Whether its winning or losing, nothing lasts forever.
At Northern High School, the football program was once the jewel of the state, having claimed 18 consecutive PAC-6 championships from 1984-2001, going 24 years without losing to another team from Durham, even going 20 years without consecutive losses.
Times change. The balance of power in Bull City football has shifted south to Hillside and Southern High.
Jamie Sliwa is trying to change the fortunes of another program at Northern, which hasn’t enjoyed nearly as much success over its 12-year history.
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Northern lacrosse has been an afterthought during the springtime, perennially in the shadows of Pete Shankle’s baseball team. In fact, literally. The larger baseball diamond dwarfs the adjacent lacrosse practice field.
Yet in his first season at Northern, Sliwa has led the Knights to a 4-2 start, surpassing the team’s win total from the previous three seasons combined.
“They just needed to believe that they can win,” said Sliwa, who was the head coach at Jordan from 2004-2014. “When I first got to Northern, most of the guys had this thought that they were bad. Getting that out of their minds has been the biggest thing.
“A lot of them have the talent and the ability. It’s just learning to consistently use it on a day-to-day basis.”
Silwa has overcome bigger obstacles than a lacrosse program. His son suffers from transposition of the arteries, which basically means his heart was working backwards from the moment he left his mother’s womb. He had to have emergency surgery immediately after being born.
That meant frequent trips to Duke Regional Hospital in northern Durham, which meant a crosstown commute to Jordan High for teaching and coaching. Years of that grind finally caught up to Sliwa over the summer, which led to a change of schools.
“I just realized I was spending too much time away from my family driving in rush hour traffic both ways,” said Sliwa.
In his professional career, Sliwa already has led Northern to wins over Webb, Northwood, Eastern Alamance and Kerr-Vance Academy. Despite a 9-6 loss to Roxboro Community School on Friday, Northern’s Kurtis Anthony continued an impressive start with five points, including three goals.
“He’s a big time athlete for us,” said Anthony. “He’s been pretty consistent throughout the year.
“We’ve just got to learn some of the more nuances of the game, when to shoot, when to pass. It’s coming along slowly.”
Another obstacle that Sliwa may face is participation at the middle school level. While the narrative is that lacrosse is a booming sport nationally, the reality is different in Durham County. There were once seven middle schools that had lacrosse program. Now, there’s only Githens.
“It’s actually declining,” said Sliwa. “Wake County is exploding with youth programs, but in Durham and Chapel Hill its gone down drastically.
“For the majority of these players, the first time they’ve played any organized lacrosse is when they step foot on a high school field.”
Why the decline?
“I’m not sure,” said Sliwa. “There is the interest. I’ve gotten 20 or 30 emails since I started at Northern from middle school parents asking if the middle schools were going to have programs. Unfortunately, I had to tell them no.”