Just a few minutes into Saturday night’s Commonwealth Lacrosse League State Championship game, and it’s easy to see why the sport has begun barreling toward sanctioning by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association in recent years.
Lacrosse combines speed, athleticism, physicality and skill in a game where size matters little — Henry Clay’s championship game most valuable player Griffin Sims was one of the smallest on the field. Don’t let his stature fool you.
Sims scored all three of his goals in the second quarter of the Blue Devils’ 12-8 win over Lexington Catholic for the CLL title, perhaps one of the last unsanctioned high school lacrosse state matchups to be held if the KHSAA takes it in next spring.
With a roster depleted and hampered by injury, the Blue Devils established an 11-1 lead in the first three quarters and then hung on for the win in the face of a spirited rally by the Knights in front of a sizable crowd at Lafayette High School that included robust student sections supporting each team.
“All season came down to this,” Sims said. “It just shows that we’ve always had the fight in us. We’ve been through a lot of adversity this year. I’d say probably 10 of us out here, we’re not 100 percent, and we just ride together. It shows how we’re a family. We did it for each other.”
A Lexington Catholic miracle was unlikely but not impossible. LexCath scored seven goals in less than six minutes and had its deficit down to three goals with 1:53 to play — a testament to how exciting lacrosse can be.
“You can see, we about gave it up in that fourth quarter,” said first-year Henry Clay head coach William “Sport” Richmond. “We were running out of gas and running out of physical ability. … Wanting to burn some clock kind of took my guys out of rhythm. Part of it was me trying to play conservative and part of it was them over there playing really hard.”
Dominant start for the Blue Devils
Henry Clay’s players felt like their quarterfinals and semifinals leading up to Saturday’s championship were a bit too close for comfort, so they knew getting off to a good start against Lexington Catholic would be crucial.
“I talked to those boys. We really had to do it in the first quarter,” said senior midfielder Jackson Henderson, who scored the first of his game-high four goals in the first quarter. Teammate Colten Reynolds had a hat trick by halftime, giving Henry Clay three players with three or more goals. “I think we just pushed through the beginning of each quarter.”
Lexington Catholic woke up in the fourth quarter and began getting fast breaks and winning faceoffs to create more chances. The Knights’ Killian McCarthy began the run with two goals in less than a minute.
But time ran out on LexCath and when Henry Clay goalie Presley Richmond intercepted a final try, he launched a midfield lob into the opponent’s cage just before the horn for the final margin.
“They just went on a run. I got pretty scared. I’m not going to lie,” Presley Richmond said. “It was a great feeling at first when we were scoring those goals back-to-back.”
For Henry Clay (11-6), it was their sixth championship out of eight straight finals appearances in leagues that have included Lexington teams and others outside of the Louisville area.
“It’s been a different season for us. We had low numbers, a lot of injuries, but these guys have battled,” Coach Richmond said. “They played with a lot of heart this year. We played every top-10 team in the state. We’ve had a tough schedule and it was great for them mentally, but physically it took a toll on them. … It was pure adrenaline and heart that got them through this game.”
Girls champions, too
The boys’ win meant a sweep of state titles for Henry Clay, whose girls’ team won their league last Saturday against Woodford County in double overtime. The Yellow Jackets were the two-time defending champions.
Grace Waechter scored the game-winner with 20 seconds left in the second sudden death overtime period for a 10-9 victory on the Blue Devils’ home field.
Henry Clay’s girls finished the season with a 17-4 record and went undefeated in the Commonwealth league. Their four losses came to teams who play their postseason in a different league — Atherton (twice), South Oldham and Manual.
The lacrosse landscape
Kentucky’s high school lacrosse teams are split into two separate entities for both boys and girls with each declaring a state champion. The day before Henry Clay’s win in the CLL, St. Xavier won the Kentucky Scholastic Lacrosse League state title contested among Louisville area teams.
The boys’ CLL includes 23 teams — all nine Lexington schools are a part — and features teams from as far away as Bowling Green. The boys’ KSLL features Louisville and Oldham County teams.
One the girls’ side, there were 17 active Commonwealth league teams from Lexington and areas across the state and 17 KSLL girls’ teams from around Louisville plus Notre Dame from northern Kentucky. The girls’ KSLL tournament has not yet reached its conclusion.
Even without KHSAA sanctioning, lacrosse in Kentucky has grown. The CLL fielded an all-star game ahead of the state championship and listed many who will continue to play in college.. The boys’ CLL title game was streamed live by WBON on its YouTube channel.
While they participate in separate postseason tournaments, the respective boys’ and girls’ teams do play each other across leagues during the regular seasons. Henry Clay faced seven KSLL boys’ teams during the year, going 3-4 against them.
In both boys’ and girls’ lacrosse, the Louisville league teams rank higher on the LaxNumbers.com ratings and occupy the top four spots on the boys’ rankings and the top eight spots on the girls’ rankings. The Henry Clay boys’ team has never beaten St. Xavier, for instance.
The KHSAA is expected to sanction lacrosse as early as next spring, but it is not known how the organization will structure the boys’ and girls’ leagues or how many more schools will add lacrosse to their athletics departments in the coming year.
Growth is expected, but there will be growing pains, too, especially if teams who have already established themselves as powerhouses aren’t separated into different class competitions as is done in football, cross country and track. A single class competition like basketball, soccer and volleyball could set up private-school dominated state tournaments like those that have existed in volleyball for decades now. No public school has ever won the state volleyball tournament.
But volleyball’s growth doesn’t seem to be adversely affected by that competitive imbalance. And Henry Clay’s Coach Richmond believes his team is closing the gap on those big Louisville schools.
“We’re one of the better teams around here,” Richmond said. “We’ve still got some growing to do, but we can play with them. This is the best year we played St. X. We still lost by six, but usually, we lose by at least 15. And Trinity, we played them close. We’re getting closer.”
Whether KHSAA sanctioning happens or not, Henry Clay’s Reynolds, a senior, said he believes the team is set up for success for years to come.
“I just know we’ve set a good example,” Reynolds said. “There’s people coming up behind me who are going to play next year. … Henry Clay has had a target on our back for years. I think they’ll be ready.”