On a frigid recent Saturday morning, women who represent a new era in sports at Coastal Carolina University took the field at Brooks Stadium, a place best known to local fans for college football.
The new era doesn’t look anything like any of the other sports CCU fans are used to.
It wears goggles, swings a mean stick with a net on the end and flings a little yellow ball at mind-boggling speeds.
Sports fans, bid a hearty welcome to women’s lacrosse at CCU.
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Lacrosse, often called North America’s “first sport” because of its ancient Native American origins, hasn’t been on the radar much for South Carolina sports fans, even though it’s been played at the club and rec league level around the state for years , dozens of high schools (including two in Horry County) and several colleges statewide field competitive teams.
The women who will inaugurate Coastal’s program with a game Friday against the University of Cincinnati Bearcats hope to change that.
Seeing the team finally take the field for that first game will bring pride - and relief - to head coach Jaime Sellers, who came to Conway in August 2011 after three seasons as an assistant coach at Stanford University.
Recruiting was one of Sellers’ main duties at the prestigious California university, and within three months of arriving in South Carolina, she started seeking out players from around the country who could help get the new program off the ground at CCU. Some came from perennial lacrosse powerhouse states such as New Jersey and Ohio, New York and Maryland, and other locations in the Midwest and Northeast.
The team includes two South Carolina players, sophomore midfielder Kelsey Thornton from Blythewood High School in the Midlands and freshman midfielder Elizabeth Reed of Mount Pleasant, who played for Wando High School.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Sellers said during a break between games at the Feb. 2 “Play Day” scrimmage against North Carolina’s Catawba College and Erskine College from Due West in the Upstate. “I came here more than a year ago without a team, and now we’re ready for the inaugural season. You only get your first season once, and everything about this season will be a milestone. This team is young and it’s been refreshing to see how excited they are about what we’re doing.”
CCU’s first lacrosse squad includes 20 freshmen and five upperclassmen, and Sellers acknowledges the players came to her with differing degrees of experience and knowledge about the college-level game, skills and strategies. What some players may have lacked in experience, however, they have made up for with dedication, she said, going through daily practices as well as arduous workouts that include everything from running (lacrosse involves a lot of running) to strength training.
CCU joints two other Big South Conference teams, Campbell University in North Carolina and Winthrop in Rock Hill, who also debut their lacrosse programs this year. League members High Point University (High Point, N.C.), Liberty University (Virginia) and Presbyterian College (in Clinton) have been competing in Division I Lacrosse for several years.
On the morning of Feb. 2, CCU’s lacrosse players didn’t show any lack of experience or nerves. Sellers and assistant coach watched their squad handily beat Catawba and Erskine, both well-established NCAA Division II teams.
The question now, of course, will be how the women hold up against their regular season opponents – and how area sports fans respond to college-level lacrosse, a sport many people probably have never seen unless they catch occasional broadcasts on ESPN-2 or ESPNU. Some people who don’t know much falsely equate the game with field hockey or describe it as soccer with sticks, but that’s about as far from the truth as you can get. Yes, the object of lacrosse is to get the little yellow ball into the goal, but that is where any similarity to soccer or field hockey ends. Coastal’s women are taking part in a sport with ancient origins that is one of the fastest growing youth sports in the nation, with some experts saying it might eventually catch up to soccer in popularity.
Defender Kaitlyn Trodden, 18, of Kings Park, N.Y. and one of CCU’s newly-appointed team captains, was introduced to lacrosse by her dad when she was in kindergarten.
“I dropped many other sports to play this game because it’s a fast-paced game that really requires teamwork and good instincts,” Trodden said. “It’s a growing sport that has already boomed up north and is really starting to pick up in the South.”
Trodden, in her own way, is helping the game’s future in Horry County. In her spare time she’s been working with players in the girls’ programs at Socastee and Carolina Forest high schools.
15-mile fields and Canadian dentists
Where did lacrosse come from in the first place? Thank the Native Americans. The original residents of the United States and Canada developed the game and may have started playing it as early as 1100.The early days of the sport didn’t involve pickup games with a few homies, however. The sport had deep religious and spiritual meaning for the tribes and was often referred to as “the Creator’s Game,” according to a history available on the USA Lacrosse Web site (www.uslacrosse.com). Games were sometimes played to heal the sick and even used to resolve conflicts between tribes. Early tribal games sometimes involved up to 1,000 players who played all-day on huge fields between one and 15 miles long, and matches sometimes went on for three days straight. Epic games were documented everywhere from among the Iroquois up north to the Choctaws further south.
The name “lacrosse” was first used by a French Jesuit missionary named Jean de Brebeuf who documented games by Huron tribesmen in 1636 and named the sport after the French word la crosse, meaning “the stick.” At that time, the game that evolved into modern lacrosse was being played by more than 48 tribes in what is now Southern Canada and the entire U.S.
French pioneers picked up the sport in the 19th Century, and a Canadian dentist, W. George Beers, developed the game’s first set of rules and standards in 1867.
College lacrosse got its start in 1877 at New York University, while the first high school teams started play in 1882.
It’s probably not surprising that these first teams were all men. The first official modern women’s lacrosse game didn’t take place until 1890 at St. Leonard’s School in Scotland. Credit one Rosabelle Sinclair for establishing the first women’s team in the U.S. in 1926 at the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore.
Through the early- and mid- 20th Century, lacrosse was mainly popular along the East Coast, with especially strong regional powerhouses emerging in the Mid-Atlantic states including Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia. The sport’s popularity in other regions has increased during the last 40 years, with growth especially in the Midwest in recent years.
Already popular in Virginia, lacrosse has also made inroads into the Carolinas and the rest of the Southeast since the 1980s, with an especially heavy presence in North Carolina (who could forget the 2006 Duke University lacrosse scandal?)
In South Carolina, the game has experienced slow but steady growth in recent years, especially at the high school level. Presently, 38 public and private high schools around the state have active teams competing in league play, while many others offer lacrosse as a club activity.
Along with Coastal and other Division I schools, South Carolina is also home to successful NCAA Division II men’s and women’s lacrosse programs at Limestone College in Gaffney and the women’s program at Erskine.
The University of South Carolina, Clemson, Citadel and Furman University are among the larger schools in the state that don’t field official lacrosse programs, but do have club-level teams that compete in their own regional leagues. Coastal Carolina has a men’s team that plays at the club level.
Sticks along the Strand
While the start of the women’s program at Coastal is a huge milestone, the sport of lacrosse is by no means a stranger in Horry County. Lacrosse has been played at the club and recreational level in the Myrtle Beach area since the early 2000s and Socastee High School has fielded boys’ and girls’ lacrosse teams since 2006.
Matthew Fox, coach of the boys’ team at Socastee, has been a direct witness to the sport’s growth. The Ohio native took up lacrosse while attending Allegheny College in Western Pennsylvania, where he played goalie. Fox later coached a team in Columbus, Ohio and then got involved in teams at the club level once he moved to Myrtle Beach in the early 2000s.
Fox’s experience as a lacrosse player and coach made him a natural go-to choice when Socastee started its men’s program during the 2007-08, and he has watched the available local talent improve through the years because of a burgeoning youth program run by the city of Myrtle Beach’s Parks and Recreation Department.
“We’re starting to reap the benefits of the youth programs because now we’ve got freshmen who actually know how to throw and catch the ball,” Fox said. “Prior to that you pretty much had to teach them the entire game as freshmen and hope by the time they were seniors they had mastered it. Our support has increased over the years, especially after we went to the state semifinals in 2009 and made the playoffs again in 2010. Success breeds interest. After the ’09 season, we went from having 16 kids on the entire team to about 50 in the program. Interest has grown in the game overall.”
The girls’ game at Socastee has also grown since its start in 2007, according to coach Bill Gulledge, who originally hails from North Carolina and got involved with the sport because two of his daughters were interested in it. The depth of the girls’ field in Myrtle Beach has also grown because of the burgeoning local youth programs, he said.
Starting this season, Socastee won’t be the only high school on the Strand where kids are wielding lacrosse sticks. Carolina Forest kicks off its competitive lacrosse programs this spring, and another program is possibly in the works for the future at Waccamaw High School in Georgetown County.
The speed and the score
So what is it about lacrosse that draws players and fans alike?
Sellers, the head coach at CCU is a former gymnast who picked up lacrosse in high school and immediately fell in love with the sport’s speed and the amount of strategy required. She said lacrosse has been called “the fastest sport on two legs.”
The action at her team’s Feb. 2 scrimmage proves she’s not exaggerating. Lacrosse players run and throw the ball constantly and, as a spectator, if you have a short attention span, you’ll lose track of the ball. The little yellow orb gets tossed around so quickly and intricately it can be mind-boggling. Think about how hard it can be to follow the puck when you watch ice hockey on TV or in person, and then translate that sensation into a small ball being flung through the air against a grass backdrop.
Fox said people who have never seen a lacrosse game before often get drawn in by the sport’s speed and the skill needed to play it.
“It’s great because there’s always motion, it’s constant, there’s always something going on, and it involves a lot of the skills of other sports,” Fox said. “The men’s game has the speed and contact of hockey, and it also includes plays and strategy similar to basketball. “
Some fans think a sport isn’t worth watching if there aren’t a lot of chances to score goals. That’s a criticism you’ll hear frequently, for instance, when it comes to soccer, where games can last two hours and still end up with only one goal being scored. That’s something you rarely, if ever, see happen in lacrosse.
“In a typical high school game, you’re looking at a low-scoring game if each team scores five goals,” Fox said. “A typical high school score is somewhere in the 10 to 15 goal range. When we lost our first time in the playoffs, we lost 19-20.”
Lacrosse is also a sport that accommodates athletes with many different body types.
“For high school kids, there’s a spot on the team for pretty much any kind of athlete,” Fox said. “You don’t have to be huge to play – one of the best players on my college team was 5’6’’ and about 150 pounds but he was quick. But then there are also spots for the bigger athletes, especially at defense. On the men’s side, we’ve got spots for wrestlers and football players, too.”
Watch men’s lacrosse games and then check out the women, and you might think you’re seeing a different sport. That’s because rules for the two are very different. There’s significantly more contact in the men’s game, including body-checking, which is why the guys wear helmets and more padding while the women usually don’t sport any more protective gear than goggles and a mouth guard.
Even the sticks look different. The head and pocket of the women’s stick is more shallow and narrow, while the men’s stick has a deeper pocket.
“With the boys there’s a lot of hitting, knocking and pushing, and with the women there’s a lot more ball and stick control required,” Gulledge said.
His daughter Sarah Gulledge, 18, a senior at Socastee who plays attack, said she took up the sport because her older sister played, but stuck with it because of the skill and strategy required.
“I like the way you have to work together as a team,” she said. “You can’t play the game if you don’t work together. You’re zigzagging all around the field, and It takes experience to be able to tell what the other players are going to do.”
The three captains of CCU’s women’s squad also agree they were drawn to lacrosse by a combination of the sport’s speed and the distinctive kind of player communication that’s required in order to win.
“I just love the intensity of the game,” said Stephanie Torosian, 22, a senior goalie from Hopkinton, Mass. who started playing as a high school sophomore. “You have to learn how to communicate with each other at every level.”
Communication, stamina, steady nerves and the sheer ability to get that little yellow ball into the goal will all be required of the Chanticleer women come Friday, when they usher their beloved sport into a whole new era - both for their university and, in its own way, for the women’s game in South Carolina.
For now, both in playing skill and determination, the team seems ready.
“It’s an incredibly special opportunity because everything we do will be a first for lacrosse at Coastal,” said captain Lily Yednock, 20, of Columbus, Ohio. “The first time we take the field, first time someone scores a goal. We’re marking our own path.”