The sport is by far the oldest in North America, dating back to the Iroquois tribes that established the game as a training exercise. Back then, it was known as “Baggataway” and was played on fields nearly twice the size of the average one spectators are used to seeing in today’s sport.
Lacrosse blends the physicality of hockey, the set plays of basketball and the speed of soccer. Players are tough all around, have exceptional hand-eye coordination, stamina to run fast for extended periods of time and are able to take huge hits in the open field.
The sport is becoming officially sanctioned by the TSSAA in the 2020-21 school year, adding another spring sport to the calendar.
“When we found out that lacrosse was going to be sanctioned, it was a feeling of excitement and relief,” said Kingsport Knights head coach Chris Belle. “It was more of a sense of relief because our kids kept aging out in the youth leagues and the players in our area were falling further and further behind. If you go two hours in either direction up I-81, you’re going to see lacrosse teams that have been there for 10 or more years.”
There are currently four club teams in the Tri-Cities and Greeneville that have both youth leagues and high school level programs. None are officially sanctioned by the TSSAA, but are all part of the Tennessee Scholastic Lacrosse Association (TSLA) — which is the current governing body. When sanctioned, the TSSAA will assume control of all operations at the TSLA, grandfathering in all existing teams.
The Kingsport Knights, Johnson City lacrosse and Bristol lacrosse all make up the local teams that are coming into existence in the near future. The Johnson City team has a club team that is listed as a varsity sport at Science Hill and can wear Hilltopper gear. This season is the second year in existence for the Science Hill team.
“This was a huge win for both parents and players when it became public that lacrosse was going to be sanctioned,” said David Crockett, president of Johnson City lacrosse. “I went to Virginia as an undergraduate and lacrosse was the most popular sport there. Surprisingly, with all the grants that we’ve gotten, it’s relatively inexpensive. The only thing we really have to worry about in the spring is field space. With all the other sports going on, field space is at a premium.”
Belle, whose family is all from Connecticut, grew up with a love for the game, but had nowhere to exercise his passion as he was raised in the Tri-Cities long before any interest in the sport came along.
“When my son was five or six, we found out that there was a lacrosse program in Bristol, so I signed him up and bought all the gear,” Belle said. “Unfortunately, he fell off the swings one day before practice was going to get started and broke his arm. He begged me not to take the gear back saying, ‘I promise I’ll use it.’ From there, I helped coach and then eventually helped out with the Kingsport team.”
This is also the second year for the Kingsport Knights’ high school program, but they do not have an affiliation with Dobyns-Bennett.
“We do not want to try to compete with D-B,” Belle said. “They have said that they will start a team and we want to serve as the feeder program to D-B. When the high school programs do start, with already established youth programs in the area, the sport is going to take off. It’s already the fastest growing sport in the United States and it is booming in the South.”
Both Belle and Crockett said that they have already seen interest from football players, some due in part to recent enlightenment of concussion issues or wanting to find a secondary spring sport. Both agree that football players bring a different type of physicality to the game and that quarterbacks make exceptional lacrosse players because of the instilled ability of both field recognition and making quick, on-the-fly decisions.
Belle said the area will also serve as an ideal hub for hosting tournaments, being that the Tri-Cities is essentially the halfway point between two established lacrosse hotbeds — Roanoke and Knoxville.
“Lacrosse players and parents have a certain love for the game, and 10 years ago no one in the area knew what lacrosse was,” Belle said. “Now we’re starting to draw interest and it continues to grow. Our registration was up over 80 percent from what it was last year to this year. For a lot of kids, they want it to be a secondary sport, but they end up falling in love with it and becomes their primary focus.”
The next game for the Science Hill club team is on Saturday in Asheville, North Carolina. The next home game is March 23 against Greeneville/Chuckey-Doak at Indian Trail Middle School at noon.
The Kingsport Knights return to action at noon Saturday at Robinson Middle School, playing Greeneville/Chuckey-Doak.