Although baseball has long been considered this land’s favorite pastime, it isn’t necessarily the oldest. One of the first known sports in North America is lacrosse, which has Native American roots and is enjoying a rebirth in northwest Georgia thanks to the Dalton Parks and Recreation Department and Rebel Lacrosse.
Rebel coach Mike Sanderson, who formed the youth lacrosse program in 2012, grew up in Long Island, N.Y., and played the sport all through middle school and high school, but he eventually tired of it and put away his stick. It wasn’t until a weekend visit to his mom’s house just a few years ago that he found his lacrosse equipment stored away and got the urge to bring the sport back to the town he now called home — Dalton.
There are very few options for lacrosse in northwest Georgia, Sanderson said, despite the fact that there is evidence of the sport being played in the area as early as the 18th century. But thanks largely to Sanderson’s efforts and the parents involved, the sport is growing rapidly in Dalton and doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon.
Getting people in the community interested in lacrosse, however, was a bit of a challenge initially.
“People were very skeptical,” Sanderson said. “You would think I was trying to sell snake oil. The hardest part was just getting people to take a chance and try it out.”
He started with a summer clinic. Sanderson and Steve Card, director of the DPRD, both said the few kids who participated loved it and wanted more. That growing interest eventually led to the true start of Rebel Lacrosse with a middle school team.
The first year the program consisted of 31 “original rebels,” as Sanderson refers to them, who competed against teams from the Chattanooga area. In 2013, around 50 players participated, including the addition of an elementary school team. This year, there are three elementary school teams of second- through fifth-graders — who play against one another at the DPRD — and two middle school teams for a total of around 75 players.
Everyone involved, including some of Sanderson’s players, have been surprised by the growth.
“I am very surprised,” said Christian Owen, an original Rebel who is now in the eighth grade. “I never knew anything about lacrosse until I started playing here. But I’ve loved it. It’s a great mixture of elements from different sports.”
For some, the reason lacrosse is an attractive alternative to other traditional spring sports is the physical contact involved in the game, something that is lacking in baseball, tennis and golf. Many Rebel Lacrosse participants, like first-year middle school player Coda Voyles, play football in the fall and were excited to find something with some of its features in the spring.
“I was tired of baseball, and I am more into contact sports,” Voyles said. “I like lacrosse as much as football so far, because there is the contact, but I am learning new skills that are only used in this sport also.”
Having enough interest and participation to be able to have multiple teams at the elementary school level was important because that allows the DPRD to have its own league, Sanderson said. While the middle school team travels to play against teams from other areas, the younger players have matches every Thursday in Dalton, competing for the Bandits, Outlaws or Warriors.
Sanderson has enlisted several parents and volunteer coaches to help with the elementary teams, including David Snyder, whose son Drew is in the second grade and playing his first season of lacrosse. Snyder said Drew has enjoyed the faster pace of lacrosse compared to baseball.
“Lacrosse has a lot more action and a lot more running around,” Snyder said. “We are learning. I had seen lacrosse a lot growing up but never played. So Mike is teaching the kids and the coaches and doing a great job.”
The growth of the Rebel Lacrosse program has been significant enough that a local school has taken notice. Next spring, Dalton High School will field a junior varsity lacrosse team for the first time.
That team will likely consist mainly of Sanderson’s “original rebels.” Sanderson said he cannot coach that team because he isn’t a teacher, but that he knows the high school will bring in someone qualified to start the program.
Card believes that having a team at that level will help to continue to build the DPRD’s program, and he’s also just pleased that the kids who have participated at a younger age will have the opportunity to continue playing.
“Whenever we introduce a sport, it’s always a goal that the kids build a passion for it and want to continue playing it,” Card said. “We wanted to teach them the game and teach them to love it. Now they will have more opportunity to keep doing it at another level.”
With players playing at a younger age having more time to learn fundamentals and develop skills — and now the addition of a high school program — Sanderson said it’s just a matter of time before a Rebel Lacrosse player takes hold of the sport so well that he gets to play in college.
“That’s the next thing I am looking towards, is which one of these elementary school kids could be the first play at college,” Sanderson said. “High school athletes are more likely to get a lacrosse scholarship than any other sport right now.”
There could still be a long way to go before a Rebel alum becomes a college lacrosse player, but one aspect of expansion Sanderson is focused on is the girls game. The NCAA started women’s lacrosse in 1982, but there has been a dramatic growth in the sport over recent years, particularly in the South.
Sanderson said that while he doesn’t have the expertise to lead it, having a girls lacrosse program in Dalton is the next big step.
“I don’t know the rules for the girls game,” Sanderson said. “There isn’t any contact, and they play differently. But if I did know how it was played, then I would love to start a girls program. That has to be what we do next.”