It’s the momentum that most coaches dream of: Starting a new season after having a winning record the year before, making it to the championship game.
North Oldham High School boys lacrosse coach Ryan Smith is in this position, but at the same time, his team has other factors in the mix.
This will be the team’s first season as part of the new Kentucky Scholastic Lacrosse League in which they will face powerhouses St. Xavier and Trinity high schools.
Last year, North Oldham played in the Kentucky Lacrosse Association’s Division II. St. Xavier and Trinity have routinely won in Division I.
Now, though, the schools — along with all other high school lacrosse teams in Jefferson and Oldham counties (and Bullitt if they start any) — are part of the new league. Lacrosse is a club sport in Kentucky, not sanctioned by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association.
The North Oldham team is also still relatively young, breaking off from the countywide, now-defunct Oldham Silverhawks in 2008. Smith, 27, took over as head coach last year.
But even with some possible obstacles, they believe they’ll have another winning year.
“If I wasn’t confident that we would make it to the last game, I can’t expect my boys to be,” Smith said. “I also understand and hopefully portray to them that it’s not going to be given to us. We have to earn it.”
Practicing for their season’s first game last week against Louisville Collegiate School, Smith brought his young men into a huddle and went over key parts of some of their plays.
“Ready to do this?” he asked them as they put their crosses in the air before breaking. “Let’s have some fun today.”
Smith played lacrosse in college and high school, for Bellarmine University and Trinity.
He lives in St. Matthews and works full-time in guest relations at Westport Place Health Campus, a senior care complex on Westport Road in Louisville. He had been officiating local lacrosse games when he heard about the North Oldham opening.
Bill Roberts had coached the team since it split from the countywide team — a change that he said happened when North Oldham gained enough teen boys to make its own team.
(South Oldham and Oldham County high schools followed in making their own teams after North Oldham.)
Roberts had been looking for someone to take over after him. Smith started with the team in 2011 as an assistant coach.
“My goal was to get someone young with lacrosse experience and hunger and … a great set of values,” said Roberts, now an assistant coach.
Values have become a big part of the game for North Oldham — or rather the game isn’t the only issue that’s stressed. “We can’t only concentrate on the season ahead but the life ahead,” Smith said.
The players are told that school work should be their focus. Their “program expectations” include telling their parents “thank you” and “I love you.”
The players dress up on game days at school by wearing a tie and contribute to the community by picking up trash, cleaning up at fish frys and helping at lacrosse clinics.
Smith also started a team at North Oldham Middle, which the high school boys help out with.
“The season is only four months long,” Smith said. “And you’ve got a whole life to live.”
Smith said that when he took over he wanted to teach life skills along with game skills — a goal he got by surrounding himself with positive people.
“It’s not just about the training; it’s about supporting the other teens,” said parent Bill Adams, of Goshen. “I think it’s good for them, and they all like him.”
But that doesn’t mean that Smith goes easy on his players. At the beginning of the season, the team had two practices a day, sometimes starting at 6 a.m.
And since he’s been in charge, their record has improved.
They had losing seasons their first two years, but improved and played Lexington’s Tates Creek High School in the Division II championships last year, losing 7-10.
“It starts here with the practices,” he said. “High intensity practice will relate into a high intensity-type game.”
Senior Caleb Taffer joined the team as a freshman, watching it improve over the years.
“The program was just barely on its feet” when he joined, Caleb said. “It was pretty cool … to bring such skill to that (final) game.”
The team has grown from roughly 20 boys the first year to 53 players this year — 10 of whom are on the field at one time, Roberts said. The middle school team has more than 100 players.
Lacrosse, in general, is experiencing a surge. The National Federation of State High School Associations found that high school lacrosse participation rose by 22 percent nationwide between 2007-2008 and 2011-2012.
“It really has taken off,” said Tom Clemons, North Oldham’s athletic director. “It has given kids, who are not baseball kids, something to do in the spring.”
Local high school athletic directors decided to make their own league so that they would have more control over when and where they played, Clemons said.
Smith’s team hasn’t had to make any roster cuts, but Clemons said that might change, given the sport’s popularity.
“When you have good athletes and they’re coached well and you have high expectations for them, they tend to reach those goals,” Clemons added. “I have no doubt that we’ll be competitive this year.”