practice.
"We're not going to unlock the mystery of the universe, to get anywhere in lacrosse it all stems from learning the basic skills and you do that by repetition, until you can do it with your eyes closed," said Anderson.
"We can't run the game situation drills that bring you to the next level until you can catch a pass and that's where it's frustrating because some kids don't put in the extra effort. The more they have a stick in their hand, the better they will be."
Anderson, who used to play senior B in Ladner and still plays in the PGSLA for the Westwood Pub Devils, coached the midget B Posse three seasons ago but is now at the helm of a team at the opposite end of the age spectrum.
He's coaching the mini-tykes (five-and-six-year-olds) a house league team which includes his stepson, Mackenzie Keir.
Four senior lacrosse goalies - Brian Stanley, Steven Brizan, Jamie Bellamy and Chris Scott - came out to teach the clinic. Scott shared a trick with the kids he learned at a young age from one of the city's all-time great goalies.
"It's just angle placement and keeping your stick on the ground and as Dave Jenkins Sr. always said, puff up like a bullfrog," said Scott.
"If you can get your angle and get big, the players have nothing to shoot at."