Maybe he didn’t have to bang pots and pans to get word out, but Joe Grega does recall the vast amount of leg work the past decade getting word out about high school lacrosse on the Grand Strand.
Literally starting a program from scratch, the St. James boys lacrosse coach served as both an educator and advertiser of the game, hoping that maybe someone would buy in.
“There have been a lot of growing pains,” Grega said. “Our girls had a few players who had played youth lacrosse. We started from the ground up. Our boys had one player with experience and he hadn’t played in a few years.
“... Coaches in this area have had to be advocates for the sport over the last decade.”
Eventually, those same players who bought in became the best advocates for the sport. While not necessarily swelling with interest as prep sport staples such as football, basketball, baseball and softball, lacrosse on the Grand Strand – and South Carolina, for that matter – is here to stay.
For the first time, 12 area lacrosse clubs – six boys, six girls – took the field this season on the Grand Strand. Of those, eight made the playoffs –four of which played host, also a first for area schools.
After first round play, three teams remain – the Carolina Forest and Waccamaw boys, and the undefeated St. James girls. Each of them will play second round contests Thursday night.
“Our first practice of the season, we had a couple goals,” said Carolina Forest boys lacrosse coach Will Lofton. “The first goal we had was to host a playoff game, the second goal to win it.
“As I told our captain who came up with it, ‘We’re living it. We reached our goal, but we’re not done yet. Let’s keep going.’”
Said Grega: “Every year we have contributors that have never played. ... The growth has been amazing. We always felt the sport could be big along the Grand Strand. I think it will continue to create a larger footprint as youth programs grow.”
Largely a game played in the northeast, the sport’s beginnings in South Carolina go back to the fall of 2001 and the founding of the state Lacrosse , with the first high school state champion crowned in May of 2002. Six teams took part in that initial tournament, two each from the Midlands, Grand Strand and Lowcountry.
From such humble beginnings, the sport has steadily spread to each corner of the state. This season, a total of 79 teams – 35 girls on the girls side and 40 for the boys.
The next step is to build up the youth and feeder programs. Up until now, we have been working from the top down. But the potential for growth is huge. Various high school and college teams have been travelling here for years. That was with only one or two local programs. As the word spreads, I can see Grand Strand lacrosse being more connected to the larger lacrosse world.
St. James boys lacrosse coach Joe Grega
According to Grega, having a supportive administration, boosters, faculty and parents are a big part of the success story.
“Getting equipment has been a major issue. Parents aren’t always sure they want to invest in a new sport until they know it’s not just a passing fad for their kid,” he said. “Figuring out where lacrosse fits into the school’s culture and finding the space with so many spring sports (has also been a difficulty). We have been lucky to have very supportive administration, boosters, faculty and parents.”
Much like they are on the field, the players serve as the chief catalyst off of it as well.
“We are fortunate to have kids in our program who remember when they first started,” Grego said. “They have done a good job of taking newer kids under their wing.”
A part of the Carolina Forest boys lacrosse program since he was in the eighth grade, Tuesday was arguably Joe Venazio’s finest hour. The senior standout scored seven goals to lead all scorers as the Panthers claimed their first playoff win.
“It was my last home game here, and I just wanted to finish off strong and go further in the playoffs,” he said. “It means so much. I’ve been playing here since eight grade. We haven’t had a playoff win yet, this just means so much to me. It’s all I’ve looked forward to.
“Wins like this can create so much for us. It shows us that we’re getting closer to the state, and play in Charleston.”
In the belief of Lofton, provide a template for future successes and, hopefully, more support.
“Even looking at the stands (Tuesday night), I see some people we haven’t seen before,” he said. “Just that word of mouth of, we have a team in our area doing great things. This year is the first year we had four our of our six (boys) area teams makes the playoffs. (Lacrosse) is growing in the area, more are building on to it and it’s a great thing to see.
“Being from the northeast, it’s a great thing to see lacrosse growing down here.”
Thursday’s second round lacrosse matchups
Carolina Forest at Wando, 6 p.m.
Waccamaw at Bishop England, 6 p.m.
Bluffton at St. James, 6 p.m.