Area stars join forces with Cornelius-based Top Tier Lacrosse

by Aaron Burns

It could be any day of the summer, on any lacrosse field along the East Coast, against any travel-team opponent, and the same thing might happen: Danny Brown sprints down the field toward the goal with help from Mike Hart, Kyle Gradert and Truman Spittel.

In just four years, Top Tier Lacrosse – based in Cornelius and boasting the area’s best players from Lake Norman High, Hough, Lake Norman Charter, Hopewell, Davidson Day and Concord Cannon School – has become a force to be reckoned with in the world of travel-team summer lacrosse.

Born in 2008 from the vision of Steve Schattner, a standout lacrosse player at the University of North Carolina in the early 1990s, Top Tier brings the best talent together for a run at tournament championships every summer in states such as North and South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia and Maryland.

But it’s not the tournament wins that matter the most, said Brown, who spends the springtime as a star attackman for Lake Norman High; it’s the opportunity to gel with  his friends from school and players from opposing high school teams. Of course, the opportunity to learn from some of the best players and coaches also doesn’t hurt.

“It’s a great experience to be able to play all through the summer and keep a stick in my hand all the time,” said Brown, who had 45 goals and 22 assists for Lake Norman High.

“This is always fun to do, and we’re all like brothers.”

According to Schattner, Brown, who has attracted attention from several colleges with his performances in the spring and summer, is Top Tier’s prime scoring threat. He’s also a fine example of the kind of player Schattner says can excel at the college level: someone who can heed instruction and improve each game.

“Danny has brought all of the same things he does to his high school team to us – overall skill, leadership and a good attitude,” Schattner said. “But we’ve got several more guys who step up, too.”

Hart, a rising junior attack from Hough, who along with Lake Norman rising junior defender Kyle Gradert and Lake Norman Charter sophomore defender Truman Spittel, helps form the nucleus of what Spittel said is more than just an all-star team capable of beating any program it plays; it’s also a school of sorts for lacrosse.

“You can learn so much not just from the coaches but also your teammates that you can take back with you to high school games,” Spittel said. “High school lacrosse is all about the program, but here, you’re playing with the best of the best. I like to be challenged.”

Top Tier has an 18-1 record heading into a Tri-State tournament in New Jersey and then a Summer Sizzle tournament in Maryland this month. While Spittel enjoys seeing the wins coming in bunches, he agreed with Brown’s assessment that Top Tier’s primary appeal for local players is developing enough to become a good recruiting option for college teams.

Spittel, one of the team’s youngest players, said he frequently doesn’t notice the Division-I scouts that line the fields at all of the team’s games. But players such as Brown, Gradert and Hart all know the scouts are there and relish the opportunity to impress them.

“I’ll admit, playing games on the big fields with scouts taking note of every pass or shot you take can make you a bit nervous,” Brown said, “but you’ve just got to play your best all the time and play your hardest, too.

“It’s a lot better than not playing at all over the summer while guys your age are out getting better.”

Brown, who took up the sport just before high school, has seen firsthand the impact summer lacrosse has had on his skills as a player for the Wildcats. He’s also noticed how many more Lake Norman-area youths have begun playing the game.

Last month, when Top Tier had a camp for players of various ages, several UNC players served as instructors. Tar Heels junior midfielder Marcus Holman, who also worked the camp last summer, said he noticed the increase in attendance this year.

“Coming to an area like this that is really growing in the sport is a good thing,” Holman said. “I can definitely say it’s good to see kids come out and have a passion for the game. It’s evident they love to play.”

Spittel, who has only played lacrosse for three years, said another advantage of playing summer lacrosse with Lake Norman Charter teammate John Clark and Hopewell’s Ben James is that every player on Top Tier’s roster can enter fall and spring practices knowing they’ve improved their skills.

“I love going into the high school season seeing how much I’ve gotten better and (using) little tricks I’ve learned along the way from guys I wouldn’t know if I didn’t play (summer lacrosse),” Spittel said.

According to Schattner, who doesn’t keep players’ stats over the Top Tier season in attempt to keep players focused on development, the opportunity to combine the area’s best talent into a winning machine benefits Lake Norman-area lacrosse as a whole.

“And that’s all you could ask for,” Schattner said. “We’ve explained to the kids that they influence generations to come.”

In Brown’s opinion, all the education on the sport from coaches and Division-I talent, in addition to the travel, the friendships and practice, makes the hard work worthwhile.

“You’re playing lacrosse at the highest level in our age group, and that’s a great thing,” Brown said.