0

Magnified interest
Lacrosse finds way onto Gwinnett varsity fields

When Gwinnett County finally agreed to grant schools varsity status for lacrosse, there remained a degree of uncertainty as to the first teams to break through.

The dust has settled now, with Peachtree Ridge and Collins Hill ready to be the first public Gwinnett schools to field varsity lacrosse teams.

"We are really, really excited," said Scott Hall, booster club president for Peachtree Ridge. "We know what we are sitting on here. We have a chance to be pretty good."

Hall speaks with such confidence because the former club team coach watched last season as the Lions reached the North Georgia Lacrosse League title match, where they lost a nail-biter to none other than Collins Hill.

That type of experience for the roughly 25-man roster, made up of all underclassmen, excites all involved.

"It is just such a great sport, and the real winner here is the kids," said Lion community head coach Bob Lombardo. "They are getting an opportunity to be a part of this great sport on the highest level now."

Lombardo, like many at the forefront of the Gwinnett lacrosse movement, knows his lacrosse. The former Hofstra player, who once played against powerhouse Johns Hopkins in a club game, is from the Long Island, N.Y., area and has been involved with the sport practically his entire life.

"This county is off the hook when it comes to competition and once some schools get (lacrosse), everyone else will want it," Lombardo said. "And we just have so many good athletes in this county, it should be fun."

It was not easy to get to this point, and many challenges remain for the schools as they nurture a sport that is rapidly growing, especially in the Southeast.

When schools such as Peachtree Ridge first approached the county about the idea of fielding varsity teams, it wasn't a quick process. School districts are wary of adding a sport if only a few schools want it.

But then something unprecedented happened.

"There was a Gwinnett school board meeting where they were discussing the idea of fielding teams, but only if all of the schools in the county were able to do it," Hall said. "So we got a really good trial lawyer named John Hennelly, whose daughter plays and he gave a great speech on our behalf at the meeting."

But that wasn't all that happened.

When Hennelly was done speaking, he left the podium to the applause of the 400 uniformed student-athletes and their parents who attended the meeting. It was a convincing show of force.

"The biggest challenge is the level of interest county-wide for the sport," said Mike Emery, director of athletics, student activities and public schools for Gwinnett County Public Schools. "When a few schools like Peachtree Ridge approached us about lacrosse a few years ago there was minimal interest. But now, that interest has magnified tremendously and we knew we had to look into adding this sport."

Now that the schools have gained the county's approval, there are a few other issues that have to be addressed. The most common issue faced by teams going varsity is finding a field to play and practice on.

"Field space and the wear and tear of our fields is definitely an issue," Emery said. "With the weather the way it has been for the past few years and the reduction in the amount that schools are able to spend on field care, it is certainly a challenge."

One possible solution to that problem would be for Gwinnett to follow in the footsteps of several other counties and make the move toward artificial turf. But as Emery notes, what might be a long-term gain financially certainly requires a large financial chunk up front.

"We have been in discussion about that possibility, but there is certainly no decision to (get artificial turf) at this time," Emery said. "With the weather being the way that it is and the amount of sports already being played it would certainly benefit not only lacrosse but soccer and football too. It is just really expensive."

Other schools are following in the same path as Peachtree Ridge, part of what should be a surge of lacrosse for both girls and boys in Gwinnett, although the road to varsity status is certainly not a smooth one.

Norcross, for example, has had a successful girls lacrosse team for nearly five years. Bruce Kotz, the original coach of that team that included two of his daughters, aimed at the hardships of gaining county support and finding fields.

"That is the most frustrating part - Gwinnett County is one of the largest, if not the largest, school district in the state with great athletics and we just couldn't get the support for the game," Kotz said.

"And the largest challenge is definitely trying to find a field."

Kotz explained that over the past few seasons several teams in the Gwinnett area have been able to practice during the week and play NGLL club games on Sunday. Norcross, being hindered by field space, has always had one practice a week on Saturday and played its games on Sundays.

"With a few more practices I think Norcross can be really good," Kotz said.

Norcross, along with a cluster of other schools, will be a club program for one more year before applying for, and in all likelihood receiving, varsity status in Gwinnett County.

The sport has already caught on at private schools like Wesleyan and GAC. According to Emery, it will soon be the schools without teams that will be in the minority.

"I anticipate that the year after this almost all of our schools will take part in lacrosse," Emery said. "Once we get things sorted out field wise and give schools some time to get the proper personnel, Gwinnett County schools, I believe, will compete for state championships in lacrosse just like we do in every other sport."

Taking on all of the teams at once worries some though, like Westminster girls lacrosse head coach Jay Watts.

"It is really exciting, just another stepping stone for the sport," Watts said of the approval of the sport's varsity status in Gwinnett. "But if every Gwinnett County school came on board at once, it would really tax our resources in terms of fields, equipment and even finding officials."

However the county decides to do it, the bottom line is that it is inevitable. Lacrosse looks to be here to stay in Gwinnett County.