"Where did they play, out on the fields with the trees?" someone asked, wanting to know about how Native Americans played lacrosse in its early years.
Brian Patterson slightly smiled before answering, "They did play out on the fields. They played among the trees. There was no out of bounds."
The answer intrigued the group of Newport Harbor High boys' lacrosse players and their families. Patterson was at the school's gym Monday night to answer questions and provide history of lacrosse.
Having someone with great knowledge of the sport and its heritage made a great impact and seemed to unite the players, who realized their goals and attained more meaning for competing.
Patterson, a 50-year-old Native American, is a Bear Clan representative to the Oneida Indian Nation's Men's Council and Clan Mothers (the tribe's governing body) in upstate New York. He was brought in to speak before the season began during a special presentation conducted by the Newport Harbor lacrosse boosters.
"When you take that stick, you're representing a heritage and a culture," said Patterson, who wore a headdress while he spoke.
Patterson, also named "Big Warrior," reminded the Newport Harbor players that when they compete they also represent their school and their families. He recited, in his language, some of a thanksgiving type of prayer in a singing tone that he said is used before lacrosse games.
Patterson also spoke about how important and relevant lacrosse is to his people. For many families, a small lacrosse stick is placed in the baby's crib, Patterson said.
Lacrosse, which is popular on the East Coast, has become important for Newport Harbor, as well as Orange County.
Several lacrosse groups, like Newport Harbor, will say lacrosse is the fastest growing sport in the United States. That is because the sport had a small following to begin with, but there has been significant growth in high schools the past five years, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
School participation has increased 67% and player participation has upped 55%. The player count at Newport Harbor has nearly doubled in two years. The Sailors' program has three teams this year, as well as three club/feeder-type youth teams.
Great success has come from the other side of the bay, as Corona del Mar's boys' varsity team went undefeated last year, 24-0, winning Southern Section South Division and Southern Section championships.
Newport Harbor will be hard-pressed to reach those heights. The Sailors have no returning starters, Coach Mark Todd said, but will depend on the leadership of 20 seniors.
The Newport Harbor teams' motto is to earn everything, nothing is entitled, said Todd, a former CdM coach.
Todd is excited about the growth of the program at Newport Harbor. John Mooers, the Sailors' lacrosse booster president, contends the program hasn't taken athletes from other spring sports at the school. The lacrosse program has also made it a point to include "at-risk" student-athletes, according to media and data provided by the booster club.
They say the perception that Newport Harbor High families are affluent is a misconception. The school has a greater amount of Costa Mesa residents (58%) than that of Newport Beach, according to a 2012-13 Newport Harbor High academic profile found on the Newport-Mesa Unified School District website, which also revealed Newport Harbor includes 36% racial minority (32% Latino), 13% classified as English learners and that one in three are classified as "socio-economically disadvantaged."
Having Patterson speak to the players and families brought awareness to the sport and school's program, Mooers said. His son, John, a sophomore, enjoyed Patterson's insight.
"I thought it was cool that they started so young. Even in the cribs, they had the little sticks there with the babies," John Mooers Jr. said. "Their whole heritage circled around lacrosse. It was really eye-opening and it was really cool to be a part of."
Before the presentation ended, someone asked, "did they offer sacrifices before the games?"
Patterson took the question in stride and didn't show that he was offended by what he said was a stereotype.
"That would be the case if you were to make a Hollywood movie," Patterson joked.
The question did help Patterson explain some of the reasons why the Indians played lacrosse. They played the sport with "medicine" sometimes being the winning prize. They played for pride. Once in 1763, Patterson read from a website printout, a lacrosse game was used for diversion to win a battle against the British.
Lacrosse is meant to be played with integrity, passion and a positive mind, Patterson said.
"It was cool," Newport Harbor senior Grayson Riggan said of Patterson's presentation. "I thought it was interesting. I liked how a lot depended on the lacrosse players. The pressure was on. Everyone was watching them."
Christian Ruelas, also a senior on the varsity team, said the event helped bring unity to the team.
"I think it's going to help us throughout the season," Ruelas said. "I started playing lacrosse as a freshman. I didn't know much about the game. This opened my eyes."
At the end of the presentation John Mooers, the Newport Harbor booster club president, exchanged gifts with Patterson. Mooers gave Patterson a bolo tie and Patterson gave the team a flag from the Bear Clan.
"For Indian people living on the fringes of society, for the past 200 years living the legacy of forgotten people, to come clear across Turtle Island from New York to California to talk about our ancient game is quite an honor," Patterson said. "It speaks not only to the integrity and approach of Newport Harbor but to also the recognition of the heritage of my people. I will always remain grateful."