The State of Lacrosse: Alabama

The State of Lacrosse features a state-by-state look at lacrosse growth in the US. In each post we'll interview individuals involved in growing lacrosse in their home state.  Today we focus on Alabama and speak with Chris Cos and Dave Link.  Coach Cos is the Head Coach of Hoover High School and also the author of the blog BamaLax.  Dave is the President of the Alabama Chapter of US Lacrosse.

Tell us a little bit about growth in Alabama?

CC: The growth has been a little overwhelming, it is tough to find all the coaches needed to properly instruct our eager players. The Birmingham area has the most players (close to 1500) but Northern Alabama, (Huntsville) has been growing just as rapidly and now we have programs in South Alabama (Mobile) and Auburn It really has been amazing to be part of bringing lacrosse to the lives of so many kids and families.

DL: Lacrosse is still the fastest growing sport in Alabama – by a long shot. I think this will continue for decades, provided we can develop relationships with community and school leaders. Ten years ago, we had 1 high school team, 1 post-collegiate team, and Auburn and Alabama had struggling club teams. We had a handful of transplants who carried the sport on their shoulders – coaching, officiating, driving all over the state, begging community leaders to use an empty lot. And next month we’ll be inducting the first group of these pioneers into our Hall of Fame.

What region of the state has growth been the strongest?

CC: Birmingham has the most players and has won all of the 6 state championships at the high school level. Due to field and coaching constraints last year Birmingham didn't grow as much as previous years but we are seeing programs popping up all over which has been very exciting.

For years Birmingham and Huntsville were the only pockets of lacrosse in the state, and with a 2-hour drive between the two cities, youth lacrosse was a big commitment for players, coaches and parents. But Birmingham now has a league that stands on its own – with several teams in age divisions from U9 to High School. And Huntsville will be able to stand alone in the next couple years. And, although it is nice for families not to have to drive every weekend, the two leagues will always play each other. There are some very healthy cross-state rivalries. Two years ago, youth lacrosse started in the Southern Alabama area with the Lower Alabama Lacrosse league, and this past Spring we launched the Auburn Youth Lacrosse League with 130 kids. Trussville, Tuscaloosa, and Mobile are areas of concentration for us in the coming year.

What age level is Alabama seeing most of it's growth? Youth? High school?

We are seeing the greatest growth at the younger age groups, especially U13 and U15. On the boy's side U9 and U11 are growing each year but we still struggle to get girls at those younger age groups but it's probably just a matter of time until the girls catch up.

DL: The greatest growth is definitely in the youth divisions. When my son started playing in 2004, he played on the only U11 team in the state. We had to drive 3 hours to Atlanta to find an opponent. When another U11 team started the next year, the two teams played each other every Thursday night for 2 months. I think every one of his teammates from that team is still playing – I see them constantly with their stick still in hand.

Hoover High School has dominated for many years until this past year. Is this a sign of parity? Is Alabama High School lacrosse mostly dominated by prep or public schools?

Alabama is dominated by the large public schools, Hoover won 3 state championships in a row but last year gave up the title to their cross town rival, Spain Park. Up until last year, Hoover had never lost to an in state team other than Mountain Brook who won the first 2 Alabama state championships. Mountain Brook had only lost to Hoover during the previous 5 years. Last year Hoover lost to both Spain Park and Vestavia HS as did Mountain Brook so I'd definitely say there is finally some league parity.

DL: Because we are still playing club lacrosse for our high schools, we really don’t draw a distinction between public and private schools. Hoover had a great run in boys HS lacrosse in Alabama – but it followed a great streak by Mountain Brook High School. This year Spain Park rolled through the regular and post season. On the girls side, Mountain Brook won the state Championship for several years before Vestavia Hills went on a three-year run, led by a strong group of rising Juniors that has played together for 4 years. But they barely slipped past a well-coached Oak Mountain team in the championship. I think we have seen, and will continue to see, increased competitiveness amongst our high school teams. And when the AHSAA sanctions lacrosse, I would expect you would see an enormous leap in participation and competition. The AHSAA will "sponsor" a championship when 10 percent of the high schools in the state have a lacrosse team. My guess is that we are 5-10 years from that point. These schools have not introduced a new varsity sport in 40 years, but they’ve seen enrollment double over the same period. Athletic Directors and Principals want to give their students another varsity sport option. Again, however, the only thing holding them back right now is coaches and field space. 

Alabama's MCLA team for many years was the joke of the SELC Division II. From 2005-2009 the program won 4 games, including a three year winless streak. However, over the last two years the program has won 13 games while at the same time moving to the extremely competitive SELC Division I. Do you feel the program's success is a direct result of homegrown growth in the state?

I can definitely say it helped but really those schools have always had a tremendous amount of talent, it has been a matter of getting the kids to come out and play. The past couple years Alabama has been well organized and kids see them winning so now they have to actually turn players away. Five years ago Auburn had zero Alabama kids playing for them and Alabama maybe had 1-2, this past year at the Alabama/Auburn game hosted at Hoover high school there were 14 former players from my Bamalax travel program playing, needless to say, I was very proud. Look for Alabama and Auburn to keep improving, the talent coming in this year is incredible, should be a fun season in the SELC for both teams

Absolutely, and the same thing is happening at Auburn University.  I think the secret to this success is a steady pipeline of very experienced Alabama kids playing college club lacrosse and committed coaching.  Coach Darby has done a great job resurrecting that program in Tuscaloosa.  But …. WAR EAGLE!

Do you see potential for new MCLA teams in Alabama? What schools do you feel may begin supporting an MCLA team in the future?

I don't know about teams at the MCLA level, we'd love to see something at the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) and Samford University does have a club team but you just never know. UAB lacks fields and most of the other schools lack organization but it just takes someone with the desire to make a difference and a program can be born

You’re already seeing it happen at schools like Samford and UAB starting club programs, and I think you will probably see teams pop up at Troy, South Alabama, Jacksonville State and other schools as more Alabama kids want to keep their lax alive after having played in high school.

How important to lacrosse in Alabama is it to have schools like Huntingdon and Birmingham Southern making the move to varsity NCAA status? 

CC: Birmingham Southern has been huge for the area, Coach Andy Bonasera does a terrific job and is going to have another great season this year. Coach Bonasera has had a hard time recruiting local talent because he is too close and kids want to go a little further away from home but it is starting to become very appealing due to the program success. This year BSC picks up one of the best players ever from Alabama who is transferring from Hampden-Sydney so that has opened the eyes of a lot of the current high schoolers and will definitley help Coach Bonasera in the future. Huntington will be interesting since it is a little further away and a school that most kids from Northern Alabama don't know too much about. Coach Carey has been hitting the recruiting trail hard this past summer, every time I see his Facebook status change he's at a different camp or tournament, he seems like a hard worker and it will pay off for him in the future.

DL: BSC and Huntingdon have hired really quality people to launch their NCAA programs – that is the key, I believe. Coach Bonasera and Coach West were very visible in the stands during the spring season.

Do you see more growth in the future at the NCAA level? Particularly Division III? 

CC: We'd really like to get a DII school like Montavallo University or University of North Alabama to add lacrosse, I think we have opportunities to add DIII programs but you just never know. Adding lacrosse at Birmingham Southern definitely increased enrollment and a lot of players are paying full out of state tuition so I really can't see why other schools wouldn't want to jump on the opportunity

DL: Everyone in Alabama wants to know when the SEC is going to get serious about lacrosse. The interesting thing is that Mike Slive – the powerful and very well-respected commissioner of the Southeastern Conference – played high school lacrosse in Utica, New York, and was a 3-year letterman at Dartmouth. He has a lacrosse pedigree. He lives here in Birmingham, and he’s a smart dude, so I’m sure he is well aware of the growth of lacrosse in the South.

Is it challenging for the sport to get a foothold in a state so known for its obsession with football?

CC: Honestly football is the worst part about being a lacrosse coach in Alabama. Every kid in Alabama wants to play high school football on Friday nights in front of thousands of fans and football is a year round commitment. Lacrosse players don't get any break during the spring. Schools like Hoover that are Nationally ranked have ridiculous work out schedules. Players get up to the school all year by 6AM, they have 7th period work outs, then then when spring ball starts they have practice after school and limp to lacrosse practice from 6PM-8PM. There are more and more non-football players playing lacrosse but the football players are still the dominant lacrosse players due to their atheltism, stength and speed. Nothing is more frustrating though than seeing a kid who's size will prevent him from ever being a star football player but his dream to play football prevents him from doing travel ball his freshman and sophomore season which kills his chances to play college lacrosse.

DL: I remember opening the local sports page to read about the NCAA Basketball Final Four a few months ago to find that I had to flip to page 7. The first 6 pages were covered with spring football!! In March!! We love our football down here, but kids, parents and even football coaches are discovering how well the two sports complement each other. We’ll all be watching our very own Brye French play football on TV this fall in Annapolis after watching him play lacrosse for the Naval Academy this Spring. Football and lacrosse “goes together like peas and carrots”, to quote Forrest Gump.

What challenges does lacrosse growth face in Alabama?

CC: Coaching and fields. We are training more coaches but kids want to be taught by someone who has played the game, they want to see a coach with good stick skills especially as they get older and we are limited on the number of former players that can commit the kind of time coaching requires. The bigger challenge we face right now though is that we don't have enough places to field our current teams. We were fortunate to have one community, Vestavia, open an awesome turf complex but almost every other program lacks the ability to practice more than 3-4 days a week because they share fields with youth and girls teams

DL: Field Space, Field Space, Field Space and coaches. Every time we have someone step forward and offer to coach, the players come. Far too many of our dads are coaching 2 or 3 teams – US Lacrosse has been a huge part of our growth through the Coaches Education Program. Furthermore, most of our high school teams are only practicing twice per week because of the lack of field space. Until our teams can get the field time they need, we will still be a couple steps behind areas that have longer lacrosse traditions

Anything else you'd like to share about Alabama lacrosse?

CC: I think people are really surprised when they see our best players compete for our travel program Bamalax. We win tournaments all the time and opposing coaches are still shocked that there is real lacrosse here. Alabama still has a long way to go to be consistently competitive with hot bed areas but we have some great talent and it is an exciting time to be part of the sport in Alabama

DL: In the next 5-7 years, you will see an NCAA DI All-American from Alabama in both boys and girls lacrosse. Guaranteed. The great young athletes that Alabama has always been known for are beginning to try lacrosse in 5th and 6th grade. Just watch.

Thank you Chris and Dave! Next up...Alaska