Growing with the sticks
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As far as sports go, lacrosse is still in its infancy in the Kanawha Valley. However, that is starting to change.
Capital, George Washington, Herbert Hoover and Hurricane all field boys teams in the West Virginia Scholastic Lacrosse Association, and GW also has a girls team.
St. Albans - the first local school to have a lacrosse team in 2007 - recently restarted its program and is participating as an associate member of the WVSLA. Hurricane's team is new to the league this season and, just outside the Kanawha Valley, Huntington High has started a team in recent years.
GW boys coach Brad White, who played in college at Vanderbilt then spent nearly a decade playing in leagues in the Washington, D.C. area, said as the sport becomes more popular more teams will start to compete at the high school level. Before that can happen, he said, the game has to establish its roots with younger generations of players.
"The more youth programs we have, the more demand will be created for them to start creating these programs," White said. "The U.S. Lacrosse Foundation has a special grant program that helps start up teams. Let's say Riverside wanted to start a team, they would probably this fall get in touch with the U.S. Lacrosse Foundation and apply for a grant and they would receive some type of support."
A youth lacrosse program has been established at the Charleston Family YMCA, which White said makes a big difference in what he has to do as a coach at the high school level. Rather than coming in as total novices, the players will have grown up playing the sport.
"As your Cabell Midlands start to grow ... when Parkersburg gets a team, Winfield ... it'll continue to grow, and that comes through the youth," White said. "Where we're getting kids in now, they've already been playing in the 'Y' program [run by GW assistant Sam Sutton]. It's getting even younger than that with elementary schools. You can give me a kid that has stick skills and knows what to do on a lacrosse field."
The Patriots have been the most successful of the Kanawha Valley teams so far this season with a record of 5-1. GW's only loss came against University, which (along with Morgantown) established the first high school lacrosse program in the state in the late 1990s. Hurricane sits at 4-2 with losses to GW and another established program from the northern part of the state, Fairmont Senior.
Capital and Herbert Hoover have not had as much success this season. The Cougars have been close in several games - losing by one goal to Wheeling Park and by two against Fairmont Senior - with a lone win coming against Huntington. Hoover's only win came against first-year program Martinsburg, but like Capital the Huskies have dropped some close games. Hoover lost by one goal to both Bridgeport and Huntington.
There are 15 boys teams, including the four Kanawha Valley teams and Huntington, that compete in the WVSLA. University, Morgantown, Wheeling Park, Linsly, Fairmont Senior, Bridgeport, Martinsburg, Harrison County (for players in the county that do not attend Bridgeport) and Preston are all full members, with the teams from Buckhannon-Upshur and St. Albans competing as associate members.
On the girls side, there are six teams - Morgantown, Fairmont Senior, George Washington, University, Buckhannon-Upshur and Wheeling Park - that compete, with Martinsburg admitted as an associate member this season.
The teams will continue regular-season play until early May when the playoffs being. The WVSLA state championship will be on May 18 at Mylan Pharmaceuticals Stadium at University High in Morgantown.
Calls to the WVSSAC regarding the possibility of including lacrosse among the sanctioned high school sports in West Virginia were not returned. When asked if the sport gaining that designation is something he would like to see, White jumped at the chance to answer the question.
"You better believe it," he said. "Our principal and our athletic director are completely 100 percent behind us. Mr. [George] Aulenbacher [GW's principal] has been incredible and so has [athletic director] Shawn Wheeler."
Capital coach Phil Wright said the sport faces obstacles in its path to wider recognition but he remains hopeful lacrosse will someday be just another sport for athletes in the Kanawha Valley.
"It takes time, I recognize that," he said. "I think lacrosse may be where soccer was decades ago in this state. You're fighting for field time and recognition. I'm sure soccer had to deal with a lot of these same issues that we're dealing with now. I'm very optimistic. It's grown tremendously just in the last few years."
Wright, who grew up playing the sport in Massachusetts and was an assistant at GW until taking over at Capital to coach his son, said playing the sport under the WVSSAC banner is still a ways off but the steps being taken are in the right direction.
"Ultimately I think it would be good for the sport," he said. "For some reason I think there are some schools that don't want to support it or deal with it if it's not SSAC sanctioned. What the SSAC sanctioning does more than anything is lend an air of legitimacy to the sport that some people might not otherwise attribute to it."
Reach Tom Bragg at email@example.com.