Lacrosse: An American Tradition

America’s original team sport grows in popularity in South Carolina

By Margaret Clay

Photography by Jeff Amberg

Lacrosse is considered the oldest team sport in America, with versions of “stickball” played by Native Americans at least as early as the 1630s when French Jesuit missionaries working in the St. Lawrence Valley were the first Europeans to see and record the game of lacrosse. One of these missionaries, Jean de Brébeuf, wrote about the Huron Indians — think Last of the Mohicans — playing the game in 1636, and it was he who subsequently named the game “lacrosse,” meaning “the stick.”

Traditional lacrosse games were major tribal events that could last several days with as many as 100 to 1,000 men from opposing tribes or villages participating, and the goals ranged from several hundred yards to several miles apart. Medicine men typically acted as the coaches, and the women were typically delegated to be the water-boys. Games of lacrosse served many different purposes that included training warriors for combat, religious festivals and recreation as well as settling inter-tribal disputes — a function essential in keeping the Six Nations of the Iroquois bound together. 

“My favorite part about lacrosse is its tradition,” says Spring Valley Head Coach Mike Loser. “It is just steeped in Native American tradition. To me, that is represented by admiration and respect of the opponent, but only superseded by our team’s self-respect and pride.”

Organized lacrosse first came to South Carolina in 2000. It started with only a few teams, but has continued to grow each year, and after being sanctioned just a few years ago in 2009 by the S.C. High School League (SCHSL) as a varsity sport, lacrosse has added many more teams. 

“As far as the state of South Carolina, the sport has been more popular in the Lowcountry and the upstate,” says Mike. “Those areas have had quite a head start, but we in the Midlands are gaining — it’s growing faster here than in other parts of the state. We’ll catch up soon. ESPN has been increasing their coverage of lacrosse on TV and that has helped swell the interest nationally. Since the SCHSL State Championships started in 2009, the sport has grown quite quickly. We had 24 public school teams in 2009, and now we have 37.”

According to A.C. Flora Head Coach Mickey Purdy, “Building a team has not been hard. Kids in our area are extremely interested in lacrosse.” 

Girls’ lacrosse has taken off in South Carolina as well — there are about 30 girls’ teams in the SCHSL. Kayla Lynn Guillerault, at the age of 20, is currently in her second season as the head coach for Spring Valley High School girls’ lacrosse. Girls’ and boys’ lacrosse differ in many ways. For girls, it is a non-contact sport and is played on a larger field with one extra player. The sticks are extremely different as the boys are allowed deep pockets and use primarily mesh while the girls have very shallow pockets and use string and runners. 

During her inaugural season at SVHS, Kayla led her team to a 10-3 record and co-region 4 AAAA champions with Blythewood High School. She is pleased not only with the success of the program but also with the opportunity the sport gives the girls to become proficient in a sport fairly new to the Carolinas.

“The greatest challenges are finding opportunities for the youth to learn the sport at an early age. A lot of the kids that enter our program have never played the game. It would be great if we could start youth programs that help kids develop, much like soccer, basketball and other sports,” says Mickey.

Mike explains that lacrosse attracts the football player because of the physicality; it appeals to soccer players because it requires the same endurance level to get up and down the field over and over when the ball is turned over; and it attracts basketball players because of similar offenses and plays, such as a “pick and roll” and creating space for a quick, unobstructed shot. “Plus, it’s just awesome to watch,” Mike says with a smile. “Fast paced and physical! There aren’t many sports that combine those physical and endurance traits. The sport also lends itself to hockey because we use the space behind the goal, as well, allowing for a unique setup of plays. Now that the public schools have teams, it’s available to everyone.”

A unique challenge facing the sport currently is teaching the players the necessary background knowledge of the game to be competitive and strategic, which is ultimately only done by playing. 

“Again, those Upstate and Lowcountry teams have been playing since they were little in youth programs,” says Mike. “This has only become a viable option here in the Midlands in the past few years. There are more high school teams in the Midlands than in any other part of the state. A separate challenge is getting the SCHSL to understand our sport. They have us playing an extremely short season. Sometimes we must play three games in one week, but a sport this physical should not be forced to play that often. It can really bang up the kids. It is just new and unfamiliar with many of the ‘old guard’ that are in charge of things at the SCHSL.”

The basic strategy of lacrosse is to hurl the ball into the other team’s net for one point, and the game is organized into four 12-minute quarters. There are 10 players on the field at once for each team. A goalie with minimal padding carries a larger net on his stick, for obvious reasons, and gets pounded throughout the game by a hard rubber ball if he is doing his job. Three defensemen, known as “long poles” because their stick is much longer, must stay in the defensive half of the field at all times. The longer stick helps them stop the smaller, swifter and more maneuverable short sticks. There are three midfielders, or “short sticks,” who run the entire field and play both offense and defense. Three offensive players known as “attack men” also use a short stick and must stay on the offense half of the field at all times. These players are usually the shooters and must have great stick skills as the defenders are always trying to dislodge the ball from their sticks; hence, they must also be able to withstand the physicality of the defenders. 

A possession starts similarly to hockey with a face off. When a team has the ball, it must transition to its offense half of the field where the midfielders and attack men work as a six-man team to pass the ball around in order to get an open shot on the goal. The defense tries to gain possession of the ball by stick-checking and even body-checking the offense. If the offense scores, it starts again with a faceoff, but if the goalie stops the ball or the defense dislodges the ball, the defense must transition the ball to the other half of the field to their offense. 

“The strategy of the game is, of course, to create opportunities to score. Basically, you want to move the ball around quickly enough to confuse the defense and create the open shot. Just like in basketball, they move the ball around fast enough to get a guy open for the shot on the goal,” says Mike. “The key to all of this is being able to pass the ball, which is made of a very hard rubber. Those passes must be completed on the run and be flat and accurate to avoid interception. Some teams focus on the physicality and big hits, but the true nature of lacrosse is to avoid the hit and score. I also like that we emphasize assists. It is just as important to give up the ball to score. Many times the assist is more impressive than the goal itself,” he continues. 

Mickey adds, “The offensive players must be able to use their sticks to catch, carry (or cradle), pass and shoot the ball. My favorite aspect of lacrosse is the speed of the game — it has a nickname of ‘the fastest game on two feet.’”

Spring Valley’s Assistant Coach Adam Woodley played lacrosse in a club team at Ridgeview High School during a brief period when they offered a club team that allowed all district schools to play. “After I finished playing in high school I just started working full time. Then Coach Loser called me up one day and asked me if I was interested in coaching at Spring Valley. So I accepted the offer, and now this is my fifth year coaching at Spring Valley. It’s a dream that I’ve always had, and hopefully one day I’ll be coaching at the next level,” Adam says. 

Both schools have been very successful in building strong lacrosse programs that will obviously last for many years to come. Spring Valley finished the 2013 season with a record of 9:1, and last year’s A.C. Flora Varsity Boys’ team finished with a record of 11:3 and had two 1st Team All-State players: Hunter Griffin (midfield) and Dakota Bryant (defense). “We also had two U.S. Lacrosse Academic All-Americans: Hagood Hemphill and Forrest Hemphill,” says Mickey. “Hunter Griffin represented the state in the Champion All-American Showcase and played on the team that won the Championship which was played live on ESPN.”

As Mickey points out, lacrosse continues to grow in the college ranks as well, boding well for the future of the sport in high schools. “Furman University has added a NCAA Division 1 team this year. Also, my college coach Mike Cerino, now Athletic Director at Limestone College, is the head coach of the Charlotte Hounds. The Charlotte Hounds are a professional team that competes in the MLL. Having professional Lacrosse in Charlotte will continue to increase interest in the sport and will encourage more kids to be a part of this fun, fast-paced sport.”

Mike adds that lacrosse has many advocates as coaches and players. “I see the sport growing tremendously in South Carolina. It has already grown and shown no slow down since the SCHSL sanctioned the State Championship. US Lacrosse has made this happen by offering free clinics and made grants available to schools wanting to start their own teams.”

Encompassing so many of the different advantages of various other sports, it is not surprising that this original American sport is here to stay. 

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