BRISTOL, Va. – Lanz Geisler speaks softly but carries a big stick.
For the past few years, the Virginia High senior has promoted the sport of lacrosse to classmates, school officials and Bristol-area residents.
Those lobbying efforts paid off this year when lacrosse was recognized as a club sport at VHS.
“Lacrosse has been the fastest-growing sport in America over the past 10 years, and I think that growth will continue on a national and local level,” Geisler said. “I would definitely like to have a couple more years to help our team, but I’m happy that we’ve got a club team.”
While baseball is the most popular spring game among spectators in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee, the lacrosse movement has been spreading with youth programs and high school club teams in Bristol, Kingsport, Johnson City and Greeneville.
Geisler developed his skills with the 15-and-under Bristol Rage lacrosse club, which traveled to Knoxville and Roanoke for games.
“I love the sport and wanted to keep playing when I reached high school, so I thought I might as well go before the Virginia High athletic director, principal and members of the Bristol Virginia School Board and ask if we could create a team at Virginia High,” Geisler said.
The Bristol Rage is part of the Northeast Tennessee Sports Association (NETSA), which was created five years ago by Johnson City businessman Ed Rogers. The other teams under the NETSA umbrella are the Kingsport Knights along with the Greeneville and Johnson City lacrosse clubs.
Virginia High’s 2018 schedule has included two games each against Science Hill, Dobyns-Bennett, Tennessee High and Chuckey Doak in Greene County.
The backstory for the VHS Bearcats club team involves a mix of education, information, and dedication.
Geisler said that Sullins Academy in Bristol has had a club lacrosse program for nine years. Several members of that group formed an informal squad at VHS last year.
“There were no other teams for us to play in this area, so we just scrimmaged 15-under teams several times,” Geisler said. “None of our guys had any real experience with lacrosse, so there were a lot of losses. But we’ve started to become a real team this year.”
With a roster of 18 players, the Bearcats began the season with a 5-2 record. Most of the other teams have had twice the number of players as VHS.
Meanwhile, Geisler and VHS coach Dave Wall have continued to teach the basics and preach the gospel of the sport.
“Lacrosse is very familiar to me, but trying to teach it is really a challenge,” Geisler said.
Lacrosse features a small lacrosse ball and a stick which players use to carry, pass, catch and shoot the ball into a goal. A team includes three attackmen, three midfielders, three defensemen, and a goalie.
Players also wear helmets and a certain degree of a contact is allowed.
That’s one reason why half of the VHS lacrosse squad is composed of athletes from the Bearcat football team.
“I love playing both sports, and there are several parallels,” said Daniel Vincer a 6-foot-1, 205-pound senior who started for three years at guard and linebacker. “The biggest draw for me is the competition, and lacrosse is very competitive.”
Keys to success in lacrosse include eye-hand coordination, quickness, footwork and body positioning.
“The biggest similarity between football and lacrosse is being matched up one-on-one,” said Vincer, who plans to play football at Emory & Henry this fall.
After being introduced to the game by Geisler, Vincer has taken the next step by watching games involving Major League Lacrosse and NCAA teams.
Championship Weekend for NCAA men’s lacrosse began Saturday with nationally televised semifinal games involving Yale, Albany, Duke and defending champion Maryland.
“You can pick up a lot by watching talented teams,” Vincer said. “We’ve faced a lot of kids this season who grew up with lacrosse and played at the private school level, so the competition has been strong.
Michael Howard knows all about competition and contact. The 5-foot-8, 185-pound strongman doubles as a running back in football and midfielder at lacrosse.
“One of my friends on the football team [Austin Thompson] told me about the lacrosse team and told me how it’s played,” Howard said. “It’s a fun sport and it gives me that football fix. It helps to have strength when you are pressing back against a defender and then jumping up and trying to score.”
Howard has researched his new passion through reading, videos and television.
“I take note of the schemes that the college teams play and have studied the best way to catch and throw the ball,” Howard said. “I really wish that I had played lacrosse when I was younger. No doubt, I see it growing in this area.”
Bristol, Virginia resident Jenny Richardson Nichols, a former standout runner at Richlands High School who now competes in ultramarathons, is an advocate for lacrosse for a variety of reasons.
“My youngest son Todd is just a different creature, and lacrosse plays to his personality,” Nichols said. “I’m elated for the sport to grow because for so long it was marginalized as an elitist game.
“The arrival of lacrosse in Southwest Virginia signals a huge shift in perception. Seeing a lacrosse stick in the hands of these local kids means the sport has evolved and reached into a more egalitarian, level playing field for all.”
Nichols foresees the introduction of a girl’s lacrosse league in the area soon.
The Virginia High School League currently crowns a champion in boys and girls lacrosse in Class 4, 5 and 6, with most of those teams coming from lacrosse hotbeds in Northern Virginia and Richmond.
Meanwhile, the private North Cross School in Roanoke won the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Division 2 state championship Saturday in Ashland with a 13-12 victory over the Lynchburg-based Virginia Episcopal School.
Wall, the Virginia High coach and leader of four Bristol Rage youth teams, played lacrosse at Virginia Episcopal and competed in one year of club lacrosse at Roanoke College.
A native of St. Paul, Virginia, Wall moved to Abingdon in 1992. He works as a real estate developer.
“We’ve gone from having 12 kids in the Tri-Cities Lacrosse League nine years ago to having six high school teams and youth programs in four cities,” Wall said. “The sport has just exploded in this area, and I’m really proud of what we’ve created.”
Wall credits Geisler for laying the groundwork for the lacrosse surge in Bristol.
“I’ve coached Lanz since he was nine and I can’t say enough for what he’s done for the sport both in promotion and in forming a team,” Wall said.
Wall said that most of the former Bristol Rage players are now playing at Tennessee High.
“I think Lanz and Austin are the only kids from Virginia High that have ever picked up a lacrosse stick before last year,” Wall said. “We’re hoping to get the message of lacrosse out to the student body at Virginia High soon.”
There is another reason behind the widespread growth of lacrosse, Wall said.
“A lot of parents are concerned with the amount of injuries in other sports, especially concussions,” Wall said. “In the nine years I’ve been coaching lacrosse, I can only remember just two serious injuries.”
The high school lacrosse season in the Mountain Empire runs from February to June, with games held on weekends. VHS games are contested on the upper field at Sullins.
Geisler, who played receiver on the VHS football team, will attend the University of Virginia in the fall but he plans to support the program he helped to form.
“School officials at Virginia High were kind of hesitant about lacrosse at first because they didn’t want to take away from their current sports, but now they are trying to help us grow lacrosse to the varsity level,” Geisler said. “The main goal this year was to get the club recognized and show people that there is another sport in the area to try. I’m happy with the progress we’ve made and I definitely look forward to watching the program grow.”