At St. Mark Catholic School's first boys' lacrosse game, the players saw something they had never seen before.
"This is the first time they've been in game situations on a lined field," said varsity head coach Mike Bonoffski.
The St. Mark team, which is fielding its first two middle school lacrosse teams this year, doesn't even have a suitable field to practice on at their school. They often practice in the gym or use a field at Bailey Road Park in Cornelius and play their games at J.V. Washam Elementary School in Cornelius.
But the lack of game experience didn't seem to hurt St. Mark during their first game against Queens Grant last Monday. St. Mark had a 1-0 lead at half, but both teams went on runs in the second half and ended regulation tied at 5-5, forcing sudden death overtime. Despite several scoring opportunities for the St. Mark Lions, the five-minute period ended with no score and the game finished in a tie.
"I couldn't be happier with these guys," said Bonoffski, "We've got a good little team," especially considering the lack of experience.
"More than 50 percent (of the players) never played before," he said.
That includes Tucker Beckham, a seventh-grader, who just picked up the sport this year.
"I had some friends that played it, and it looked like fun so I went out for it," he said. "At first I thought it didn't make sense, but now I think it's one of the best sports I've played."
He's especially a fan of the sport after he scored the team's first goal in the first half.
"It felt really good," said Beckham.
Bonoffski, who has about 20 years experience playing and coaching the sport, said that a lot of practice has been teaching the basics of the game, from how to hold the stick to basic passing and catching. In the huddle before overtime, Bonoffski had to tell the kids how it worked and that it was sudden death.
He calls each practice a building block, and says they "put things in place and build on it the next practice."
Kyle Ritchie, the lacrosse commissioner at St. Mark, started looking into a school team after seeing several classmates playing with his sons in the Cornelius/Huntersville Youth Lacrosse League (CHYLL).
In September, Ritchie, along with Bonoffski, lacrosse treasurer Melissa Francomano and fifth- and sixth-grade coach Phil Puma, gauged the interest at the school and started working toward setting up two teams, a varsity team (seventh- and eighth-grade) and a fifth- and sixth-grade team. St. Mark Catholic school has grades kindergarten through eighth.
At the end of November, the teams were approved by the Mecklenburg Area Catholic Schools system. Just under four months later they played their first game.
Ritchie's son, Skylar, scored a goal in the first varsity game. One of his younger brothers, Branson, plays on the fifth- and sixth-grade team and the youngest, Chase, isn't old enough for the teams but plays with CHYLL.
Ritchie, a Maryland native who played in youth lacrosse leagues, said that he's seen lacrosse gradually "creeping down" to North Carolina. He said the interest used to stop in Chapel Hill and Durham, where UNC Chapel Hill and Duke have had quality lacrosse programs for several years.
"It's just chugging down," he said. "It kind of bypassed (the Lake Norman area) and went down to Charlotte and now it's come back up here."
The interest still isn't enough at the middle school level to foster a full schedule, so St. Mark plays several recreation teams this year.
Ritchie said the best part of the program was giving kids something to play for.
"Playing for your school, as opposed to a rec team, playing with your buddies and having that school pride" are a big part of what players like about the team, he said.
"We were really happy," said Ritchie about the team's first game. "We're very confident going forward now that they have that (game) experience."
In the future, Ritchie hopes that the team can have game experience before the season starts. The field at St. Mark is too small for lacrosse and football. He hopes to team up with the football team to get a new field.
Ritchie said that there has been interest in setting up a girls' team at the school, which he hopes will happen in the next few years.
He also plans to hold clinics for younger players so that they can get interested in the sport and learn basic skills before they start playing for the team.
"Most kids that try the sport like it," said Ritchie.
Ritchie is excited about expanding the program, especially after it's successful start, but he's careful not to get ahead of himself.
"I want to expand it, but not too quickly," he said. "We need to focus on getting the older teams good first."