The Fastest Sport on Two Feet

By Camille Platt

Troy Kemp doesn’t shy away from calling himself an evangelist. When he gets excited about something – be it a math solution or simply a hamburger – he’s going to share the news with a bit of gusto. That’s how he’s treated the game of lacrosse in Chattanooga.

A native of Long Island and a football player, Kemp didn’t touch a lacrosse stick until his freshman year of college at Colgate University. His teammate gave him a broken stick, which he fixed with a little athletic tape and used to toss a ball around for fun. After graduation, Kemp taught mathematics at an independent school in Delaware and was recruited to coach lacrosse. He decided if he was going to mentor young players he needed to play more himself. He joined a summer league and realized the game was as fun as he expected.

“What I found is a sport that fit kids of all sizes and one you could become proficient in in a relatively short period of time, and one you could practice on your own,” he remembers.

Kemp moved to Chattanooga to teach at McCallie in 1992 when the Blue Tornado lacrosse program was just a few years old. TSSAA rules stated that boarding students who transferred in for grades 10-12 were ineligible to participate in varsity athletics for a full calendar year. To accommodate, the school had started two new sports as club teams: rowing and lacrosse. Staff member David Hughes, who learned lacrosse at Blue Ridge School, joined Hank Lewis to coach the first three seasons until Kemp came on board.

In the team’s early years, Kemp admits there were times he wasn’t sure McCallie’s lacrosse program could survive regular competition against stronger state prep-school teams like Montgomery Bell Academy (MBA) and Memphis University School.

“MBA beat us four times in the first or second year we played. And they dominated us, because these kids had been starting early and were playing year-round,” he says. “I realized that if we were going to sustain a team at McCallie, we would need to start training at the middle school level.”

To give his boys more playing time in the off-season – and to grow knowledge of lacrosse in the the Chattanooga area – Kemp started a summer league. In 1994, via word-of-mouth and a few newspaper advertisements, he found a group of former lacrosse players living in Chattanooga who wanted to rekindle their skills. He invited area youth to join, and for $25 anyone could play with Chattanooga Lacrosse two days a week. Kemp rented the equipment from McCallie so participants wouldn’t need any experience or gear. He hosted clinics to introduce the sport city-wide and modified the rules to simplify play until the young teams caught on. Originally run as an LLC, Kemp turned the organization into a non-profit run by a board of directors in 2002 for greater access to fields and facilities around the city.

Slowly, Chattanoogans fell in love with lacrosse. Baylor School added its first boys’ team in the early 1990s, and later Girls Preparatory School (GPS), the Signal Mountain community, Girls Leadership Academy, the Soddy Daisy community, and Boyd Buchanan School followed suit. Ooltewah High School begins play with its first team this year.


Photos Courtesy of  McCallie School




Descent From the North

Lacrosse originated among Native American tribes with very few rules: you could not use your hands and there was no out-of-bounds. Games could include hundreds or thousands of participants; fields were made up of any open space between villages. Called stickball, it was a way to toughen up young warriors. French settlers picked up the game and the first intercollegiate tournament was held at Westchester Polo Grounds in New York in 1881.

The modern boys’ game fields three attackmen, three midfielders, and three defenders, plus a goalie. Teams use netted sticks to carry, pass, and shoot a rubber ball. Each period begins with a face-off at midfield. Players wear helmets, chest protectors, and elbow pads and are permitted to use their bodies defensively to check an opposing player within 15 feet of a loose ball. The goalie is the only player allowed to use his hands when blocking shots inside his circular crease. The girls’ game is much different, with an extra midfielder, no physical contact, and no protective gear besides goggles.

The Northeast has long been known as the “hotbed of lacrosse,” but in recent years major southern cities have popularized the game as well. According to Tennessee Scholastic Lacrosse Association (TSLA) President Paul Raccio, Atlanta and Dallas are major hubs for youth and high school level lacrosse. Boca Raton, Charlotte, and Atlanta are also home to Major League Lacrosse (MLL) teams that will begin the 2017 season on April 22.

GPS Head Coach Caroline Carlin says Tennessee has seen a 35% growth rate in the last four years alone. Originally from Pennsylvania, she played at Sewanee: The University of the South and credits much of this increase to the game’s fast pace and demand for mental acuity.

“Lacrosse combines the strategy of basketball with the big picture feel of soccer, then you accelerate that with speed,” says Carlin, whose campus participation in the sport has grown from 16 students in 2010 to 75 students across the middle and high school programs for 2017. “It’s a true athlete’s game. There is finesse, there is strategy – so many opportunities for intelligent players to be creative. When the game is played well, it’s beautiful to watch.”

Photos by John Bamber

Local Opportunities for Youth

In addition to varsity programs competing under TSLA and the Tennessee Girls Lacrosse Association, Chattanooga is home to youth leagues and travel club teams that have proven Kemp’s strategy correct: the more opportunities students have to play, the more competitive local and regional lacrosse will become.

Chattanooga Lacrosse, now operating under the leadership of Board President Missy Elliott, provides in-season U12 programs at The Bright School, Normal Park Museum Magnet School, St. Peter’s Episcopal School, St. Nicholas School, East Brainerd, Dalton, Ringgold, Lookout Mountain, and Signal Mountain. These teams are “at-large,” meaning athletes are not required to attend the school or live within a particular boundary to participate. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes also sponsors a middle school and high school team through Chattanooga Lacrosse.

For players who want an off-season option, Scenic City Lacrosse was founded by Baylor School Girls Varsity Coach Pam McNabb in 2011. The organization fields summer club teams in U9, U11, U13, U15, and boys and girls middle school and high school. Scenic City Lacrosse also hosts a winter indoor league at Chattanooga Sports Complex in Hixson and brings instructional clinics by current college coaches and professional players to the area.

McNabb, who founded Hotlanta Lacrosse in Georgia before moving to Tennessee, is passionate about advancing the game for all young players; but closest to her heart is broadening lacrosse opportunities for girls.

“What some people do not know is that the girls’ game is completely different than the boys’ game,” she says. “In Atlanta I started my girls’ lacrosse business because girls interested in the game were put in pads and put on boys teams.”

An inductee of the Georgia Lacrosse Hall of Fame, McNabb hopes that local girls will find more and more chances to learn their own version of the game. She has assisted with the development of Chattanooga Lacrosse girls’ programs at St. Peter’s Episcopal last spring and will work alongside the new teams at The Bright School, Normal Park, and the North River YMCA for 2017.

Above Photo by Bob Foster
Bottom Photo Courtesy of Baylor School

Collegiate Play and a New Generation of Coaches

According to U.S. Lacrosse, from 2010 to 2015, the number of high schools sponsoring lacrosse nationwide rose by 30%. Just as area youth leagues feed strong players into area middle and high school programs, varsity high school programs are increasing the number of players ready for collegiate play. At least 79 four-year colleges began varsity lacrosse programs in 2015 and 2016. New varsity programs will go into effect next year at Brenau University in Georgia (NAIA), Embry-Riddle University in Florida (Division II), East Carolina University in North Carolina (Division I), and Wofford College in South Carolina (Division I).

In our region, the SouthEastern Lacrosse Conference (SELC) consists of 22 Division I teams and 22 Division II non-varsity teams including UNC Charlotte, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Kennesaw State, Florida Atlantic, The Citadel, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Auburn University, and The University of Alabama. Five-time Deep South Conference Champions, the men’s team at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) is thriving. Lee University fields its first women’s team this spring and a men’s team in 2018.

Scenic City Lacrosse boys club coach Joshua Wicks, who also serves as the head coach for the Soddy Daisy Trojans, played attack for Baylor School from 2007 to 2010 and won an NCAC Conference Championship while at Ohio Wesleyan University in 2011. He says some of his best memories center on growing up a lacrosse player in Chattanooga, and the “team brotherhood” he experienced when the Red Raiders won the state championship in 2010.

“I know that if a kid can experience half the fun that I did, they’ll love it to death,” says Wicks. “Having been a player, you’ve been through what these kids are going through. You’ve gone through the sprints, the rainy practices, getting chewed out by the coach for not doing something you’re supposed to, and so on. It’s a great starting point for connecting with kids both on and off the field.”

Wicks says because Soddy Daisy is a community club team like the team on Signal Mountain, anyone can join. Many of his players live in Hixson and Sale Creek. Wicks’ assistant coach, Trevel Talley, played under Kemp’s leadership at McCallie from 2007 to 2010 and played Division 1 lacrosse at Mercer University.

Above Photo by Adam Harbin
Bottom Photo Courtesy of Lee University 


What the Future Holds

Because lacrosse isn’t governed by the TSSAA, local communities will continue growing the sport at the grassroots level. It’s usually up to the campus, community group, or parents to self-fund new teams.

Adding teams too rapidly, however, could be cause for concern. Local coaches say it’s best if the sport continues to spread at a moderate pace. “When a sport grows too quickly you can compromise the integrity of the game,” says McNabb. “We can’t emphasize enough how important it is to grow the game in a healthy way through proper coaching and education.”

Now executive director for the National Center for the Development of Boys on McCallie’s campus, Kemp – who Wicks calls “the godfather of lacrosse” in the Scenic City – perhaps has the best example of what lacrosse can offer. More than 70 McCallie graduates have left Kemp to play Division I, II, and III lacrosse.

Kemp’s son, T.J., was a two-time All-American at McCallie and ranked No. 37 in the nation in the class of 2010. He played on scholarship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 2011 to 2014 and made his debut as a Major League Lacrosse player with the Florida Launch in 2015. The midfielder spent last year with the Atlanta Blaze but has returned to the Launch for this season.

Proud of the way the sport has grown since his early days in town, Kemp says program alumni teaching lacrosse will preserve the quality of the game and continue the enjoyment of competition in our region for years to come. In addition to Wicks’ and Talley’s work at Soddy Daisy, GPS graduate Sky Spraker is now the Head High School Girls Coach for Signal Mountain Lacrosse League.

“I’m thrilled to see former players giving back by coaching the game they love,” Kemp says. “Like a father who is proud when your son does a great job, it can only help you feel more confident that you’ve done things the right way.”   


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