North Carolina high schools are struggling to keep up with the increasing interest in lacrosse. More than 8,000 boys and girls are playing lacrosse this spring at schools in the N.C. High School Athletic Association, which began its fourth year of boys and girls playoffs on Friday.
The sport’s high school spike is attributed to the influx of people from traditional lacrosse-playing areas like New York and New Jersey.
“I looked at it as a parent,” said Apex High coach John Hayden, a former player at Rutgers who has started programs at the high school and youth levels. “I wanted (my kids) to have the same opportunities – if they chose to do this – that I had. …It’s incredible what it’s turned into.”
But the explosion in lacrosse participation has outstripped some schools’ ability to support the game. Some schools have trouble finding experienced coaches. Some schools with losing teams are struggling to maintain interest in their programs. for even the top girls’ programs. Other schools are reluctant to invest in starting a new program.
The number of NCHSAA schools with varsity girls’ lacrosse teams doubled from 29 to 58 since 2005. There were 35 NCHSAA boys lacrosse teams in 2005 and 81 now.
But schools are challenged to work to hire and retain coaches and to find ways to fund a varsity program.
Girls’ coaching turnover
Apex and Green Hope have won seven girls’ lacrosse state championships in the past eight years, but also have had six different head coaches in the past four years.
Many area high school lacrosse coaches are non-faculty, and it is often difficult to retain non-faculty coaches because of the time required for little compensation. The pool of candidates is also small because the sport is so new to the area.
The oldest high school lacrosse programs, those that started varsity teams before the NCHSAA sanctioned lacrosse, have been around a little more than a decade. The area has produced good players – the past two NCAA men’s champions each had scholarship players from Holly Springs – but it takes longer to develop coaches.
Many of the first N.C. boys’ and girls’ players haven’t finished college, so they are not ready to return to the school systems as teachers and coaches. Some girls programs have started with a coach familiar with boys lacrosse or with a college student.
“It’s not easy to find a lot of people who know lacrosse who are teachers or available from 3-5 every day,” said Holly Springs assistant coach Nick Holota. “We need to hit that cycle where this first wave that came through, the 2000-2008, as those guys continue to get through college and come back and either get teaching jobs back here or jobs with flexibility.”
Green Hope won the 2012 title while coach Abby Mead finished her MBA at UNC-Chapel Hill. When Charlotte Myers Park finished runner-up in the 2011, coach and UNC-Charlotte student Sasha Vedock coached against some of her former high school teammates at Apex.
Apex entered last season with 20-year-old Sarah Fellows as a first-year head coach.
The N.C. State student and high school teaching hopeful splits time between her college classes and high school practices just four years after leading the Cougars to their third state championship. Fellows, now 21, coaches her younger sister Beth.
“I find myself choosing to come to practice early over doing my homework. Probably not the best balance, but it’s what I love to do,” said Fellows last year.
Green Hope hired former boys’ assistant Joe Nassif, who said he’s had to learn girls’ lacrosse as the season has progressed.
Unlike boys’ lacrosse, girls’ lacrosse does not allow players to use their sticks to contact other players, which results in more fouls and penalties. The girls also use 12 players instead of 10 and use two 25-minute halves instead of four 12-minute quarters.
Club to varsity
Wake County’s three newest high schools – Panther Creek, Holly Springs and Heritage – started both boys’ and girls’ lacrosse programs in their first year. But fielding a varsity team comes with a start-up price that’s been the center for debate at some of the area’s older high schools.
“I think the economy has hurt it a little bit,” said NCHSAA associate commissioner Rick Strunk. “We have some schools that have a club team who have said, ‘We can’t make the commitment for it to be a varsity (team due to cost).’”
Unlike club teams, varsity programs have a paid head coach, receive athletic department funding for officials and uniforms, must abide by the NCHSAA’s eligibility rules and can use the school’s facilities for practices and games.
George Cox was the coach of a club team with kids from Clayton, Cleveland and Corinth Holders high schools last year. He estimates the cost of starting a program is about $10,000, which includes goals and payment for referees but excludes equipment (helmets, sticks, pads, gloves, mouthpiece) players typically buy for themselves.
Holota, who owns a lacrosse equipment store, said it costs at least $200 to outfit a player.
“Once it’s established, then you’ve got the equipment, then you’ve got everything,” Cox said. “Nobody (in Johnston County) wants to take the plunge.”
Fuquay-Varina athletic director James Mountford, hired Aug. 2012, said he’s worked with the booster club to find the funds and get a varsity team started for 2013.
The risk with starting a new program is if a program struggles to find success, interest can erode and put the program in jeopardy.
Hayden said starting a new varsity sport has the same merits as any other extracurricular activity at the high school: it gets kids involved and out of trouble. Those were two of the biggest reasons Triton coach Darrin Guay started a Harnett County’s first program years ago.
“That’s what it’s always been for me – to get the kids who aren’t playing baseball or aren’t running track and keep them out of trouble and focused on their studies,” Guay said. “And it worked for several years.”
But after nine seasons, Triton folded in the middle of the 2011 season. Student had interest dwindled as the losses (0-21 in conference play over one-and-a-half seasons) piled up.
“It’s hard to keep an abundance of interest when we’re losing 14 games a year,” Guay said.
Southeast Raleigh shut down its program after 2010, following four straight winless seasons. The Bulldogs had been one of the Triangle’s pioneers as a varsity team under coach Doug Greenberg, who started at Holly Springs in 2006.
Eastern Wayne, a school that started a girls’ lacrosse varsity team in 2010, folded after an 0-9 season.
“People will only join certain things if it’s going to be an instant success,” Greenberg said. “Once that program vanishes, you’re starting from scratch. It’s going to be very difficult. I’m not sure how that gets recovered.”
But the sport continues to grow in North Carolina.
For high schools, it might be more of an uphill climb on how to accommodate that interest.
Blake: 919-460-2606 or twitter.com/JMBpreps