By Eric Black
Greer Hanlon was the only one of his friends who owned a stick when he began playing lacrosse in the suburbs of Chicago in the late ‘90s. They didn’t know the game, nor did they have much opportunity to watch it, and instead opted for more popular sports. Hanlon had to work on his game by himself.
He ultimately committed to play the sport collegiately at the University of Denver and played there for four years before moving to Charleston. There, last July, he started Charleston Elite, a new club lacrosse program for boys and girls in the area. Although it’s still early on in its stages of development, the program is already inspiring kids to start playing the sport of lacrosse at a young age.
The first call Hanlon made before he started the program was to Matt Brown, the current associate head coach at Denver. Brown is also one of the founders and directors of Denver Elite Lacrosse and the Denver Elite Box Lacrosse Program. Despite the distance, Hanlon knew he wanted his program to be connected.
“I said, ‘Matt, look. I want to start a club. Can I affiliate with you?’” Hanlon explained. “And he said ‘absolutely’...One of our players is going to play for their box team this summer and we hope to have them down for some clinics and things of that nature to help promote the game by us.”
Box lacrosse is a major part of the plan to teach the game and develop players by Charleston Elite, which runs a box lacrosse academy in the winter. If Hanlon had it his way, all kids in 5th grade and below would play box lacrosse instead of field lacrosse, where many kids could take a number of trips up and down the field without even touching the ball.
With box, they can develop their comfort with and without the ball in constant high-pressure situations, which field lacrosse games feature significantly less often. The skill aspect that box lacrosse can help with is something the program is really trying to expand in with its teachings. One of the ways they’re doing this is by going to schools, classrooms, and specifically physical education classes to teach the game. Hanlon’s found that it’s a great way to organically introduce the game to young kids.
“I talk about it with PE teachers all the time,” Hanlon said. “(The kids) like sports, they’re okay at sports, but they’re really enthusiastic about lacrosse. Whereas they’re not enthusiastic about soccer or football or basketball or whatever else. For me, that’s awesome. If we do that for one person, we’re doing our job of growing the game.”
Hanlon explained that they’ve ventured to four different middle schools so far, all with about 700 kids in them, in addition to a high school. He’s been helped by the fact that there’s “no better place” than Charleston to play lacrosse because of its climate, aside from some rain. So far, Hanlon estimates that they’ve introduced lacrosse to over 2,500 kids that otherwise would’ve been unable to play due to barriers of entry such as cost and equipment.
Charleston Elite features six boys teams and two girls teams in the program, numbers that are expected to grow in the near future. The girls' teams are specifically of interest to him because he’s noticed that there’s a drop between 8th and 9th grade in the level of participation.
“What we're trying to do is garner that interest early on,” Hanlon said, “so that we can push through that drop-off.”
Another way Charleston Elite is trying to establish interest in the game is through the free clinics they offer, which kids can just show up to and play at. After the first clinic, there are five or six sessions of only stickwork that follow, so the key is just trying to get the kids to stay with it. Using freelacrosse.org to spread the word, they got 75 kids to come to the first clinic and play the sport for the first time, of which 50 signed up for the next clinic.
After the interest has been garnered and the fundamentals established, Charleston Elite’s goal is to ultimately compete at the regional and national levels. To do so, Hanlon hopes to be able to grow the game organically around Charleston and attract kids from all over the region to come play for the program. Even though Hanlon had to create his own path into the lacrosse world, Charleston Elite is making sure kids in the area don’t have to do the same.
"There is a lot of similarity, so what I see is the same thing Illinois had, is athletes that just haven't played the game very long or don't know the game very well,” Hanlon said. “So if we can just capture those athletes, teach them the game the right way, foster the growth, I think the success will come, it's just gonna take a bit of time.”
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