When Vincent Fredericks decided to uproot his family and move to the Lowcountry, the Long Island, N.Y., native thought his days of watching and coaching lacrosse were behind him when he arrived in Mount Pleasant six years ago.
Standing in the end zone, behind the nets at MUSC Health Stadium on a hot, sticky Saturday night, Fredericks couldn’t hide his smile as he watched Major League Lacrosse’s Charlotte Hounds face the Atlanta Blaze on what is normally a soccer-specific field.
“This is great. I can’t believe that professional lacrosse has come to Charleston - it’s unbelievable,” Fredericks said.
Fredericks, 44, knows what he’s talking about. Long Island has been a hotbed for the sport for decades. He grew up playing lacrosse as a kid and went on to become a two-time All-American goalie at C.W. Post (Long Island University). In 1997, he was named the NCAA Division II goalie of the year. The retired New York City police officer has been a coach for a local travel team – the under-10 Top Left Lacrosse Loggerheads – for the past three years and has seen the sport’s popularity in the area explode since his arrival.
“I knew that lacrosse was just starting around here, but to see how far it’s come in the last six years I've been here is fun,” Fredericks said. “The recreation department in Mount Pleasant has like nine or 10 teams with 10 to 12 kids on each team at the youngest level. When I first got here, there was maybe enough to have one team. There are travel teams popping up all over the place. Lacrosse is blowing up. Baseball is losing people. Football, there are concerns about concussions. It’s an alternative for football because there’s contact, but not the brutal contact of football. It’s not head-to-head collision.”
But has lacrosse become popular enough in the Lowcountry to support a professional team?
Fredericks isn’t sure.
“It’s going to be tough. Even the best areas for lacrosse don’t draw what the big sports draw,” Fredericks said. “Atlanta does well, Charlotte is OK. Mount Pleasant has a lot of people, but the population density isn’t big enough in my opinion. The soccer team has trouble getting people for matches. Don't get me wrong, I’d love to see it. This is a great venue for it, too. That would be a dream to have a pro team in the area.”
Interest in lacrosse has grown steadily in the Lowcountry since it was introduced as a club sport at the high school level nearly a decade ago. The South Carolina High School League held its first state title game in 2009. Wando, which has nearly 100 kids in its program, won their fourth straight state title in May.
“Obviously, these games are going to be a testing ground to see if there’s enough interest in the community to support a team in Charleston,” said Wando coach Lance Renes. “It’s an experiment. I was surprised when I learned they were having the game in Charleston. I was caught off guard, but excited.”
Shane Phillips, 47, brought his 15-year-old son Logan to the game on Saturday and feels the sport has a chance to thrive in the area. Phillips, a native of Texas, played lacrosse as a club sport at The Citadel. Logan plays for Lexington High School.
“If not in Charleston, then somewhere in South Carolina because it’s growing so rapidly,” Phillips said. “You are starting to see more and more high schools fielding varsity teams. Seeing guys get scholarships to Division I schools and lower division schools I think gets everyone’s attention.”
The MLL consists of nine teams and has made inroads into the south with the Atlanta Blaze, Charlotte Hounds and Florida Launch. The MLL averaged 3,844 fans per game last season, which was down from a peak of 6,417 in 2011. Saturday’s game between Charlotte and Atlanta drew just 1,002 without much marketing from either franchise. Players generally make between $10,000 and $25,000 per season with most holding down other full-time jobs.
The league has made no secret of its desire to expand into the Lowcountry.
“We’re always looking for new opportunities to grow the game, and we know there’s a passion for the sport here in the deep South,” said MLL president Sandy Brown. “We want to see what potential there is for growth for Major League Lacrosse here. Lacrosse has had its pockets of interest in the Northeast traditionally, but we’re seeing the sport explode all over the place. We’ve seen tremendous growth across the country over the past five years and we think that’s going to continue.”
Lowcountry lacrosse fans will get a second chance to see the sport again when MUSC Health Stadium plays host to the league’s championship game on Aug. 18.
“If you look across the country, places like Dallas, Houston, Atlanta and all of California lacrosse has become really big,” said Atlanta attacker Kevin Rice, who had four goals in the Blaze’s 16-10 victory. “If we can help sort of fill in those gaps between the hotbeds and expose the game a little bit, then it’ll be great for future generations. When you show people in the South the game, they enjoy it.
“It has a lot of the physical aspects of football that they like and it’s also a skill game, so it’s a mix between physicality of football and the skill of soccer. It’s a good combination. With the concussion problems that football is having, I think this is an alternative. There are only three or four big hits in lacrosse each game instead of 30 to 40 each game in football.”