In the infancy of George Washington’s lacrosse program, coaches and players felt like they had to “hide” behind John Adams Middle School and hone their skills in a sport unfamiliar to most in the Mountain State. When they graduated to the football field at the high school, they used straw and cat litter to fill and cover holes on the playing surface.
The roster was long on inexperience and short on skill.
“It was tough to start a program,” said Steve Odekirk, GW’s first head coach, “We got thumped ... a lot.”
The Patriots — and the sport of lacrosse in the Kanawha Valley — have come a long way.
The GW program, which began in 2008, is thriving. George Washington hosts University on Saturday (2:30 p.m., Trace Fork) in the Division I state lacrosse playoff semifinals. The Patriots are two steps away from a state championship.
This year’s team is a burgeoning collection of talent not at all like the 29-person roster of 2008 that included only five players — all freshmen — with playing experience. This year’s Patriots have 48 players. There are only five seniors, three of whom play a significant role.
“We’re very young and we have a lot of talent,” said Brad White, the program’s head coach, “and we have a freshman goalie who is off the charts.”
But it wasn’t easy to get to this point.
George Washington had to overcome the initial lack of interest and support for the sport. When White came to Charleston in 1996, he called it a “lacrosse graveyard.”
“It was just silence,” he said. “I was crestfallen.”
White played lacrosse at Vanderbilt, where he was team captain and an all-conference selection, and continued in club leagues while working for eight years in Washington, D.C. He’d fallen in love with the sport, but it had yet to weave its way around the mountains and into his home state.
Then, it started to change. The five freshmen at the middle-school league at the Charleston YMCA were ready to move to high school, but there was no program awaiting them. The groundwork for the program was laid, and those players started to recruit friends to try lacrosse.
“We were sold because we were told it was like football with sticks,” said Gary Schwarz, one of the members of the inaugural team. “When we got into it, it was nothing like that. The newness sold us. It’s an awesome sport and it grew on us.”
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The George Washington lacrosse program spent its first eight years on a march toward respectability. They went from lopsided losses to contending with some of the state’s best programs, like Wheeling Central, Morgantown and University.
In fact, GW ousted Morgantown from the opening round of this year’s Division I playoffs last weekend. The score: 20-1.
This season, the team is on a different kind of march. Just check their helmets for a clue.
There is a white sticker on the side of the gray protective headgear. The words “The Shuman March” are in burgundy text.
The sticker is to honor and remember Wilson Shuman, the team’s defensive coordinator since 2010. Shuman died April 1 after a battle with cancer.
White struggles to talk about Shuman’s death. After Shuman’s passing, White leaned on a fellow coach, Wheeling Central’s Kevin Maloney, to cope and help his team deal with the grief.
Maloney was able to witness the depth of Shuman’s impact on George Washington’s culture.
“Wheeling Central was involved with their team when they were having a tough time,” Maloney said. “There’s a tremendous amount of heart and class with that program. They understand the sport. They work to hone their craft. They have guys who understand the sport can be a catapult to a college career that involves athletics and academics.
“They value the sport and they care, so there’s so much mutual respect.”
Shuman’s fingerprints are all over the fledgling Patriots program.
Especially on defense.
The defensive performance against Morgantown in the first round of the playoffs? The credit, his fellow coaches say, belongs to Shuman.
“He was a very important piece of the puzzle of lacrosse growing here,” Odekirk said. “He was our defensive coordinator and we were very good defensively.”
Sam Sutton, who runs the YMCA program, said that is Shuman’s legacy.
“He was part of the consistency of our program,” Sutton said. “The consistency we had on defense, that’s part of Wilson’s legacy.
“He was our rock.”
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There are now 31 boys and girls lacrosse programs across two divisions in West Virginia. There are 130 elementary- and middle-school lacrosse players at the Charleston YMCA, which draws in kids from Kanawha County and beyond.
Participation and interest is at an all-time high.
“It’s becoming more than an infiltration,” White said.
Levi Pellegrin, who moved to West Virginia from Arizona last year, played lacrosse at the University of Arizona. When he moved to the Mountain State, he looked for his place in the lacrosse community here, and he sees parallels.
“I grew up in Arizona and the rise of lacrosse there mirrors here,” said Pellegrin, who helps with the program at GW. “It’s exploded just in the short time I’ve been here.”
There are several theories about why lacrosse is catching on, but the short-attention-span society is frequently mentioned by those who coach and play the sport.
“I like baseball, but there’s a lot of standing around in baseball,” Sutton said. “There’s so many touches and so much scoring in lacrosse ... and you can hit people. It’s the speed and the contact and the high scoring.
“There’s a lot more kids these days who require a lot more action. You can’t hide on a lacrosse field.”
That’s what drew Pellegrin to the sport, who first saw it played on television and persuaded his father to let him play.
“Lacrosse is a lot different than football,” Pellegrin said. “It’s kind of like basketball in the way it’s played in there’s a lot of style to it. I think kids like the aspect that you don’t have to be a big, giant football player in order to be successful.
“Not all of the guys out there who are the best players are big, fast guys. Sometimes they are the guys who are the best with their sticks. Sometimes they have the best knowledge of the game. Sometimes they are just quick.
“It attracts a lot of different skill sets.”
Maloney has been with Wheeling Central since the program’s inception, and his team is the top seed in the Division I playoffs. He coached at Wheeling Jesuit for two seasons before helping start the program at Wheeling Central.
He has witnessed the sport flourish here as it has in surrounding states long ago.
“In this area it’s all about the big three: football, basketball and baseball,” Maloney said. “Soccer has started to jump in there and hockey is a little more prevalent, but lacrosse is kind of looked at as an outsider.”
It has taken time, he said, for people to make a judgment about lacrosse and for it to attract the best athletes. Do schools want a star football player, for example, risking injury by playing a sport some people know little about?
White can attest that George Washington is starting to lure multi-sport athletes to lacrosse, so the number of soccer players and football players joining the team are on the rise.
Once an athlete plays lacrosse, they said, it is hard to resist. White called it “infectious,” and he believes the numbers will continue to rise.
“I’d say it’s a sexy sport,” Maloney said. “It’s got the movement of football, it’s got the endurance of soccer, it’s got the hitting of hockey, it’s got the scoring of basketball. Everybody loves scoring.
“When you take a sport like lacrosse that involves all of that, it’s really fun and people gravitate toward it.”