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First Flight High School boys' lacrosse

Lacrosse on a Sandbar: Growing the Sport on the Outer Banks

October 2, 2023
John Van Lunen
First Flight High School

John Van Lunen was named First Flight High School’s first boys’ lacrosse coach in 2010 and continues to serve in that role.

When I left Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1997 to live on the Outer Banks, I left behind a very full life of lacrosse and 10 years of coaching experience. I moved to the beach to run a water sports business.

At first, I didn’t think I would miss lacrosse, but as I started raising my own kids, I found myself in the youth sports world. This got me wondering if I could help lacrosse get started on this little sandbar.

In 2005, much sooner than expected, a couple of other Maryland guys and I decided there was enough interest to start a team on the Outer Banks. Based on my experience, I knew that building a foundation at the youth level was crucial.

Initially, we had two big questions: Could we get field space for practices, and could we join a league?  

I had refereed a few games for Hampton Roads Youth Lacrosse (HRYLL), so I knew there was a league in our general vicinity. I reached out to the president of the organization, who didn’t hesitate to tell us “yes.” It was his unwavering support that gave us the inertia to move forward and start the team. Obviously, he was all about growth, even if it meant some teams had to drive a little further.

So, we formed a U13 boys team and joined the HRYLL, a USA Lacrosse league that was welcoming and accommodating. We started making regular treks, sometimes over an hour and a half away, to play games on the weekends. As kids moved up, we added U15 boys. Eventually, there was enough interest to also start youth girls’ lacrosse.

In 2010, just as we were growing the youth game and kids were aging out, an interesting thing happened. The state of North Carolina decided to make lacrosse a state-sanctioned sport. This gave public schools the green light to add lacrosse as a varsity sport.

First Flight High School in Kill Devil Hills, like its name suggests, didn’t want to be left behind and was eager to jump on board. It’s worth mentioning that HRYLL once again provided support, donating seed money to the school to help us get started with equipment and uniforms. We are eternally grateful for their support.

In 2016, First Flight High School added girls’ lacrosse, and they, too, have grown their team to be competitive in our region.

To grow the game, we’ve tried many different ways to attract new players, and Dare County Parks and Recreation has been a huge ally. From day one, they have always given us field space, knowing that we are offering another means for kids to get outside and play.

In 2019, a USA Lacrosse TryLax grant also allowed us to host an introductory clinic for new players. We used that event to springboard our Soft Stick league.

Currently, OBX Lacrosse offers co-ed Soft Stick Lacrosse to first- and second-grade students in the fall, and to third to sixth graders, boys and girls, in the spring. We operate these as in-house leagues to minimize cost and travel.

First Flight Middle School plays under the OBX Lacrosse banner and competes against club teams and private schools in Hampton Roads. Occasionally, they will compete in travel team tournaments. Also at First Flight Middle School, a girls’ team was created to compete in the Coastal Crush League for the first time in 2023.

First Flight High School offers varsity lacrosse with boys’ and girls’ teams that compete in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association. Our high school teams regularly qualify for the state playoffs, and in 2022, the boys’ team won the regional title to advance to the state championship game.

All of this didn’t happen overnight, but we have slowly developed and inspired new players who are beginning to trickle into the college ranks. With the Outer Banks serving as a popular place for relocation, more than once our programs have been fortunate to receive new, experienced players who have helped build our momentum.

The Outer Banks is a special place, and it’s not uncommon for us to spend more time in the car or bus than on the field. Some of our more serious players will drive over 90 minutes each way to compete on weekends or attend travel team workouts. Our high school teams belong to a conference where the nearest North Carolina lacrosse program is a four-hour bus drive away, and we will occasionally return home after midnight.

Over time, the teams have evolved, interest has waxed and waned, coaches have come and gone, and kids have transferred in and out. However, we have faithfully provided an opportunity for kids to try lacrosse, and we will continue to grow the sport by building a strong foundation and creating a positive experience for all.