Lacrosse Gains Traction on the Gulf Coast

Athletes are being drawn to the timeless and fast-paced sport of lacrosse.

Owen Kilpatrick, Position: Defense, Team: St. Paul’s / Photos by Matthew Coughlin

Stormi Vickers lowers the car visor to shield her eyes from the summer sun. She’s made this trek across the Bay hundreds of times, and she’s got the routine down pat. Beside her sits Whit, 14, and singing along to the radio is Whit’s little sister, Annabelle, her backseat teeming with snacks. Rattling in the back of the SUV are a couple of folding chairs, a cooler and a smattering of lacrosse gear: a duffel bag stuffed with shoulder and elbow pads, a helmet, gloves, cleats and sticks of varying lengths.

The temperature on the dash reads 96, despite the clock announcing evening’s arrival. While lacrosse is typically played in fall and spring, Whit and his Gulf Coast Hitmen teammates, part of the Daphne-based Parallax summer league, take advantage of the opportunity to play year-round, honing skills needed during regular season play with their high school clubs or city leagues.

Jonah Vickers, Position: Defense, Team: Bayhawks

By the time the Vickerses arrive, parents — armed with books, cell phones and drive-thru dinners — are already settling in for the two-hour practice. Stormi and husband Walt, who has just arrived, hang back in the parking lot to chat with other parents about the previous weekend’s scorching tournament in Louisiana. “I’m sure today’s practice will be a lot of stretching,” Stormi laughs, alluding to the players’ fatigue.

The casual observer wouldn’t pick up on that fact, however, as the boys squat, run and catch with game-day gusto. Just by looking at the sheer number of players, it’s hard to imagine that, throughout the Bay area, little is known about the sport.

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Zach Vickers, Position: Attack, Team: Bayside

A History of Warriors

The first mention of lacrosse dates back to 1100 AD, a time when Native Americans “played” the game as a kind of symbolic warfare. The “games” were ceremonial in nature, with pre-match rituals identical to Indian warpath preparations. Tournaments would last up to three days and consisted of teams of 100 to 1,000 men apiece on a field several miles long. When French missionaries visited present-day Ontario in 1637, they observed the game and named it “la crosse,” which means “the stick” in French.

Although mostly peaceful in nature, the games also served to vent aggression. In the late 18th century, violence broke out in a famous match between the Creek and Choctaw tribes over the rights of a beaver pond. (The Creeks won.)

Sam Friedman, Position: Attack, Team: Mavericks

Centuries later, lacrosse, or as it is sometimes called, “lax,” is now more a hybrid of soccer, hockey and football, with its objective being to keep the opposing team from scoring. Warrior-like traits still prevail, with the permissive use of “stick checks,” a controlled stick-on-stick hit used to dislodge the ball from the opponent’s stick pocket. Men’s lacrosse also allows for physical contact, or “body checks” (think football tackles with restrictions).

There’s no such contact for women, however, as their rules vary. In the book, “Lacrosse: A History of the Game,” Russian-born Rosabelle Sinclair, who established the first U.S. women’s lacrosse team, describes the difference between the sexes: “Lacrosse, as women play it, is an orderly pastime that has little in common with the men’s tribal warfare version … It’s true that the object in both men’s and women’s lacrosse is to send a ball through a goal by means of the racket, but whereas men resort to brute strength, the women depend solely on skill.”

Brooks Friedman, Position: Defense, Team: Mavericks / St. Paul’s

The Current Battle

Although the game is said to be the fastest growing team sport at the national level, at the Deep South level, the participation rate is slow but steady. George Irvine, the self-proclaimed “Father of Mobile Lacrosse,” says kids are the best recruiting tool.

Irvine knows a thing or two about growing a team — he and a few other parents formed the Mobile Youth Lacrosse League in 2007. “The recruitment process is difficult,” he says, “because you are competing with existing sports.” Sports like baseball and football reign supreme in the South because they’re sports with which people are familiar and comfortable. Athletes in these sports typically begin playing as youngsters.

While specializing in a sport from an early age isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it could discourage older athletes from trying lacrosse, believing they are too old to learn a new sport. But in the May edition of The Epistle, St. Paul’s Episcopal School’s newspaper, rising senior, Ross Carley, spoke of his high school club’s inaugural year, saying three-quarters of the team had never before played lacrosse. He went on to say the Saints were still “able to hang with the other teams.”

Ross Carley and Owen Kilpatrick

Drilling further into the sport’s participation statistics reveals two additional areas for potential growth. What began as an American Indian sport has, as some might argue, been whitewashed, with lacrosse being predominately played in the U.S. by white males. Along the Gulf, there certainly seems to be a deficiency of both female and black players. The tide may be turning more quickly for one demographic than the other, however. According to Josh Friedman, assistant coach at St. Paul’s and president of the Mobile Youth Lacrosse League, “St. Paul’s is in the process of starting the very first girls’ club lacrosse program in the area.” This is great news for when Annabelle Vickers gets to high school; she was the only girl on her spring 2018 Mobile Mavericks team.

But the South isn’t the only region struggling to find black players. According to data provided by the National College Athletic Association, in 2018, of men and women college lacrosse players, only 3.8 percent and 3.2 percent were black, respectively.

Some theorize that misconceptions about the sport or financial hardships may play a role in the lack of diversity. Friedman, with assistance from U.S. Lacrosse, is eager to combat that hurdle. “Depending on the circumstances, loaner equipment is available,” he explains, which could be a good option for those wanting to try the sport before making a financial investment. “We also have a wonderful diversity program that covers the costs of playing for those who qualify.” Bottom line: If a child wants to play, someone will make it possible.

Whit Vickers, Position: Attack and Defense, Team: UMS-Wright

The Making of a Warrior

John Avent, head varsity and junior varsity coach at UMS-Wright and head coach for the U14 Mobile Mavericks team, offers a tongue-in-cheek warning for parents. “Be prepared for your child to fall in love with lacrosse,” he says. “From the first day I picked up a stick, I never wanted to put it down.”

Back at the field, there’s no complaining to be found, despite the unforgiving heat. Not from the parents or the players or the coaches. It’s clear they do, indeed, love the game. But what is it about lacrosse that makes it so appealing? “It’s nonstop movement,” Friedman says. “And it’s more than just a team sport; it’s a family sport. Lacrosse offers a home to anyone who wants to get outside and play.”

For More Information

Bayside Academy | high school boys
Lower Alabama Bayhawks Lacrosse | co-ed elementary through high school
Mobile Mavericks Youth Lacrosse | co-ed kindergarten through 8th grade
Parallax Lacrosse | boys elementary through high school
St. Paul’s Club Lacrosse | high school boys (high school girls, coming spring 2020)
UMS-Wright Club Lacrosse | high school boys

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