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All lacrosse the county

Photo by Christine Troyke

Photo by Christine Troyke

The 2010 spring season isn't the first time boys and girls lacrosse has made an appearance on Gwinnett County's high school sports landscape.

But it's safe to say this spring marks a major milestone season for the sport locally.

Teams in both genders from four different schools (Duluth, Grayson, Norcross and Parkview) have made their debuts as Georgia High School Association-sanctioned varsity teams this season, more than doubling the number of Gwinnett schools fielding varsity teams from a year ago.

And it's only the beginning.

At least three more schools -- Brookwood, Mill Creek and North Gwinnett -- are expected to join the varsity ranks next year, according to Gwinnett County athletics director Mike Emery, with more likely to follow.

"The explosion of interest (in lacrosse) has been huge," Emery said. "It's great for us."

It's a long way from the sport's rather humble beginnings on the high school level in Gwinnett, when Wesleyan became the first area school to field boys and girls teams in 2001.

Though the GHSA didn't officially sanction lacrosse as a varsity sport until 2005, don't make the mistake of referring to the Wesleyan teams in those first four seasons as club teams.

"No one called it a club team," Wesleyan girls coach Mary Willson Schill said. "We were varsity and junior varsity teams."

The Wolves boys and girls were the only schools located in Gwinnett County playing lacrosse until 2006, when Greater Atlanta Christian began fielding club boys and girls teams before making the jump to varsity status in 2008.

Collins Hill and Peachtree Ridge became the county's first public schools to take the plunge last year, and this year's additions only add to the game's growing popularity on the high school level in Georgia.

A total of 58 boys teams and 60 girls teams are listed as competing this season, and while most of those schools are located in the metro Atlanta area, the game is beginning to branch out as far away as Lakeside-Evans and Greenbrier in Augusta and Gainesville.

It is also enough for the GHSA to create two different classifications for the sport this year -- one for Class AAAAA schools and the other for Classes A-AAAA.

"It's still pretty much concentrated in Atlanta," said GAC boys coach Tim Ball said. "But it's just going to keep on growing."

It is a major undertaking to begin any new high school sport, but particularly so for a sport that is as foreign to the South as lacrosse.

Until recently, the sport's popularity had been biggest in the Northeastern United States and Canada.

So players with experience playing the game are at a premium, something that hasn't changed much from when Schill first helped get the Wesleyan program off the ground.

"When I started here, we didn't have anyone who knew anything about lacrosse," Schill recalled. "So, we had to start with the basics."

It is not uncommon for coaches at start-up programs to roam the halls looking for athletes from other sports looking for another spring sport to play, like football players Patrick Santry and Michael Santry, who play midfielder and defender for Grayson's first-year team, or Peachtree Ridge quarterback Nick Lombardo, who plays for the Lions' second-year team.

"We have two seniors who played on club teams at other schools (last year)," said Duluth girls coach Paul Hennelly, whose first-year Wildcats earned their first win with an 8-3 victory over Parkview last Friday. "And we have one girl whose family moved in from Maryland over the summer, and she played for her middle school team up there.

"Aside from that, everyone else is new. We were lucky that our goalkeeper has played recreational hockey before, so we recruited her. And we recruited a girl from our basketball team, ... and she brought her two best friends out for the team. The kids have been good about recruiting themselves."

Of course, while taking good athletes and making them into good lacrosse players is good to start with, most coaches know that as with any sport, future success can lie with the cultivation of strong youth programs.

That is something Ball says GAC figured out quickly.

"Last year, a parent of one of our elementary school kids wanted to start a youth program," Ball said. "We now have U-11, U-13 and U-15 teams, and we had enough to field a U-9 league, but we missed the deadline to do that. It's just been huge growth within our program."

In fact, a Gwinnett Lacrosse League, similar to the Gwinnett Football League, has been formed for feeder programs from schools throughout the county.

While the influx of players with lacrosse experience into a new program can be a slow process, it is often even more difficult to find coaches with experience in the game.

With teaching positions at a premium, few schools are in position to start their programs with coaches who either played or coached the game before, like Duluth was able to do with Hennelly and boys coach Griffin Spotz.

Complicating matters further is the fact that boys and girls lacrosse have many differing rules, which makes for different certification processes to coach by the game's national governing body.

So it's not uncommon for schools to have head or assistant coaches from other sports learn enough about the game to become certified to coach.

And as one such coach, Grayson boys coach Derek Benton, points out, it also helps to have community or lay coaches with lacrosse playing or coaching experience to act as assistants, like he does with Roger Smith, Robert Losordo, Ricky Santry and Rich Peterson.

"(Grayson athletics director Wayne Smith) came to me and asked me if I'd be interested in coaching," said Benton, whose Rams won their inaugural game with a 9-5 victory over North Forsyth on Friday. "I'd been a football and golf coach before, but I loved (lacrosse) when I first saw it. And I thought it would be a new challenge for me. And our lay coaches have made the transition really easy for me. They do a lot of coaching."

And of course, there are other logistical obstacles to overcome.

"We're kind of land-locked at Duluth," Hennelly pointed out about the limited number of practice fields at the school. "So, we've practiced in the outfield of a softball field at Bunten Road Park. Our first time on a full-sized lined field was our (preseason) scrimmage at Norcross."

The biggest piece of advice Hennelly can give to anybody involved in starting up a new lacrosse program can best be summed up in one word -- organization.

In fact, he credits a well-organized booster club that has helped Duluth field boys and girls varsity teams without having first fielded a club-level team.

"They were organized before I even got (to Duluth)," Hennelly said.

Still, as fast as the sport is growing in Gwinnett County, it will take some time before the new programs see major success of the field.

"We're in it to be competitive and (eventually) win state championships," Henneley said. "Nothing should hold us back. But our two goals this year are to get started and get better."