There was a time not so long that students who wanted to play high school lacrosse in Horry County were required to suit up for the Socastee Braves. Just over a decade later, four more Horry County Schools have added lacrosse programs (both boys and girls, varsity and JV) and the number of students playing the sport has multiplied more than tenfold.
The growing trend was on full display Saturday, when Socastee High was once again "the place" to be for high school lacrosse in the area, albeit for a different reason this time. The Fifth Annual Laxapalooza featured six local lacrosse teams (Carolina Forest, Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach, Socastee, St. James and Georgetown County counterpart Waccamaw) taking part in a preseason scrimmage, and showed just how far the sport has come in the area.
Leaning against a chain-link fence and looking out over two lacrosse fields surrounded by players, parents and fans, longtime Socastee coach Matthew Fox recalled how he and a handful of coaches, players and parents first got the ball rolling in 2006. The small numbers forced students from all over the county to play for Socastee's coed team.
"We had kids from Carolina Forest, Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach, and they had to drive to and from Socastee every day for practice," Fox said. "A lot of us from those early days have helped grow the game in the area by coaching and running summer programs. We knew if we could introduce kids to the sport they would fall in love with it."
Mission accomplished. Only 12 seasons after the county could barely field one coed team, approximately 400 HCS students now play lacrosse at the varsity and JV level. Carolina Forest established boys and girls programs shortly after Socastee, and Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach and St. James followed suit in recent years.
So what is it about the stick-and-ball sport, which was founded by Native Americans, that attracts students over other popular spring sports, like baseball, softball, soccer and track? At least in part it's because lacrosse offers elements of all those sports and others - the fast-paced action of basketball, the physicality of football, and the hand-eye coordination of hockey - for an all-around athletic experience.
"There's a lot of scoring so it's fun to watch and even more fun to play," Fox said. "It has speed and the back-and-forth like basketball. There's a decent amount of contact like that of football. And because of the different types of positions, we can accommodate many different types of athletes: Tall or short, stocky or skinny, distance-runners or sprinters. There are so many opportunities.”
That was the part of the appeal for Socastee junior Griffin Byers, a diminutive midfielder for the Braves. He tried football in middle school but simply didn't have the size needed to excel. After his initial reluctance to put down the pigskin and pick up the stick, Byers attended his older brother's lacrosse game was instantly hooked.
"I was watching my brother's game and he absolutely leveled this guy. I was like 'Is that legal?’ I didn't know it was that physical," Byers recalled. "I thought, 'Maybe this game is for me.' I went to a lacrosse camp and I loved it. It's a lot of fun and you don't have to be tall or big to be good at it."
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise for the sport locally has been the exploding popularity among girls. Unlike the more established girls sports programs of basketball, volleyball, softball and soccer, which have strong AAU and club-level youth teams, lacrosse has become an outlet for students who haven’t specialized in one sport. Now many are choosing lacrosse over those activities.
"Lacrosse has given a lot kids opportunities to compete in a team sport for their school," said St. James coach Michael Lesando, whose Lady Sharks went undefeated to the Lower State final last season. "So many kids are playing club sports and focusing on one soccer or softball, they take all the spots. That leaves a lot of good athletes looking for a way they can be a part of a team. ... I've never cut a kid from lacrosse."
That could change as lacrosse’s popularity continues to grow. Youth club and summer programs, like the Dune Warriors and Myrtle Beach Wave, have introduced younger players to the game and given them offseason opportunities to play. Organizers are working with Horry County to provide a youth league that would serve as a feeder program for the schools.
“My personal goal is for the Grand Strand to be known for lacrosse in South Carolina,” Lesando said. “Right now we’re kind of the redheaded step child in the state behind Charleston, Columbia and the Upstate, but we’re gaining on them fast.”