Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan (left to right) Luke Printz and Nathan Howell of North Gwinnett High battle for the ball during practice at Gary Pirkle Park in Sugar Hill on Tuesday. This is only the second season which North Gwinnett has had a team as lacrosse is rapidly growing in Georgia.
SUWANEE -- When Matt Palmer was first introduced to lacrosse, it wasn't even his idea.
"My buddy dragged me to a clinic, and I had no idea what it was, and I fell in love with it from the get-go," Palmer said.
Palmer is a senior at North Gwinnett High School, and his relationship with lacrosse is a familiar one within the sport. As several coaches have said, once a player gets a stick in their hands, they're hooked on the sport. Palmer's played for about four years, and recently signed to play at Pfeiffer University.
"Before lacrosse, I really wasn't good at any sports at all," Palmer said. "I was the unathletic kid. I played sports, I just wasn't good."
Peachtree Ridge High School senior Michael Ruffcorn said he's played every sport and settled on lacrosse seven years ago.
"It's a spring sport, and it's definitely not baseball," Ruffcorn said. "In the spring that's pretty much all you have to choose from is baseball. For someone like me who loves to run and to hit, and loves a really intense game, it's the perfect game."
Once almost exclusively played in the Northeast, lacrosse experienced a Southern boom in the 1990s, and 10 years ago became an official high school sport in Georgia. That growth got a jolt in 2009 when Gwinnett County allowed its high schools to add teams. The county now counts 11 public high schools who field teams -- 13 overall -- and the well-documented deep pool of athletes in Gwinnett is expected to soon meet and exceed established pockets in the state like Fulton County and east Cobb County.
The youth and recreational aspect coincided with the high school push, and the Gwinnett Lacrosse League counts more than 1,600 kids, an increase of 1,200 in the last four years.
Scott Hall, the secretary of the GLL, said 10 youth associations have been established and more are expected in Lanier, Archer and Mountain View. Hall and community members such as Bob Lombardo, who played at Hofstra, Jonnie Botts, Nikki Williams and Henry Autler are all either former players or coaches who identified the sport's potential in an untapped area like Gwinnett.
The GLL was initially modeled after the Gwinnett Football League, and its purpose is to educate, guide and provide rules for youngsters to learn the sport starting at 7 years old. Hall said the parks system within the county has been a "huge catalyst" for the growth of lacrosse.
Two obstacles in the face of that growth are finding qualified officials and educated and experienced coaches.
"The sport is outpacing coaches and officials," Hall said.
Bob Basher, the boys coach at Peachtree Ridge High School, who was one of the most vocal activists for the sport, looks back on the effort in amazement.
"A few years ago they couldn't spell lacrosse in this county," Basher said. "It's blown up. Five years ago, nobody wanted to talk to me. Now, I have parents (that played in college) coming out of the woodwork willing to help with the youth. That's what's really cool. Five years ago people turned their back."
In the beginning, Basher was used to rejections. After all, it was nearly seven years ago that he first asked to add the sport.
When Basher and the pro-lacrosse group went before the Gwinnett County School Board, he prepared for this exchange:
"There's no space."
"We'd find our own space," Basher said.
"You don't have any money."
"We'll raise our own money," Basher said.
"We don't want you to raise your own money."
"Well, competitive cheerleading wins state every year, and they raise all of their own money."
No matter the rejection, Basher was undaunted.
"I was prepared for everything, because I had heard the questions so often," he said.
So in the spring of 2008, the schools, namely Peachtree Ridge and Collins Hill, who were first, got the go-ahead to field a team. But each program would be responsible for everything except the head coach's stipend.
"I thought it'd be great for the kids, because you have 3,000 kids in the high school and this is a chance for more kids to play sports," said Basher, who also noted the tradition that lacrosse has as a sport that produces athletes that excel academically. "I knew if we got it here, the kids would love it. Being a football coach, it's hard-hitting, it's fast-paced, there's no fast-paced sport in the spring. I knew if we could get it in here it'd be huge."
The turning point for Peachtree Ridge was the club team that Basher assembled in the two years prior to lacrosse being added as a sanctioned high school sport.
As the club team improved, it eventually trounced opponents. The players were so dedicated, they traveled to places like Fayette County for a 9 a.m. Sunday game in February.
"Freezing our butt off for a double header, just so we could get games in," Basher said.
As a spring sport, lacrosse's appeal is to kids who may not be as athletic for traditional sports. It also blends faceoffs like hockey, the offensive concepts of basketball, contact similar to football, all with a speed that's faster than soccer.
"It allows certain athletes who wouldn't excel at football because of their body type, or skillset, wouldn't excel at baseball, at soccer, it puts them in a medium that's fit for them," North Gwinnett boys coach Christopher Zornes said. "You got some kids that are pretty big, but maybe they're not fast enough for football. But you put them on a lacrosse field and they're a stud. You've got kids who are a little on the smaller side, that if they were to play football, they'd get crushed. You get them out here where the contact is not the same type of contact, you find out that, 'Wow, I would have never found out that that kid was an athlete.'"In the early years, the sport had to battle a stigma as the sport most teenagers were unfamiliar with.
"It was the joke sport to come out for," Palmer said. "It's kind of silly, a girly sport with little sticks."
But now it's arguably the most popular spring sport, and in some schools lacrosse is challenging football's offseason routine.
Coaches and players have said the next step in the growth cycle is gaining college scholarships, and the sport becoming more common at the college level.