Lacrosse continues to gain popularity with high schools in South Carolina

March 5, 2010 

He faced nearly a decade's worth of rejection. It was a time in which he was constantly told his dream of public school lacrosse in South Carolina just wouldn't work. For each solution he provided, another obstacle was thrown his way.

But Rich Thomas says he never became pessimistic -- no matter how difficult that may be to believe.

Seven years ago, his voice was rarely heard. He wasn't even a fly on the wall, for that would have required him being allowed in the room.

Nonetheless, Thomas made it his mission to gain respect for the sport he fell in love with some 50 years ago as a kid growing up in the heartland for lacrosse -- the Northeast. His ultimate goal: Get the S.C. High School League to sanction lacrosse.

"I lived and breathed that mission for seven or eight years," Thomas said. "For the first five or six, we were seen as a joke. Nobody would even talk to us about lacrosse. It wasn't being recognized as even reality. It's as if we weren't playing."

A ghost in the eyes of South Carolina's high school sports governing body.

But over the next few years, the ghost began to show its face. One team blossomed to four by 2002. Five more years and the state consisted of more than 30 teams combined between boys and girls.

With letters pouring into the SCHSL's executive committee -- some from politicians, no less -- the no-chance dream became closer to reality. In the fall of 2007, a set of meetings established the framework for the SCHSL sanctioning lacrosse (or, in its words, sponsoring the sport's championship events).

That call became official a year later, in October of 2008, when the SCHSL announced it would begin to oversee the sport starting in the 2009-10 school year, this spring.

"My dream has come true," said Meg Hendy, who is entering her 11th season as the Hilton Head High girls coach. "I can remember seven or eight of us sitting around the table, asking how we can get this to grow. For it to come to this point, my dream has come true."

LACROSSE ... IN THE LOWCOUNTRY?

It took 12 years of hard work for the dream to come into focus.

The true birth of high school lacrosse in the Lowcountry can be traced to a group of 40 or 50 kids playing a pickup game at Hilton Head Prep every Sunday afternoon in the fall of 1998.

Thomas taught the game to most. So did Scott Sharp. As the kids became more fine-tuned within in the game -- and as the numbers grew each week -- the two decided to attempt to start a team at Hilton Head High. The attempt proved worthy, as principal Bill Harner was receptive to the idea. With a donation of $10,000 from the school district, the team started its first season the following spring with Sharp serving as its coach. A few months later, the Seahawks added a girls squad.

As the only high school sponsored teams in the state, each had difficulty finding competition. Their entire schedules consisted of out-of-town teams traveling to the island over spring break.

"These were kids who were born with lacrosse sticks in their hands," Hendy said.

They provided a rude introduction to the sport. The Hilton Head High girls team finished 0-11 and scored just one goal all season.

"You would've thought we won the Olympics," Hendy joked.

The winless season did little to deter the program's progress.

The following year, the Seahawks matched up against Heathwood Hall in the first interscholastic lacrosse match in the state's history. By 2002, Ridgeview High School and a Myrtle Beach club team (now Socastee High School's team) gave the state four teams, which competed for a state championship.

Hilton Head High won both the boys and girls state titles each of the first three seasons. The school hosted the 2003 championship games.

And when Hilton Head High split into two schools and Bluffton High School opened in 2005, the Bobcats immediately started boys and girls lacrosse programs.

"We felt like with us dividing schools, it was very important for us to offer the same sports they were used to having there," Bluffton athletics director Dave Adams said. "We didn't want to be short in anything."

Sharp moved to Bluffton High School and started the boys program. Adams allowed him to show videos at his football practices in an effort to generate interest.

His efforts were rewarded -- the Bobcats' roster was not only plentiful in numbers but also talented. The team actually managed a win against the three-time defending state champion Seahawks.

"We called it the 'miracle on grass,' " Adams recalled. "That was a big, big win for us."

The interest across the state, meanwhile, has continued to grow. Entering its first year as a fully sanctioned sport, there will be 31 boys teams and 25 girls teams competing for an open state championship.

THE SKY IS THE LIMIT

Joe Monmonier scoured job boards, hoping to find a lacrosse coaching position that could take his family near the beach. After a career that included All-America honors (twice) at Limestone College, Monmonier's resume was well-equipped.

Four years ago, he finally hit his jackpot -- an up-and-coming lacrosse program at Hilton Head High was in search of a leader to help further the sport's expansion.

"I jumped at it," Monmonier said. "I came here to make it better. My goal here is to make a positive impact by trying to grow it and open doors for kids to play lacrosse."

With the tallest hurdle being the student body's relative lack of knowledge about lacrosse, Monmonier established selling points to get kids to pick up a stick: the non-stop action, the aggressive nature of it, the athletic footwork and hand-eye coordination required.

And for the boys game, of course, the physical punishment.

"It's the last place you can still hit someone with a stick and not get arrested," Monmonier said. "Who wouldn't want to play?"

He continues to sell the same aspects today. And more and more kids are buying into the game.

Two players last year -- Bluffton's Austin Tosky and Hilton Head High's Ryan Sparks -- earned college scholarships for lacrosse. Tosky has already scored three goals at Tennessee Wesleyan, and Sparks is attending Lees-McRae in North Carolina.

Sparks first played lacrosse in middle school. And despite being a state champion-caliber wrestler, he received more lacrosse offers than wrestling.

"It bridged me over into college," Sparks said. "Well, it gave me a chance to get there. It's really given me an amazing opportunity to continue my athletic career."

Doors continue to open across the state, and even outside its borders, for more athletes being introduced to the sport.

Two months after SCHSL announced it would sanction lacrosse, North Carolina's athletic governing body followed suit with the same decision.

SCHSL's commitment alone has knocked down many of the barriers to the growth of lacrosse in South Carolina.

"I saw Irmo practicing the other day and the whole team looked like they were 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds," Monmonier said. "Just seeing those athletes with a lacrosse stick in their hands made me think, 'If this is our future, South Carolina is going to have a field day.' "

THE DECADE FOR GROWTH

1999 -- Rich Thomas and Scott Sharp head the efforts to start the first high school sponsored boys lacrosse program in the state at Hilton Head High. Sharp takes over as the team's coach.

1999 -- A few months after the boys begin practicing, Hilton Head High adds a girls program. The Seahawks finish 0-11 in their inaugural year, scoring only one goal for the season.

2000 -- The South Carolina Lacrosse League is founded as a branch of the South Carolina Chapter of US Lacrosse to oversee high school lacrosse in the state.

2002 -- With three more high school programs now in the state -- Ridgeview, Heathwood Hall and a Myrtle Beach club team -- the SCLL announces the addition of a state championship.

2002-04 -- The Hilton Head High girls team wins the first three state titles in South Carolina history.

2002-05 -- Not to be outdone, the Hilton Head High boys team wins the first four state titles in South Carolina history.

2005 -- Bluffton High School opens and immediately begins a lacrosse program for boys and girls.

2005 -- Bluffton High School hosts the SCLL state championships in its inaugural season. Hilton Head High takes the boys title, while Ridgeview dethrones the Seahawks girls dynasty.

2006-08 -- The Bluffton girls team finishes as state runner-up three straight seasons.

2008 -- The S.C. High School League announces it will sponsor the boys and girls lacrosse state championships, starting with the 2009-10 school year.

2010 -- The Beaufort Lacrosse Club is founded. More than 20 kids join from Beaufort High, Beaufort Academy and Battery Creek.

2010 -- South Carolina lacrosse begins its spring schedule as a fully sanctioned sport with 25 girls teams and 31 boys programs.

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