Once upon a time — in the mid and late 2000s, to be exact — lacrosse was a marquee sport at East Hampton High School. The Bonac programs, both the boys and girls team, showed they could not only compete with but beat powerhouse Long Island teams and make deep runs into the postseason.
Standout players like Zach Brenneman (Notre Dame), Jarred Bowe (Delaware), and Jay Foley (Villanova) earned scholarships to big-name Division I programs. There was enough success to consider the programs healthy and established, to assure that, even in down years, they’d remain viable and produce a pipeline of players interested in keeping that winning tradition alive. When more than 150 kids from grades K through eighth showed up for a lacrosse camp in East Hampton in 2010, that seemed to be evidence of that idea.
Over time, however, the teams struggled to maintain that winning momentum, and by 2016 the situation was so dire that the Bonac boys lacrosse team agreed to join forces with other local school districts to create a shared squad for the boys team, just to keep the program alive. The spring of 2022 will mark the sixth season boys from East Hampton who want to play lacrosse will compete as part of the “South Fork” team that also includes players from Southampton, Pierson, Bridgehampton, and the Ross School. For the girls team, meanwhile, East Hampton has hosted a combined program for girls that is open to female players from Ross, Bridgehampton, and Pierson.
It’s been a long fall from grace for a program with such an impressive history, but it hasn’t been all doom and gloom over the last several years. In 2020, in a pandemic shortened season, the South Fork boys made the postseason for the first time ever, losing in a first-round game, but enjoying their most successful season as a combined program. In recent years, there have been signs of hope for the sport in East Hampton in particular, and while it may still be early to call it a total resurgence, parents and coaches in the area are feeling more optimistic about the sport’s future than they have in some time.
Four male players — Charles Corwin, Luke Castillo, Jack Cooper, and J.P. Amaden — have emerged as standouts for the South Fork program, and all four hail from East Hampton. They’ve all played lacrosse since they were in kindergarten, and are underclassmen who still have more years on varsity to look forward to. All of them play for Legacy Lacrosse, a high level club team based in Patchogue, and regularly travel to compete at showcases and invitation-only tournaments as well, helping them earn the kind of recognition that might secure a spot on a college roster in the future. Corwin was recently named an Under-Armour All-American, ranking him among the top 25 players on Long Island.
There is also an effort underway to revive a youth program in the town. Ricky Smith, a Hicksville High School graduate and former standout player at the University of Virginia, a college lacrosse powerhouse, recently moved full time to Springs with his family, and has started East End Lacrosse Club, teaching the game to boys and girls from ages 6 to 15. He’s been hosting weekly lacrosse clinics at the Neighborhood House, introducing players to the fundamentals and hoping to build momentum to start up competitive youth teams again.
“It’s been a mix of boys and girls, and some days we have more girls than boys,” he said, adding he’s been keeping it fun and light, and has been happy to have the help of some current high school players. “We’re just focusing on building skills and getting kids excited to have a stick in their hands, so it’s in the very early stages.”
Smith and his wife, Meredith Smith, who also played lacrosse at UVA, recently committed to living in Springs full time, after the changes wrought by the pandemic have made it possible for them to work from home while raising their three young children. Living out east was an easy decision, Smith said, but he and his wife want to make sure there are opportunities for their children to play youth sports, particularly the sport they both love, which is part of the reasons he’s jumped in and made a commitment to trying to revive the youth program.
Aside from his own personal investment, Smith said he also wants to share and grow the love of the sport that has been such a big part of his life.
“I just want to give back to the sport,” he said. “Because it’s given me so much.”
There are plenty of parents eager to see Smith succeed and willing to help in the effort to establish a healthy youth program. Thriving youth programs are a big indicator of future success at the varsity level in every sport, but it’s not always a guarantee, a fact that parents like Chris Corwin have long understood. He founded East Hampton Youth Lacrosse seven years ago with fellow parent Chris Stewart. Corwin played the sport his entire life, and has passed on the love of lacrosse to his children, Charlie, 15, a rising sophomore, and 13-year-old twins James and Katherine. He said he’s seen a disconnect in recent years between decent buy-in at the youth level, with a full slate of youth teams in East Hampton Youth Lacrosse, and then a drop-off when those players came of age to play at the junior varsity and varsity level.
“We always had a full slate of teams spanning age groups, coached by volunteer dads, and it was a pretty robust program,” Corwin said. “Certainly, COVID played a role in that deteriorating a bit. But we’ve coached a lot of kids that when they get to high school, they decide not to play.”
Corwin admitted he doesn’t have a clear answer for why that happens or how to fix it, but he said he suspected that the extra time commitment required for boys to play on the combined South Fork team — which hosts practices and games in Southampton — might be a deterrent for some, although he also admitted that the combined team option was currently still probably the best way for lacrosse to survive and be viable at the varsity level.
As for what happens beyond the 2022 lacrosse season, there is hope, but the future is still unclear.
“If there’s one sport that Long Island has really identified with, it’s lacrosse, and not even being able to field a team for [East Hampton High School] is tough,” Mr. Corwin said. “We have a number of kids who have really overachieved, not just with South Fork, but playing at the highest level in travel programs. So there’s hope and I think there’s some momentum.”