RAMblings 4.30.09 - The Surge Of Lacrosse

by Lee Pace


The numbers kept mounting as the 21st century evolved—five losses to Virginia, six to Maryland and nine to arch-rival Duke even as the Blue Devils’ program was distracted and immersed in a national scandal. Carolina’s once-vaunted lacrosse program could simply not win a game against an ACC foe.

            Finally, the Tar Heels popped Maryland 16-10 one week ago in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament. A five-year non-winning streak in the ACC and a 13-year ACC Tournament victory drought finally ended. The Tar Heels fell to Duke 15-13 two days later in the championship game, but first-year coach Joe Breschi (UNC ’90) and his team had nonetheless crossed a significant threshold.

            “I don’t think much about those streaks,” says Breschi, who returned to Chapel Hill after 11 years as head coach at Ohio State. “I wasn’t here during that period and, as a coach, you are just focused on getting better each week. But outside the program, it was huge. When we finally won an ACC game, the outpouring of support has been unbelievable.”

            Carolina has three gold standard athletic programs—basketball with its four national titles in three decades under Dean Smith and Roy Williams; women’s soccer with 20 national titles and 19 ACC Tournament championships in Anson Dorrance’s three decades; and field hockey with five NCAA and 16 ACC championships in the 27-year tenure of coach Karen Shelton.

            Lacrosse was once on that pedestal. The program built by Willie Scroggs and maintained by Dave Klarmann won four national titles and made 12 Final Four appearances over a 14-year period from 1980-94. Since then, however, the Tar Heels have been essentially a .500 program.

Carolina has kind of been a sleeping giant the last decade,” says Gary Burns, a member of two NCAA title teams in the early 1990s. “The next few years are going to be fun. We will be back. I haven’t been this excited about the program in a long, long time. The Carolina brand is still very strong in the sport of lacrosse. Joe is the perfect guy to resurrect the tradition here.”

            And he’ll be doing so as lacrosse is enjoying a newfound level of national popularity.       

The sport’s roots trace back to Native Northern Americans, who often played the game as a means to train for warfare and viewed the endeavor as a gift of “The Creator.” Herculean effort was put forth in order to please their god, and the warriors sometimes played for multi-day stretches with hundreds of players and no boundaries. The contests were also used to settle disputes between tribes and to help assure a good harvest. When lacrosse was added as an Olympic sport in 1904, its popularity spread though it was mostly confined to the Northeast region—especially Baltimore, upstate New York, Long Island and New England. It was tagged in 1921 as “the fastest game on two feet” by Wilson Wingate in the The Baltimore Sun. 

            Today the sport is in fashion not only in the Northeast but across the country. The number of high schools in the United States fielding lacrosse teams doubled from 2000 to 2007 (1,273 to 2,612), and it was sanctioned as a championship sport by the NCHSAA in December 2008 beginning with the 2009-10 academic year. Currently there are about 45 schools in the state that field teams, most of them in the larger cities. Breschi will recruit this year in Florida, California, Seattle, Colorado and Minnesota as well as the Eastern Seaboard.

“The pace of play is appealing—it’s faster than football but it’s physical like football at times,” Breschi says. “It has the finesse and the hand-eye coordination qualities of golf and tennis. Unlike soccer, it’s a high-scoring game. It’s a fun sport and bodies are flying everywhere.”

Lacrosse is played in the spring and has a completely different personality than baseball, but the sport appeals to football players because of the speed, collisions and aggressive mindset it requires. Breschi notes that during his decade-plus at Ohio State, the largest high school in the state grew the popularity of its lacrosse program by selling it to football players as a great way to stay in shape in the off-season.

“Upper Arlington High had 120 players come out for varsity football in the early nineties and 60 for lacrosse,” Breschi says. “By the time I left, that number completely flipped—60 for football and 120 for lacrosse.”

Breschi’s challenge now is to make up for the time lost as the sport was exploding in popularity while the Tar Heel program was slumbering. Soon he hopes to have Carolina back among the upper echelon of the sport with Johns Hopkins, Syracuse and Virginia.

            “I am thrilled and honored to be at the helm and have the opportunity to bring the program back to where it should be—competing for ACC and national championships each year,” Breschi says. “If there was one place I would leave Ohio State for, it had to be a place that I had a passion about, a place where I had an extraordinary experience as a student-athlete.”

            In his first team meeting last June after being hired to replace John Haus, Breschi talked to his players about the family atmosphere created and nurtured by Scroggs in the 1980s. That was one of the drawing cards that lured Breschi from his Baltimore home to Chapel Hill.

            “It’s not going to be about the jersey number,” he said. “It’s going to be about the guy next to you.”

            Since then, Breschi frequently tells his players that UNC receives more than 23,000 applications a year for admission to the University. Just over 3,000 are accepted.

            “You tell me it’s not a privilege to be here and be a part of this program and this university. Don’t take it for granted,” he says. “This is a lot more than just lacrosse. It’s about family, academics, community. It is a privilege to be here.”

            Breschi is a relentless and tireless recruiter and is working to reestablish the Tar Heel brand in the world of lacrosse. He took his team to Wilmington for a scrimmage last fall to promote the sport in the Port City and will do the same next fall in Charlotte. And he has reached out to former Tar Heels who played during the juggernaut era two decades ago to coalesce the program’s alumni support base.

            “When I played at Carolina, I remember feeling like I was part of a band of warriors, both on and off the field,” says Ryan Wade, an All-America and ACC Player of the Year in 1993 and ’94. “My teammates were my best friends. Bresch is going to bring back that sense of family. I visited Chapel Hill this fall and the sense of tradition and family is already coming back. UNC is a special place, and Tar Heel lacrosse will soon return to glory with Bresch leading the way.”

            The Tar Heels are taking a break from practice this week for exams and then will watch the NCAA selection show Sunday night to find out where and when they will play in the 16-team NCAA Tournament. Breschi hopes the eighth-ranked Tar Heels will be tabbed to host a first-round game on Fetzer Field.

            “It has been a fun year,” Breschi says. “I have seen over the course of the year the gradual selling out of each other, putting everything they have on the line to be successful for one another. We have turned the direction of how committed each of our players is to becoming a champion. That’s a huge first step.”