By Eric Black
Ryan Flanagan didn’t last more than a quarter through a high school lacrosse game in the spring of 2012. The North Carolina graduate had just graduated and was interested in continuing to work with lacrosse, so he decided to check out the quality level of high school teams in the area. It was so difficult to watch that he left before the first buzzer.
Seven years later, the former NCAA division-I defenseman of the year is back watching high school games and nowadays, he can watch contests from start to finish.
“I went and watched Weddington High School play Mallard Creek,” Flanagan said, “and I’m watching a kid who’s going to Towson covering a kid who’s going to Duke...It’s a pretty good lacrosse game.”
Flanagan, a three-time All-American with the Tar Heels and current player with the Chrome of the Premier Lacrosse League, started Team 24/7 Lacrosse when he graduated from Chapel Hill. Nearly a decade since, Team 24/7 has partnered with Team Carolina at the high school level, now has 12 travel teams and puts sticks in the hands of hundreds of kids who otherwise never would’ve played lacrosse.
From the get-go, he’s encountered those cultural differences regarding the sport in the area compared to where he grew up, in West Islip, N.Y. On Long Island, lacrosse dominates the youth sports landscape and most kids, from fifth or sixth grade on, even walk down the street with a stick in their hands. In the Charlotte area, Flanagan explained, lacrosse takes a backseat to baseball, soccer, and football.
“It’s just not as ingrained in the culture,” Flanagan said. “You have a handful of guys that are playing lacrosse, but up and down your roster, your kids aren’t as committed to it.”
That lack of commitment has lead to a significantly smaller pool of athletes than areas like Long Island or Maryland have to choose from. The best athletes in the area or in schools are playing football or baseball and focusing on it, as opposed to up north, where many kids play lacrosse as a “1A” sport and another sport as a “1B”, Flanagan explained.
The next offshoot of the cultural differences is stick skills that aren’t as good, if only because kids are rarely working on them on a consistent basis. While there are always top players that will lead the team and be mostly, if not entirely, committed to lacrosse, the talent gap is more apparent as you go down the roster. That’s despite a lot of players being great athletes - they’re just unable or unwilling to play lacrosse year-round or close to it.
Flanagan described the growth and future growth of the program in terms of a pyramid. First, you have to attract more athletes to build a bigger pool of players to choose from. After that, those players have to practice and be trained and build consistent skills.
“Part one is always build the base,” Flanagan said. “Then develop the base. You have to have your pool and develop it, and then a byproduct of that is going to be consistently competing at the national level. And then another byproduct of that is going to be more recruiting opportunities.”
To build the pool of athletes, Team 24/7 has employed a number of different strategies. What first started as a singular camp has advanced to a rec league, travel teams, and day camps. Early on, they worked with 20 to 30 kids per camp, but now their day camps are filled with upwards of 100 players and their winter league has double that.
Flanagan made sure to emphasize how important the initiative to grow the game at the youth level is, both to him personally and his program. Team 24/7 has partnered with South Park Youth Association, the same one NBA star Stephen Curry was a part of as a kid, to build a lacrosse program. When Curry was younger, there was no lacrosse program. Now, Flanagan hopes that in the future, the next Stephen Curry will take advantage of the opportunity.
Team 24/7 also began Little Stix Lacrosse, an after-school lacrosse program for kids at the elementary school level. It’s one hour, one day a week, and last year, it gave 400 kids the ability to have a lacrosse stick for the first time.
“As that grows, and those kids come through the youth programs and into the high school program,” Flanagan said, “it’s gonna be huge for the sport.”
It’s not always as simple as just putting sticks in kids’ hands, however. During the first practice Flanagan ever ran, he told his team to go into a clear and none of them knew what he meant. Between shapes and positioning, some kids need to be taught the game from the ground up. But as those fundamentals have become more known in the community and at the youth level, the quality of play has improved in addition to the jump in numbers.
Flanagan’s long-term goal is to improve the recruiting process and success for kids in North Carolina. He doesn’t understand why places like Atlanta, which doesn’t have a college team nearby, should have so much more success on the recruiting stage than North Carolina, which has schools like Duke, UNC, and Limestone in the area.
He hopes that one day, there will be someone like Peter Baum, a Seattle native who was the first West Coast player to win the Tewaaraton Trophy, from North Carolina to give kids someone to look up to and emulate.
“We’re years away from that, but that’s a working process,” Flanagan said. “And there’s all the parts of the process to get there.”
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