South Charlotte

Sport's growth in Charlotte sends 4 local girls to Division 1 schools

Lacrosse is not traditionally a Southern sport, so when Marvin Ridge senior midfielder Mikayla Sweeney travels to lacrosse tournaments and camps - especially in the Northeast - she seems like an outsider.

"I definitely think since we are from the South we get looked at differently," said Sweeney.

Sweeney and three of her club teammates are trying to change that for girls' lacrosse.

Sweeney, Providence High midfielder Megan Brady, Charlotte Catholic attacker Megan Patterson and Cuthbertson midfielder Kelly Belue all are committed to play at Division I schools next year, a rarity for local lacrosse players.

They can sign national letters of intent in November.

None of the four is a native North Carolinian, but they all played the majority of their lacrosse in Charlotte.

Brady, 17, moved from Pennsylvania when she was 6. She mostly played soccer growing up but started lacrosse in fifth grade because her older brothers, Matt and Tim, played. The senior plans to play at Winthrop next year, which will be fielding a girls' lacrosse team for the first time.

"A lot of the schools I was looking at were up North, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to go that far away and deal with the cold and everything," she said. "Then I visited Winthrop and I just loved it, and the coaches were awesome."

Patterson, 17, also is committed to play at Winthrop. She grew up in Georgia and started playing lacrosse as a sophomore at a high school with a very successful program. Her older brother, Bryce, got her started.

When she moved to Charlotte last year, she went to Charlotte Catholic because she knew it had a good lacrosse program.

Sweeney, 17, grew up in Boston, moved to Charlotte in seventh grade and started lacrosse in eighth grade after her sister, Rachel, started playing. Mikayla will follow her sister again by committing to play at Virginia Tech, where her sister will be a walk-on after transferring from Presbyterian.

Belue, 17, grew up in Maryland and started playing lacrosse when she was 8. She moved to Charlotte two years later and is committed to play at Liberty.

"Obviously (lacrosse) is more popular up there," Belue said about growing up in Maryland. "I moved down here and it was very rare. Nobody knew what lacrosse was."

That's starting to change. Just two years ago, the N.C. High School Athletic Association officially sanctioned boys' and girls' lacrosse for public schools. Charlotte Catholic won the girls' state championship that year; Myers Park won the boys' title.

"It's definitely growing down here," said Sweeney. "There's a lot more younger kids that are starting to play now.

"The sport itself is getting much faster."

Despite the growth, the talent level in are high schools varies greatly. While schools like Charlotte Catholic have built successful programs, schools like Cuthbertson are just starting.

At Providence, "We have a lot of girls that are just beginning, or this is their second year playing," said Brady.

Sweeney said playing in high school is fun and good for getting started; but all four girls say playing on a club team is what has helped them excel.

The four seniors play for Southern Storm, a girls' club team started by Lisa Mitchelides two years ago, featuring players from Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas.

The Southern Storm is affiliated with Midwestern Force, a club team Mitchelides started in Ohio six years ago before moving to Charlotte.

Mitchelides said that by playing teams from different areas, the Charlotte players can face a different level of competition.

"The competition that they face up north is so different from here, but it's great because they go on to really achieve greatness at the next level," she said.

The players said they enjoy facing better opponents.

"When you get to play with girls that are better than you it makes you better, and it brings your level of play up," said Belue.

The Big South Conference, based in Charlotte, is making women's lacrosse a varsity sport next year, which Mitchelides said will help increase local interest and could help players get scholarships.

Winthrop, Davidson, Campbell, Coastal Carolina, High Point, Liberty and Presbyterian all have women's lacrosse programs that will compete for the Big South Championship.

"It's a game that carries 30 girls, and ... right now because of Title IX the colleges are picking it up like lightning because they want to attract those athletes," said Mitchelides.

"But at the high school level, because of funding issues and everything else and the economy, the sport is not growing as much. That's why there's so much opportunity for the kids."

Mitchelides calls the four girls her "Trojan Horse."

People don't realize the talent of these Charlotte players, she said, so they will be a surprise in college.

"These girls are going to be the first of hopefully many to come," Mitchelides said.

"Anything they do is going to make it easier for those that follow."

Maybe if Charlotte players can succeed at the next level, they won't be looked at differently in camps.

"We do have a barrier, because we're from the South, that we have to overcome," said Sweeney.

"You have to play and show them that you can play with them."