If license plates in a parking lot are indicative of how much lacrosse has grown over the years, then it is clear the sport is rapidly spreading throughout the United States.
Lacrosse has taken over the Allen Creek Soccer Complex in Gainesville, where coaches, athletes and their family members began arriving from around the country on Saturday for the opening of the Georgia Southern Shootout tournament.
The two-day event is the largest lacrosse tournament in the Southeast, according to organizer Monkey Up Tournaments, and features more than 100 club lacrosse teams squaring off in a round-robin competition. More than 15,000 visitors are expected to travel to Hall County for the tournament.
“This is a great tournament,” said Giovanni Najarro, head coach of all four STL Elite (Mo.) teams competing this weekend.
“We just got back from the Chicago area for the Chicago Cup and that was phenomenal, too. It was really good lacrosse. The teams out here are really good.”
While lacrosse has yet to take a strong hold in Hall County — Gainesville High and Riverside Military are the only schools that offer official lacrosse teams — the sport has become a major phenomenon throughout the country.
Families in attendance this weekend represent multiple states, including Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Missouri and Michigan, just to name a few.
“We are from Memphis, so this is a seven-hour drive for us,” one coach said. “Basically, on a trip like this, everyone brings their whole family.”
Several Metro Atlanta counties were also represented, including Gwinnett, Forsyth and Cobb.
Ages of the teams range from 11 years old to rising high school seniors. Teams competed in three games on Saturday and will compete in at least two today. Each age group will hold a title game, pitting the best two teams from pool-play against each other this afternoon.
The winners of each age group earn spots in the Dick’s Sporting Goods Tournament of Champions in Florida, a national tournament that selects its participants from only 10 events from throughout the country.
This weekend’s event is just one of many tournaments teams will be competing in this summer, but coaches admitted Gainesville’s event features some of the top junior lacrosse players in the country.
“Our (Under)-15 red team is really solid right now,” Narrajo said. “They just won the Midwest Cup and they’re headed to nationals, but BamLax just took it to them.
“I have taken two teams to nationals, in 2010 and 2011, and we saw BamLax there and we knew they were going to give us a game.”
For parents, the summer filled with tournaments allows their children the opportunity to stay active and play a competitive sport, even if it means spending the majority of the summer weekends in various cities.
“Instead of sitting around all summer relaxing and playing XBOX, they are outside practicing and on the weekends going to tournaments. That is a good thing,” said Claude Tindle, of Birmingham, Ala., who brought his daughter along to watch his son play for BamLax.
With the sport continuing to grow in various regions of the country, including in nearby portions of the state, some have wondered why the sport hasn’t taken a foothold in Hall County and the state’s northern counties.
Najarro said in order to build a strong presence of lacrosse at the high school level, a strong foundation must be laid at the youth level in local communities.
“In St. Louis, we have about 20-plus high schools in it and this past spring there were over 100 youth teams playing,” Najarro said. “It is growing. It is like a pyramid. You start them in the youth program, get them to love it, have fun with them, build their game IQ, get them to understand the feel.
“That is where you want to get that root built. That is where I started. We have a program from pre-K to a traveling high school team.”
Once athletes are in high school, lacrosse offers things that other sports lack, said Tindle, whose son quit baseball two years ago and began playing lacrosse on a full-time basis.
“If you told me when I was 15 that I could have a stick and hit somebody, I’d probably sign up too,” Tindle said. “It is a lot more action than baseball. I think that is why they migrate to this from baseball. There isn’t any down time.”