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Lax Attacks!

No sport can compare with lacrosse’s growth, and the Southern Crescent is looking to catch up

Photo by Brian Paglia
Lacrosse is the fastest-growing sport in the country, and it’s starting to gain traction in Georgia. Clayton and Henry counties are two of the three in metro Atlanta that don’t have sanctioned high school lacrosse teams, but that could soon change.

Photo by Brian Paglia Lacrosse is the fastest-growing sport in the country, and it’s starting to gain traction in Georgia. Clayton and Henry counties are two of the three in metro Atlanta that don’t have sanctioned high school lacrosse teams, but that could soon change.

The single mother would now have even more on her plate. She couldn’t make it to the standing-room-only rally, because she had to work. She couldn’t pay for all of her son’s brand new equipment, so she called on friends in Cobb County for some used gear.

All Kelli Jaeger knew was her 15-year-old son, Jacob Smith, came home from school one day, wanting to play lacrosse. His best friend had invited him out to play, and she would support him doing anything that didn’t involve exercising his thumbs.

“We had heard of [lacrosse], but he had never shown any interest in playing before,” Jaeger said. “But he does now.”

And that’s how it happens. A simple invitation from a friend and another is added, the number grows and Henry County is slowly and steadily converted to the country’s fastest-growing sport — lacrosse.

Participation has exploded in the past decade, to a total of 170,610 boys and girls playing on high school lacrosse teams across the nation in the 2010-11 school year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHA). In 2000-01, there were 74,225 high school lacrosse players.

Georgia has been trying to catch up. Lacrosse was sanctioned as a championship sport by the Georgia High School Association in 2002. As of the 2010-11 school year, 119 high schools fielded boys or girls lacrosse teams, with 4,501 high school lacrosse players, according to the NFHA. That’s up from 36 schools and 487 players in 2000-01.

All but three metro Atlanta counties have high school-sanctioned lacrosse programs, and two are right here in the Southern Crescent.

But, that could change soon.

The effort is underway to get a girls lacrosse team out of Union Grove High School sanctioned by the GHSA and playing a varsity schedule in the spring of 2014. That would open the door for other high schools to add lacrosse programs.

What’s needed is support and some convincing — support from members within the Henry County Board of Education, and some convincing of board members, principals and athletics directors that the sport can be financially sustainable.

“I’m sure if you offered lacrosse at any high school in the county, you’re going to be able to field a team,” said Jeremy Porter, a coach with the Henry County Lacrosse Association and one of the county’s pioneers in the sport. “I have no doubt, if it gets sanctioned, you’ll have that demand.”

Porter is helping to make the case with some of the sport’s leading advocates in the county — Ken Loach, Lee Reavis and Keith Thomas, among others — and a growing community of lacrosse families.

Porter, Loach and Reavis helped start the HCLA in 2009. There was one boy’s team of 23 middle school players from across Henry County. Now, it boasts 10 boys and girls teams, across four age groups, and over 150 families. They’ve outgrown every practice space they’ve used — first a failed YMCA field, then a field at East Lake Elementary School marred by pot-holes and gravel, before finding a home on two lighted fields at J.P. Moseley Park.

More significantly, the sport is starting to gain favor in all the right places. Union Grove High principal Tom Smith and athletics director Ralph Neeley support adding lacrosse to the Wolverines athletic program. According to Loach, Henry County BOE member Ryan Davis, who represents District V, supports getting lacrosse sanctioned.

“We can officially say, yes, they are considering, because we’re meeting with them,” Loach said. “We have support. We haven’t really met any opposition from the BOE level or the school administration level. Right now, it’s not so much a, ‘Will it?’ It’s all about timing and making sure [sanctioning] happens to encourage other schools to play it.”

Part baseball, basketball, football, hockey and soccer, lacrosse has elements of nearly all mainstream sports, but borrows from none. As North America’s oldest team sport, its creation is credited to the Native Americans and comes with the reputation as an East Coast, private-school sport.

But it has the potential for near-universal appeal. There’s quick, intense contact for football and hockey fans; spacing and rhythm of movement for soccer fans; strategy and precision for basketball fans; and hand-eye skills for baseball fans.

“Our kids love it,” said Ed Coughlin, whose son plays and officiates the sport. “It’s aerobic. There’s contact. Strength and size always helps, but the kids don’t have to be 6-foot-6 or run a 4.4 [second] 40 [yard dash].”

“We really enjoy it,” Jaeger said. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s action all the time. It’s not like watching baseball, which is great, but that’s slow.”

This past Saturday, Jaeger leaned against a metal fence and watched one of Jacob Smith’s games. He plays on HCLA’s boy’s middle school team, which competes in the Metro Atlanta Youth Lacrosse Association against other clubs in the Atlanta area.

It wasn’t too long ago that Smith was just figuring out the game, clumsily trying to maneuver with ball and stick in harmony.

“It took a lot of practice at first,” Smith said. “I couldn’t really catch well at first. Once I got the hang of that, it kind of took off from there.”

Indeed, lacrosse has taken off, especially in an era when players and their parents are enthralled by the prospect of an athletic scholarship. There are over 600 lacrosse teams in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and more are added every year. The sport is relatively cheap to add to an athletics program, which makes it especially appealling for colleges looking to comply with Title IX.

“There are more scholarships available now than at any other time in the sport,” Loach said. “Every year, there’s 10 or 12 colleges adding the sport. They need players.”

And colleges are starting to come to Georgia to find them. The state had 63 boys and 62 girls lacrosse players sign with colleges this school year, according to Laxpower.com. Sixty more have already made commitments for next year.

Some of those players are coming from south of Atlanta in places like Macon, Peachtree City and Newnan. Their lacrosse communities are relatively young, but strong, and it didn’t take long to happen.

“When you talk to other programs ... and you talk to them about their growth, it’s all the same,” Porter said. “Just the way word of mouth happens, it’s going to be huge in Henry County.”

Lacrosse 101

• The object of the game is to shoot the ball into the opponent’s goal, while preventing the other team from scoring.

• Each team consists of 10 players: a goalie, three defenders, three midfielders and three attackers.

• Regulation high school games are 48 minutes long, with 12-minute quarters. Teams switch sides at halftime.

• The lacrosse field is 110 yards long by 60 yards wide.

• Teams can substitute players at any time, much like in hockey.

Lax dictionary

Here is a collection of lacrosse terminology:

Face-off: This is where the game begins and can restart after a goal is scored. The ball is placed at the middle of the field between the stick of two opposing midfielders, who fight for possession at the sound of the official’s whistle.

Clearing: A player tries to get the ball from its defensive end of the field to the offensive end, in essence relieving pressure on the defense.

Riding: A player tries to stop an opponent’s attempt to clear the ball. This is where sticks can start flying.

Checking/Body-checking: Using the lacrosse stick to hit the stick of an opponent who’s in possession of the ball. Or, a player can get the whole body into the act.

Offsides: Teams must have either three players on their offensive half of the field or four players on their defensive half.

Holding: Using the body or stick to hold an opponent’s body or stick, in effect wrapping an opponent to stop their movement. Brings a 30-second penalty.

Source: simplylacrosse.com, uslacrosse.com