Northeast Georgia isn’t exactly the lacrosse capital of the world. In fact, the sport of lacrosse at the high school level is about as common as a 30-inch snowfall.
But two area high schools, Gainesville and Riverside Military, are doing what they can to help bring this uncommon sport to the forefront of Hall County athletics.
At Gainesville High, the lacrosse program is entering its third year of existence, and while both the girls and boys programs have yet to win a game, each have taken the necessary strides in order to one day be successful.
But as with any sport that is in the building process, the school is still trying to find students interested in participating.
"This sport is normally played in the Mid-Atlantic states and we’re just trying to show the students that new things are out there and available to them," said girls coach Vince Strine. "Most of the players on my team have never picked up a lacrosse stick."
Being a boarding school, Riverside Military — which started its lacrosse program in 2000 and is one of the few schools in the state with a lacrosse field with lights — has the benefit of having players on its team that have lacrosse backgrounds.
According to Riverside’s coach Chris Lancaster, the experience level of his players ranges from one week to four years, but he has three players, one from Tennesee and two from Florida who have multiple years of experience in the sport.
The same cannot be said for the teams at Gainesville.
In order to combat the lack of interest in the sport, both Strine and boys coach Tivrus Dixon, have been forced to do a little bit of recruiting in the halls of the high school.
"A lot of the times when you look in the halls, the girls will say that they’ve never played before," said Strine. "My job is to teach them the sport; all I need is their willingness to learn."
While Strine has had some struggles finding players, Dixon, who is the defensive line coach for Gainesville’s football team, has resorted to using his contacts in the Red Elephant football program to field a team.
"I have a few football players out here because they see how lacrosse can carry over to football," said Dixon, who, like Strine, is in his first year coaching lacrosse. "The football players got interested in it, and they all like it."
Riverside also has football players on its roster.
"It’s a great sport," Lancaster said of lacrosse. "There’s a lot of agility and over all hand-eye coordination that benefits football players."
One of the reasons the football players like the sport is because, unlike the girls game, it allows them to play another contact sport.
"I’m carrying a 6-foot metal pole and I get to jab it into people," said senior Chris Howard, who grew up in East Cobb and with seven years of experience is by far the most experienced player on the boys team.
"Every hit in lacrosse is an open-field hit," he added. "All the hits are big hits. You never see a small hit in lacrosse."
An offensive guard on the football team, Howard has not only brought experience to the lacrosse team, but he has served as the team’s best recruiter.
"Chris Howard asked me to join," said senior Pablo Picazo, who also plays football. "It wasn’t in my plans, but I liked what I saw."
According to Howard, his pitch to other students in order to get them on the lacrosse field is simple.
"I tell everyone that you want to be a star in football, but only one or two people can do that," he said. "In lacrosse everyone is a star. Anyone can get the ball, anyone can score and anyone can get the big hit."
Over on the girl’s team, where safety is the name of the game, playing lacrosse is appealing for a whole different reason.
"It’s something new and different and not everyone does it around here," said senior Sarah Walton, who has played on the team since its inception in 2006. "That makes it unique and special."
With only 48 public high schools in the state of Georgia fielding lacrosse teams, the teams at Gainesville (a Class AAA school) and Riverside (a member of Georgia Independent Schools Association) are forced to compete against larger and more established lacrosse teams.
Playing in Area 6-A-AAAAA, Gainesville competes against Class AAAAA schools Roswell, Milton, South Forsyth and North Forsyth. West Forsyth High is the only school in Gainesville’s region that is a Class AAA school.
According to Lancaster, Riverside does not play a region schedule, but still will play schools like Milton, Peachtree Ridge, Collins Hill and Alpharetta.
Although at an obvious disadvantage roster-wise, both Gainesville teams feel that playing against the larger schools is beneficial.
"We get to learn new things from the larger and more established programs," said senior Lona Panda, who plays D-Wing on the girls team. "They’ll stop and tell us different ways to cradle the ball and that really helps."
And Strine believes playing against the more established programs in the state will only help the teams at Gainesville.
"The girls get to see the what it takes to be successful," Strine said. "And when we are successful against those schools, that will be a bonus for them and will be something they can always look back to as something they accomplished."
Competing against schools four times the size of Gainesville will not effect how hard the teams play.
"We’re at a disadvantage and that’s obvious," said Dixon, who has scheduled fewer traditional powerful lacrosse teams this year. "These kids come out here and work hard and I don’t think (the disadvantage) is anything that hard work and dedication can’t fix."
Added Howard, "We have twice the heart of any team out there."
Being a family
That heart could be due to the closeness of the players on the team.
Losing every game that is played can be tough no matter what sport, but when the team is a family it makes losing a little bit easier.
"The brotherhood on this team is what makes it great," said Howard. "It’s the only sport I’ve played when we are really a family."
Being a family, the players say, means there are no egos on the team.
"No one thinks that they’re better then everyone else," said Picazo. "You don’t just want to be a family inside the lines you want to be a family outside the lines and that’s what we have here."
The same goes for the girls.
"We all have become family," said senior goalie Samantha Velasquez. "These are girls that had never talked before and just coming together and playing lacrosse has created a family atmosphere."
The future of lacrosse at Gainesville
While only two schools in Hall County actually field lacrosse teams, with the way the sport is growing, other schools in the area might soon start teams of its own.
"It’s the fastest growing sport in America," Dixon said. "I think it’s a matter of time with as many people playing in the Northeast and moving down here.
"As this area keeps growing it is going to spread up from Atlanta," he added. "It’s already in Gwinnett (County), it’s already in Forsyth (County) and it’s just a matter of time before some of the Hall County schools get it."
That timeframe might hinge on the success of Gainesville’s teams.
"If we build a solid program here and be successful, then I think the other schools in this area will get teams," Strine said.
And if the other schools in the area do field teams, the players at Gainesville say they will be more than ready.
"I think it’ll be fun if other schools out here start playing lacrosse," said junior Nick Williams. "It will just give us another sport to whip up on them."