Lacrosse sounds about as foreign as it looks, with players running around in masked head gear wielding netted sticks.
But lacrosse has won a following in the metro Atlanta area over the past decade.
After a struggle with the DeKalb County Board of Education to apply for sanctioning from the Georgia High School Association, Dunwoody High School is about to become the first high school in the county to field varsity lacrosse teams next academic year. Oglethorpe University has just hired a coach to recruit a varsity women’s lacrosse team for a 2013 season.
These schools are joining many others that have formed lacrosse teams, beginning with just a few private schools in the late 1990s followed by a wave of public schools in the northern suburbs around 2002.
Lee Ann Tutchton, the women’s lacrosse coach for Oglethorpe University, has been involved with lacrosse in the Atlanta area for many years. Tutchton, who grew up in a lacrosse-playing family in Pennsylvania, said the sport really started with a core of several northern transplants who missed the game and wanted to see it get started in Georgia.
“The (lacrosse) Mecca is Baltimore, New York, Pennsylvania area. It’s a lifestyle and we moved it down South,” Tutchton said. “It’s just taken off like wildfire.”
Tutchton, who has coached at the youth level and started the program at Lassiter High School in Marietta, said it has been amazing to watch the sport’s rapid growth in the area.
“According to U.S. Lacrosse, the sport has grown about 200 percent over the last few years,” Tutchton said. “In the Atlanta area, every time we turn around there is a new program that is starting to open up.”
Jim Buczek, the coach for the Lovett School’s varsity boys’ lacrosse team, agreed that it was a grassroots effort to get the sport going.
“I think Darlington, Lovett, Westminster and Pace were the first four schools to get it, in 1998 or 1999,” he said. “I think it was kind of a combination of things. There were a number of parents, teachers and coaches who had been exposed to it in the Northeast and transplanted it down to Atlanta.”
Buczek said though the group championed the game, it really didn’t need much promoting.
“Once the kids play the game it sells itself and they want to keep playing,” Buczek said. “The growth has been explosive to say the least. In 2005 was the first year the Georgia High School Association had sanctioned it and there were 25 teams in the state. Here we are six years later and there’s 90.”
For many, lacrosse has the grassroots flavor and energy that can be missing in the highly structured world that has grown up around some other sports.
Ann Gunning, who was instrumental in starting the club lacrosse team at Dunwoody High School with her son Andy, said it was amazing to watch the kids work to build a team. She said she was thrilled that the school will now be able to compete at the varsity level.
“They’re lucky in a way because they get the chance to start something from the ground up,” Gunning said. “They made it happen.”
Gunning said her son played lacrosse at Marist during his freshman and sophomore years. When he transferred to Dunwoody High School, he was disappointed to find it did not have a lacrosse program, Gunning said.
After putting up flyers around the school, he recruited three other guys who were interested in the sport and joined a club team with the North Georgia Lacrosse League. The group played under the Tucker High School banner, though it was composed of athletes from eight different schools.
“That team was like the Bad News Bears of lacrosse,” Gunning said. “They had a blast though.”
With each passing year, more and more kids became interested in lacrosse, Gunning said.
“They got really good really fast. It was incredible,” Gunning said.
Gunning said her son already played several sports when he decided to join the lacrosse team at Marist to get involved in a spring sport, she said.
“All the sudden, everything else was second to lacrosse,” Gunning said.
It’s easy for people to get hooked on lacrosse, Tutchton said.
“They say it’s the fastest sport on two feet. It incorporates so many aspects of different games,” Tutchton said. “It just incorporates so many different skills that if you’re athletic, it’s just downright fun.”
She said for example, that basketball players tend to make excellent lacrosse defenders, while softball players already have an eye for catching the ball. People who play soccer or run track can use their speed and endurance to run up and down the field, Tutchton said.
Ideally, the women she recruits for Oglethorpe’s team will have a lacrosse background, Tutchton said, but it isn’t the only key to a successful player.
“I can look at other athletes and turn them into lacrosse players,” Tutchton said.
While interest in the sport grows, so does the success of area players.
Buczek said players from Georgia are becoming more competitive, and several have gone on to play at the college level.
“This year’s entering freshman class in high school will have had opportunity to play from youth league on up, just as if they were from Baltimore and New York,” Buczek said. “Now kids can play starting in third grade.”
Gunning said for the kids at Dunwoody High School, their enthusiasm for the game helped them stay organized and push for recognition as a varsity sport.
“Every single year, one of these kids has stepped up and made a difference and I think that’s really impressive,” Gunning said. “These kids really feel like they are a part of something big because they are.”