Remember the soccer boom of the mid-'80s? There's another boom on the way: lacrosse. Or maybe it's already here.
In 1992, seven public and private schools in North Carolina fielded varsity boys' lacrosse teams, according to the North Carolina High School Lacrosse Association. Today there are 47 high school boys' squads and 44 girls' teams taking the field.
"It's the fastest-growing sport in the nation for boys and girls right now," says Taylor Poitras, the girls' coach at Durham Academy and a former board member of the North Carolina High School Women's Lacrosse Association.
Several building blocks are needed to make the boom official, coaches and state officials say: a proliferation of youth leagues for children 15 and under; training programs; and sanctioning of a state championship by NCHSAA, which supervises 16 sports and the accompanying championship competitions for 368 member schools.
Lacrosse is played predominantly by the large high schools (Division 4-A) in Wilmington, the Triangle, Greensboro and Charlotte. Durham is part of the trend. Durham Academy had the first high school boys' lacrosse program in Durham County, followed by Jordan in 1991. Riverside and Northern bring the county's total to four boys' teams.
There are girls' teams at Durham Academy and Riverside. Carrington, Brogden, Githens and Durham Academy middle schools field boys' teams. Durham School of the Arts started a boys' high school team this month, and a petition is under way at Jordan for a girls' team.
Lacrosse attracts athletes and spectators for the same reasons: speed, the finesse required to whip a hard, rubber ball around a field, lots of scoring and contact.
"About half the kids come out for the first time in the ninth grade," said Jim Kirkley, an associate professor of religion and ethics at Shaw University who heads the Lacrosse Association and has coached the Riverside boys' team since 1993.
Chris Ray, a senior midfielder at Jordan playing in his first season, was quick to note the sport's main draw. "Contact. Most teenage boys are looking for contact."
After playing soccer the last two years for Jordan, Ray decided to give lacrosse a whirl before graduating this spring and joining the Marines.
"Compared to soccer, it's more fast-paced," he said.
Ray's father Rusty was in the stands two Friday nights ago watching his son for the first time as Jordan dismantled Athens Drive, a team from Raleigh, 12-1.
"We didn't have this sport in my generation," said Rusty, 46, a former high school football player. He termed the game's speed and contact "the perfect hybrid."
While the sport's popularity is skyrocketing nationally, some fear that the growth in Durham County may be slowing.
"More and more teams are playing lacrosse than before, but it is leveling off in our area," said Su Stone, who coached Riverside's girls' lacrosse for four years before stepping aside this year. "There are no community groups or organizations doing anything with lacrosse."
Kirkley expressed the same concern and said a solution is FUSION Lacrosse, which last year brought four Triangle-area lacrosse organizations under one umbrella. FUSION offers development and competition for boys and girls 8 to 15 and elite travel teams for players 16 to 18.
"They're the ones to help us grow," Kirkley said.
"In the last three years, we've grown exponentially," Poitras said. "It's been really amazing. It's difficult to keep up with the infrastructure."
At the Jordan-Athens Drive boys game, Jordan High sophomore Stephanie Kershaw was working the crowd, circulating a petition calling for a girls' lacrosse team.
Kershaw, a former resident of Westminster, Md., where she played midfield and attack, said she needed 35 to 40 signatures (she had more than 20) from prospective female players and would submit the petition to the school administration next week.
Jordan athletics director David Davis offered little encouragement. He said Jordan has a good balance of boys' and girls' sports under Title IX, which requires equal athletic offerings for both sexes.
"We can't be everything to everybody," he said.