US Lacrosse Southeast Regional Championship Underway

by Paul Krome |

RALEIGH, N.C. –- From as far north as New York and as far south as Florida, 46 youth lacrosse teams met in the middle today to kick off the three-day US Lacrosse Southeast Regional Championship, Powered by Lacrosse Unlimited, at the WRAL Soccer Complex.

On a day perfectly suited to go out and simply play, there is for the U15 age group something at stake: the top four teams here will earn automatic invitations to the US Lacrosse U15 National Championships, Powered by Lacrosse Unlimited, July 24-26 (girls) and July (27-29) boys at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando.

"We're really hoping to go to Disney," said Natalie Groth, an attacker on the StickBenders team, which traveled to Raleigh from its Palm City and Vero Beach, Fla., roots, to fight for a bid to play a couple hours from home at the Walt Disney World Resort next month. "We really want to work hard and get there from this tournament."

The StickBenders took an important first step, downing Georgia's Thunderbird 2016 HALO, 14-3. The three goals allowed gives the StickBenders an inside track at a high seed for the start of bracket play tomorrow afternoon, as goals allowed is the second tiebreaker should teams end pool play tied tomorrow morning. Hotlanta likewise played strong defense in a 9-3 win over cross-town rival Eagle Stix Atlanta today.

Predictably, there was as little separation in the boys' U15 division after one day. Bamalax Select from Alabama gave New Jersey South a battle in a 7-5 loss. Palm Beach Storm (Fla.) and Tar Heel Lacrosse (N.C.) each surrendered just one goal in victories. Pool play continues tomorrow morning for the U15 group, and for the girls' U13 and boys' U13 and U11 divisions. The latter will not advance teams to a national championship, but will crown Southeast Regional Champions Sunday following tournament play.

With sunny skies, low humidity and temperatures around 80 – conditions ideal for the sport – parents and vendors celebrated all that comes with youth lacrosse. And, US Lacrosse doesn't just roll into town, run a youth lacrosse championship, and bolt. The sport's national governing body never passes up an educational opportunity, as instructional clinics for players and officials dot the weekend lineup in Raleigh.

U.S. women's national team stars Sarah Albrecht, Kelly Berger and Kristen Carr welcomed roughly 50 youth and high school girls' lacrosse players for a clinic prior to the start of games Friday. The instructional session marked one of dozens funded by US Lacrosse members and donors and conducted by U.S. national team players each year – reaching a total of more than 1,500 boys and girls.

The clinics can make quite an impact on the development of youth players – and immediately, too.

"I learned so much from the clinic, including stuff I'll be able to use this weekend and a lot of stuff that will help me practice, too," Groth said this afternoon. "I learned a lot of dodges you can do against a defender to get closer to the goal and a lot of drills you can do with another person.

"I'm ready for my game tonight."

Preparing young girls for future experiences in the sport remains a goal of the US Lacrosse national team clinics, according to clinician and national team defender Kristen Carr.

"Especially with the recruiting process having gotten so much faster, we tell them to have a dream and keep working toward it, but not to lose sight of everything else and not to stop playing other sports," Carr, a 2010 graduate of North Carolina, said. "I played soccer, basketball and lacrosse all the way through high school, and you can't lose sight of the other sports."

Lacrosse obviously has drawn the eye of hundreds of thousands of young people in the last several years, and it's drawing the eye of convention and visitors bureaus across the country. US Lacrosse will run four championship youth tournaments for U11, U13 and U13 boys' and girls' teams in 2013 (three sites have been announced). The sport's popularity and the organization's 400,000-plus membership make the US Lacrosse Championships attractive events for cities and towns.

"US Lacrosse does everything the way a community would want an event like this done," said Jason Philbeck, sports marketing manager at the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It's a natural fit here. The sport is booming at the youth level, even to college and the pro team."

Philbeck has been with the GRCVB for six years and has been to numerous youth sports events at the WRAL Soccer Center, which is in the planning stages of an upgrade that could result in as many as seven more fields being supplied with artificial turf and lights.

"I've been impressed how well these teams here travel," he said. "Just driving around town, you can see the teams with their families and friends. I know the hotels and restaurants really are feeling the impact of this event here in Raleigh."

It's an impact those in the Research Triangle area will feel for two more years, as healthy participation, an accessible location and a quality venue fueled a deal to return the US Lacrosse Southeast Championships to Raleigh for 2013 and 2014.

But that's for next year. More games await tomorrow.