Growing the game is one of the most common goals for anyone involved in lacrosse, right up there with winning and having fun. Sometimes, that mission involves trips to new parts of the country with little experience with lacrosse.
For Shayne Jackson and Bryan Cole, it involved traveling to Columbus, Ga. on Wednesday, June 27 and leading a girl’s lacrosse clinic in 93-degree plus heat.
Jackson and Cole live in Atlanta during the NLL season, but both still call the Toronto area home. While the two have become acclimated to Atlanta during their time here, they are still unfamiliar with a few parts of Georgia.
Nestled in Muscogee county on the boarder of Alabama and Georgia, Columbus is not known for its lacrosse. Columbus State University has a club men’s lacrosse program, but out of the 11 high schools in Muscogee, only Columbus High School has a lacrosse program, a girl’s team that was formed in 2004.
A strong dedication and love for the sport has allowed the program to grow since its inception. Being the only school in the county with a lacrosse program means the girl’s on the team have to travel to schools in Atlanta and sometimes down to Florida for competition.
“Most of our games are played out of Atlanta, the Gwinnett area, Henry County,” varsity head coach Christian Grier said. “This year, we were re-regioned, so we’ll now be going to Savannah, which is four and a half hours away. So, our minimum travel time is about an hour and a half each time, so it can be pretty difficult.”
Another of the difficulties the Blue Devils experience is the vastly different competition they face. Columbus High School was a 4A school this past season and faced competition ranging from A all the way to 5A. Despite the lack of consistency, the team finished with an 8-8 record.
Grier fell in love with the sport and wanted to be a part of the program after he graduated college. He spent three years as an assistant coach before becoming the head coach.
Grier himself went to Columbus High School and played for Columbus State University’s men’s lacrosse club team. He seen how far the girl’s lacrosse program has come from when he was in high school to today.
“Our varsity team has about 22 girls, and our JV has about 26, something like that give or take,” Grier said. “Every year, we have about 65 girls try out. It’s pretty tough to dwindle them down. You want to give them all a spot. They have great commitment.”
Through a partnership between the Swarm and Sports Life Entertainment, the team’s official bus service, an idea sparked to host a lacrosse clinic in Columbus. The owner of Sports Life Entertainment, David Jackson, is a native of Columbus and has a passion for supporting lacrosse at a youth level in his hometown.
He approached his good friend Dale Williams, another native of Columbus who was a defensive back on the University of Georgia’s national championship football team in 1980, about a clinic. Williams has a reputation around town as a man who gets things done and owns a sports media company, Sports Visions. His help would practically ensure a successful event.
It didn’t take much convincing. Williams’ passion for the project was contagious, Grier was looped in, and the date was quickly set.
Jackson and Cole made the trip down along with Swarm equipment manager Nick Sagraves, Stinger, and members of the Swarm front office. Dressed for the typically hot Georgia summer, the crew set up the field at Kinnett Stadium, which has produced a handful of NFL players over the years.
At 5 p.m., around 30 high school girls showed up ready to learn lacrosse from professionals, despite the oppressive heat. The girls enthusiastically took to the field, and Jackson, Cole, and Sagraves ran the teens through basic lacrosse catching, passing, and scooping drills.
“The further away from the city you get, usually the skill level is a little bit more raw, so we were king of anticipating a beginner’s level,” Cole said. “When we did get there, we were pleasantly surprised by the skill level of the girls and how eager they were to learn. It made it a lot easier.”
The girls continued to impress by showcasing some gritty work ethic, playing hard, and trying to absorb as much new information as they could from the pros.
“Towards the end, I thought they were more comfortable in catching the ball and making throws that they weren’t comfortable making at the start,” Jackson said. “It’s good to see in a two-hour clinic. If you see some progress, then that’s a good sign.”
Good enough to finish the clinic off with some 3v2 drills. Moving the cages down to the 30-yard lines, the coaches called out to the girls and had them do quick competitions against each other, showing what they had learned over the past two hours.
“You could tell that the passing, catching, shooting and competing (improved),” Grier said about his athletes’ progress that evening. “It was awesome getting to see the transition from the beginning to the end.”
The students and Swarm personnel weren’t the only ones to show up that afternoon. The excitement around the Swarm and the sport piqued the interest of the local news.
Two news stations, WLTZ First News (NBC) and WRBL News 3 (CBS), came to Kinnett Stadium to see the Swarm players in action, see how much of an impact they were having that night and interview Jackson and Cole.
The two pros spent their time sharing why lacrosse was so special to them and what it meant to be able to help grow the game for the next generation.
Their interviews with the two news stations ran later that night, spreading lacrosse to a wider audience across parts of Alabama and Georgia where other sports dominate the local scene.
“It’s (lacrosse) brought us a lot of joy in our lives, and if we can help in any way and bring that joy to other people’s lives, it’s a good thing,” Jackson told WLTZ’s Brooke Kirchhofer.
After the clinic ended, the girls received Swarm swag; received autographs from Jackson, Cole, and Stinger; and took photos with them. Everyone was tired from the exercise and heat, but not a face in attendance lacked a large grin.
Grier loved the clinic and knew the girls really enjoyed themselves learned a lot from the Swarm pros.
“I would have loved to have something like that when I was younger, to have a lacrosse player to look up to close to home,” he said. “I think that was a good thing for them.”
Jackson and Cole also enjoyed their time south. As ambassadors for the Swarm and lacrosse, growing the game is constantly on their mind. Any opportunity across North America where they can impact youth and help grow the game is one they readily jump on.
“It’s a really great thing to see for us as lacrosse players,” Cole concluded. “We want the game to grow, and we want it to get to where we want it to be in terms of a professional league, but we also want kids to explore their interests and do what makes them happy.
“Seeing lacrosse two hours outside of Atlanta being picked up and trying to get out there and help them with their fundamental skill and all that kind of stuff, it’s really encouraging to see from out point of view.”