Franklin Zirkle has coached in two North Carolina High School Lacrosse Association state championship games. He has officiated in three others. Yet his biggest challenge awaits him.
That’s making lacrosse a dominant force once again in Chapel Hill.
And that’s something that until relatively recently seemed unfathomable.
“The numbers have started to dwindle for the local middle school teams over the last few years,” said Zirkle, whose son Hartford graduated from Chapel Hill High last weekend. “Part of it is that the administrations at some of the local schools haven’t shown lacrosse the proper respect it should be shown.”
Before there was a high school lacrosse scene in North Carolina, Phillips Middle School sported a team in the late 90s. The sport blossomed in Chapel Hill from there.
From 2004 to 2010, Chapel Hill and East Chapel Hill claimed five of six state championships in the North Carolina High School Lacrosse Association, the group that organized the sports before it was officially recognized by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association. East and CHHS even played each other for the 2006 title, which was Zirkle’s first state championship at East.
Zirkle stepped away from the Wildcat program in 2012 to start the next chapter of his lacrosse life – the Carolina Hilltoppers select lacrosse program.
A program that sports five teams, the Hilltoppers have traveled as far away as New York for tournaments against other squads. After a boot camp at North Carolina Central University in early June, the Hilltoppers started their 2014 summer slate in with the Mid-Summer Classic in Winston-Salem.
Last week, the Hilltoppers were in Maryland for the Baltimore Summer Kickoff. Trips to Charlotte and Leesburg, Va., are also set for this summer.
“The venue in Maryland was one of the most beautiful places to play lacrosse I have ever seen,” Zirkle said.
The Hilltoppers have three high school teams, plus an under-15 squad and an under-13 team. Zirkle oversees all of them in hopes of getting lacrosse back to the level it once was in Chapel Hill.
“This is about a bigger vision of development,”he said. “Hopefully, players will continue to spread the game.”
Evan Whelchel has taken over the coaching reigns of the Hilltoppers’ Elite team after moving to Chapel Hill from Austin, Texas, so his wife can be closer to her mother. He was named the 2012 Texas High School Coach of the Year.
The Hilltoppers give players the chance to play at the next level. Members of the Big Horn Elite team come from across North Carolina, from Wilmington to Orange High. All of the members of the 2013 squad received college offers, including Josh Adams, a New Hanover product who earned a scholarship with Mercer.
The next-tier Hilltoppers teams, known as the Rams, are comprised mainly of other high school varsity and junior varsity players. Yet many of its members still received college offers from lower-tier Division II and III programs last season.
For Zirkle, leaving East Chapel Hill coaching wasn’t easy. His son Hartford was still active at East Chapel Hill before he transferred to CHHS last summer. However, what’s best for Zirkle and what’s best for spreading his love of lacrosse usually go hand-in-hand.
A member of three NAIA national championship teams at Guilford College in the early 80s, Zirkle’s first head coaching job was for the Guilford women’s program in 1984. A year later, he became an assistant for the men’s team, which counted a stunning upset of Duke in 1985 as one of its top wins.
Now, he’s an administrator, which doesn’t vary too much from his other role as a father. His older son Chandler, who played at East Chapel Hill and then Guilford College, is an assistant on the Elite team, while Hartford is on the under-15 staff.
“It takes a lot of time to coach,” said Zirkle. “This allows me to coach with my kids, which is amazing to me.”