When the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) announced it was starting the high school lacrosse season in January, the move was met by skepticism and confusion.
Lacrosse was the only spring sport that moved to earlier in the year and combined with moves for fall sports, it caused a scheduling headache for many athletic directors and coaches across the state. It also caused issues with some teams being able to field a team due to the overlap of basketball, football, soccer, and lacrosse all happening at the same time.
How did moving the season up while every other state was either starting on time or pushing start dates back make it better for players who missed out on 2020? That question remains unanswered. The regular season ended last week, which would have been the second week of the season for most teams under normal circumstances.
So, how did it go?
The NCHSAA limited the season to 14 games with a weekly limit of two games. Each school district determined its own scheduling rules, but most opted to play conference opponents. Adding to the challenge is they also moved football season back to begin on Feb. 8. Boys soccer, which usually starts in mid-August, moved to an identical schedule as lacrosse. Both sports were allowed to play their first games on Jan. 25, 2021.
“The first few weeks were pretty much a disaster,” Triangle Lax Founder Damian Hall said. “With the weather, 30 games were scheduled, and only about four were played by Week 2. The fields were unplayable.”
Complicating matters in Wake and Durham counties, teams were not allowed to play off-site games. No field other than those on school property could be used. Schools like Northern Durham (N.C.) do not have a field and usually play their games off-site at Durham County Stadium. That rule finally got relaxed after the first couple weeks of the season, but the challenges did not stop there.
With basketball, football, lacrosse, and soccer all sharing the same timeframe, it caused its share of headaches with players who had to choose which sport to play.
According to Hall, at least 14 to 15 programs in the state could not field a team this season. While there’s no listing of teams that we’re unable to field a team, there are three teams on Laxnumbers that finished 2021 with a 0-0 record. Other programs played a handful of games. Union Pines (N.C.) played one game. Roxboro Community (N.C.) played five.
“Soccer, football, lacrosse were all playing, and we’re trying to get in games and practices, but we’re also sharing the field with all these other teams who are trying to get their games and practices in,” Middle Creek Head Coach Nick Holota said. “We can’t play games on Fridays due to football, and we’re only allowed 14 total games. That was tough with rainouts and how many weeks there were.”
Most programs were able to field a team and get in games. Using Laxnumbers totals, there are a total of 1,022 games played in North Carolina this season. Some of those include the private schools, which seasons are two weeks in, so the exact totals are skewed. Even with those teams included, the 134 teams in the state averaged 7.62 games played this season. Only three got in an entire slate of 14 games. Reagan (N.C.) went 10-4. Davie (N.C.) went 5-9, and Porter Ridge (N.C.) went 2-12.
The Top 3 NCHSAA teams played a few games less than 14. Cardinal Gibbons played 12, Middle Creek got 11, and Northern Guilford played 10. All three of those teams finished the regular season undefeated.
Each school district set its own policies on who to play, but most opted to play conference opponents. That basic policy gave some leeway into which opponent a team could schedule.
“Wake County tried to keep everyone county-based, but last year we got moved to a conference where teams are in three counties,” Wheeler said. “We had to adapt to each of those schools’ conference rules.”
Wheeler said there were different school district policies, like whether a gaiter could be worn versus a regular mask. Not a major hurdle to overcome, but another one in a season full of them.
“Given the circumstances that were handed, the schools and athletic directors have done a pretty good job of keeping everyone happy,” Holota said. “We have a mentality of playing anytime, anywhere. We went into every practice like there could be a game tomorrow. I think the kids have done a good job. That’s their world right now – a lot of uncertainty. Our kids have done a good job of staying positive.”
Teams did have some leeway in the two-game per week policy. If a game was rained out, schools could make that game up during the week, which meant some teams played back-to-back-to-back nights
“The alternative was to have nothing at all, so this is better than that, but for a while, I wasn’t sure it was going to work,” Holota added. “Of course, it was the rainiest February we’ve had in Raleigh in a long time.”
As if coaches and athletic directors needed another hurdle for the 2021 season, Mother Nature added her own complications. Rainfall is almost six inches higher than normal for the last 90 days in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill region. The disparity between normal and actual has increased from February to March as teams have tried to complete a season and jockey for playoff spots.
February ranked as the Raleigh area’s second-wettest February in history. Overall, it was the 17th-wettest month in history with records that date back to 1895.
“Up until these last two weeks, we’ve been playing in the mud,” Fuquay-Varina Head Coach Brad Wheeler said. “Our opening game against Pine Crest, it was up until 12 o’clock we weren’t sure we were going to get it in. There were a couple nights during the season where it was brutally cold, and you’re playing with wet feet.”
With all the challenges overcome this season, it seems natural to glean some positives from the season.
“The camaraderie among the coaches in the state completely turned, I think,” Wheeler said. “There were so many phone calls and asking how everyone’s doing something. I think we all got a lot closer. Teams are rising up and coming together and getting to know each other better.”
“The positive is we get to have it [a season],” Hall said. “We got to play. Was it perfect? No. Most teams were just interested in just playing. They didn’t care as much about who they were going to play.”