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If You Play It, Will They Come?
Iowa is probably one of the most non-traditional lacrosse regions in the nation. There are four teams in Iowa: West Des Moines (Iowa), Waukee (Iowa), Ankeny (Iowa) and Ames (Iowa). Backstrom's West Des Moines team does not play for the Iowa state championship but participates in the Nebraska/Iowa High School Lacrosse Association, which includes eight teams from Nebraska.
“U-14, U-12, and U-10 teams have started up. This year's West Des Moines team has four NCAA Division-II commits," Zielonko said. "They join numerous previous players who have gone on to play NCAA Division-III, NAIA, and MCLA club at the collegiate level. We hope in the years to come to continue growing teams in the state and eventually be able to have an Iowa sanctioned high school lacrosse league.”
The development of lacrosse players that go on to play at the collegiate level is a testament to the traction the sport has gained in the state. Backstrom, a Lindenwood University commit starting playing when he was 3-years old.
“I was born in Colorado, so that’s where I first picked up a stick. I wanted to play hockey, but the first time I went skating I couldn’t do it, so the 3-year-old me quit right then-and-there," Backstrom said. "A couple of weeks later my parents took me to a Colorado Mammoth game, and I fell in love with lacrosse immediately. Initially, I think I liked the sport because it seemed like hockey to me, but you didn’t need skates."
Backstrom’s interest in lacrosse has developed as he has emerged as a player.
“What I like about lacrosse now is how much the game has slowed down for me the past couple of years," Backstrom said. "I play a lot more relaxed, and it’s made the game a lot more enjoyable.”
Now that he has worked to become such a strong player Backstrom has big plans for himself and his team.
“The first thing I want is to continue growing as a vocal leader, I’ve always led by example. Now that I’m a junior, I understand that some underclassmen don’t see everything that an upperclassman might in a game or practice," Backstrom said. "Secondly, I want to work on quickness in the first few steps, I like to think of myself as a good passer and ball handler with a quicker first couple of steps that will only improve my passing."
"As a team, I want to accomplish a perfect season and a championship this year," he added. "Next year will be more trying as we are losing a big senior class, so next year I hope we can develop young players to be ready as my class graduates."
Zielonko echoes that sentiment in terms of a team goal.
“The main goal for this year's team is to win the Nebraska/Iowa high school lacrosse state championship,” Zielonko said. “We would also like to consistently play at the level of lacrosse we are capable of playing at, as well as developing younger players for the future of the program.”
From Europe to Iowa
Zielonko has quite the lacrosse journey of his own. He picked up a stick as a sophomore in St. Louis.
“The school started a team the previous year, and I was looking for a team sport in the spring to get involved with,” Zielonko said.
He moved on to play for the club team at Kansas State University and then in leagues in Colorado and Europe. Upon arriving in Iowa, Zielonko yearned for the game and went to work trying to get it going.
“I found out a local high school had an intramural program, so I started working with them. Another local school had a few students that were also trying to organize something," Zielonko said. "With the two high schools, we were able to get about 18 boys, and we started a team that was accepted to play in the Nebraska High School Lacrosse Association in the spring of 2009.”
Zielonko notes how Backstrom has not only been a significant impact on the field but in the growth of the sport. His parents were substantial contributors in helping grow lacrosse in the area when they arrived during Backstrom's fourth-grade year.
“He has set a high bar of where we want to try to set the talent level when developing players," Zielonko said. "His just being on the field helps the rest of the team play with a sense of calm both on the offensive side of the field and the defensive end.”
The junior recently surpassed 300 career points. The junior has 170 goals and 136 assists in 43 games. In Backstrom's first two seasons he is averaging 6.37 points per game. He scored 127 points as a freshman and followed that up with 115 points last season - playing in 19 games in both seasons. Through nine games this year, Backstrom has 70 points and has yet to score fewer than five in any game.
Backstrom’s talent and strong leadership traits will serve him well at Lindenwood, currently ranked No. 18 in the Division-II polls.
“I went to two or three prospect days at Lindenwood before I committed and the first thing I thought was 'wow this campus is beautiful,'” Backstrom said. "On the tour, we went into the weight room, and locker room and I was blown away with how nice they were, once I began talking with Coach [Jim] Lange and Coach [Scott] Stark. It felt like a place that would fit me.”
For generations, lacrosse was mainly an East Coast/Mid-Atlantic game being played from upstate New York onto Long Island down through Philadelphia and Baltimore. I don’t believe that I would have become such a massive fan of this incredible sport if I did not grow up in the Baltimore area. My parents though, were from the Midwest and on one trip back to see Grandma and Grandpa about 15 years ago, I happened into the bookstore of the University of Minnesota where I saw University shirts with the name of every sport that you could imagine … except for lacrosse. I remember asking a clerk if they sold a University of Minnesota lacrosse T-shirt. She looked at me as if I were speaking an obscure foreign language. The three co-workers she checked with reacted similarly. That experience proved to me that lacrosse was very much a regional game at the time. Now, I do own a University of Minnesota Lacrosse T-Shirt. They sell several different styles at the Mall of America. It is in my closet next to my lacrosse T-shirts from the University of Wisconsin, Fresno State, and the University of Nevada.
Backstrom hopes to not only dominate on the field but in the classroom with an intent to major in Sports Marketing with a minor in pre-law.
The West Des Moines Tigers are currently 11-1 on the season and has won the combined state title in 2015, 2017 and finished as runner-up in 2018.
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