ALPHARETTA, Ga. — In 2001, Peter Merritt would take his boys to Newtown Park in Johns Creek to toss around a lacrosse ball, and saw others doing the same.
Merritt founded and played for the Southern Methodist University lacrosse program, and after moving his family to Alpharetta, helped organize and coach for the newly formed Newtown Park youth lacrosse program.
“I coached the same set of boys from beginners through high school,” he said.
Today, recreational lacrosse registration numbers often exceed those of other spring sports like baseball.
Chris Miller, South Forsyth Youth Lacrosse Association president, said this year’s spring registration numbers are about 11 percent higher than last year.
“We started the program in 2008 and saw a steady increase of about 20 percent in registration each year,” Miller said. “This year, there are over 100 kids in the eighth-grade select program alone.”
Todd Hanley, North Forsyth Youth Lacrosse president, has also seen a big jump in registrations.
“Our program started in 2010, with just 12 kids,” Hanley said, “and this year we have over 115.”
Hanley attributes the growth to free introductory clinics, where players can try the game before committing.
Hanley said the lacrosse programs work with the schools to build strong players who will eventually play at the varsity level, and hopefully progress to college.
The increase in lacrosse programs here has colleges paying attention.
Division I and Division II colleges offer about 2,490 athletic scholarships for both male and female players, with another 850 from two-year colleges.
“Since we opened in 2010, we’ve had eight Division I scholarships for lacrosse,” said Rich Wehman, community coach at Lambert High School. “This year, we have two who have already committed to Division I schools and three younger players who are already being heavily recruited.”
Merritt thinks the trend will continue.
“As lacrosse continues to prosper here, the success of the sport will be measured by the number of Division I scholarships awarded yearly,” Merritt said.
All the practice and passion for the game is paying off for area students. The Milton High School girls’ and boys’ teams were each 2012 state championship winners in their division.
Tom Higgins, the head coach for men’s varsity lacrosse at Oglethorpe University, said young players in Georgia are getting more exposure.
“There are 10 new universities and colleges offering lacrosse across the Southeast,” Higgins said. “Most of those roster spots are going to players within the Southeast, especially Georgia.”
What makes lacrosse so appealing?
“I like that it’s fast,” said Jordan White, 13, a senior select player of South Forsyth. “It’s not stop-and-go like football.”
Brendan Connolly, 10, and Liam Connolly, 13, agree.
“It’s fast and you don’t have to stop if you hit someone,” Brendan said.
Like football, local parks and recreation departments have relationships with nonprofit organizations like the South Forsyth Youth Lacrosse Association, and these programs act as feeder teams for high schools.
“I’m hoping to get a lacrosse scholarship,” White said, “and am working toward making that happen.”