Lacrosse, a sport booming in popularity at area high schools and youth clubs, is netting a diverse group of players enrolled in a summer program at Benito Recreation Center.
A year ago, Elijah Russell didn't know anything about lacrosse, a game first played by North American Indians.
Now the 10-year-old looks forward to Thursdays, when lacrosse is played at the community center operated by the Tampa Parks and Recreation Department on the Benito Middle School campus, 10001 Cross Creek Blvd.
"I like playing offense, because we run a lot," says Elijah, who lives in Arbor Greene.
Lacrosse "is very active," he says. "You have a stick, and it's not like a regular sport.
"I haven't played a lot, but it's a very fun game."
While interest in the game is skyrocketing in Tampa and nationwide, lacrosse is overcoming a stigma that it mainly is played by the wealthy in affluent communities.
Although a well-known black athlete, Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, was a two-time lacrosse All-American at Syracuse University from 1954 to 1957, lacrosse continues to fight a perception that the sport lacks diversity.
In New Tampa, Benito Recreation Center staff members, with support of the New Tampa Lacrosse Association, are introducing the sport to a broader audience of potential players.
The area lacrosse association has donated balls, sticks, helmets and other equipment to children learning to play the game, says Jason MacKenzie, site supervisor at the Benito Recreation Center. The association also allows the community center to use goal stands on the sports field.
Expanding the potential talent pool for lacrosse in New Tampa is a practical move. The area has become a hotbed for lacrosse in less than a decade.
Local club teams and the area's elite travel squad are fielding some of the best players in the state. Wharton and Freedom high schools have club teams.
The New Tampa Lacrosse Association has been recognized by lacrosse enthusiasts throughout Florida for producing a wealth of all-star talent in recent years.
MacKenzie was new to lacrosse when he introduced it to the children in the summer program in 2004. He never had played the game.
"We started lacrosse on a whim," MacKenzie said. "I didn't know the rules. Now the kids know the rules and how to play."
MacKenzie, who has worked at the recreation center since 2003, relished how well the 125 students in this summer's program have picked up the game. He and other members of the coaching staff join in the six-minute games to help supervise the flow of each match.
"Most of the kids have been here for a while," MacKenzie says.
He sees it as advantageous that many of the same students return each summer to help new enrollees learn how to play the sport.
Players such as Darrien Reynolds, 19, of Heritage Isles, now work at the recreation center. The Hillsborough Community College student played lacrosse two years on the Wharton team before he graduated.
"I got involved [with the sport] through here," says Reynolds, who is black.
He was enrolled in the summer program in 2009 when he developed a passion for the game.
"It was one of our rotational sports," he said. "One year I got really good. I scored a lot of points and decided I wanted to play lacrosse."
Learning the technique for cradling – carrying the ball in the stick while running – was difficult, Reynolds says.
Many of the players spend at least a few weeks fine-tuning their skills to try to learn how correctly to use the netted stick and cradle the ball downfield toward the goal.
"When I started I had no idea about the technique of the sport," Reynolds said. "I was carrying it like an egg in a spoon."
It took Reynolds two months after joining the Wharton club team to get the hang of the proper use of his wrists to control the stick and to keep the ball moving toward the goal, he says.
The city of Tampa summer recreation program targets children age 5 to 17. Participants at the Benito center this year are a diverse collection of students from varying backgrounds and ethnicities from New Tampa, Wesley Chapel and Land O' Lakes.
MacKenzie keeps the children motivated by exposing them to a different sport each day. They play baseball on Mondays, football on Tuesdays, street hockey on Wednesdays, lacrosse on Thursdays and soccer on Fridays.
He requires players to be at least 8 years old to participate in the contact sports.
"Our girls are much more vicious than our boys" when they play lacrosse, MacKenzie said. "They really get after the ball. They are really aggressive."
Zaria Johnson, 15, who recently moved from Temple Terrace to Land O' Lakes, gets excited when it's her time to play. Zaria is a veteran player and has attended the summer recreation program since age 5.
She plays offense and on face-offs to determine which team will get possession of the ball at the start of the game and after a point is scored.
"I like running with [the ball] and trying to score," Zaria says. "But it's difficult because everyone is throwing sticks at you."
Zaria, who is black, is happy she has had a chance to learn the game.
"It should be played by every race," Zaria says.
The coaches and players don't dwell on lacrosse's past. They speak happily about its future.
"These are your neighborhood kids," MacKenzie said. "This is a melting pot."
Russell Johnson, Zaria's father and a recreation leader at the Benito center, said the program offers students quality activities and exercise to help them stay focused and energized while they are out of school.
"We just want to get all the kids involved," Russell Johnson says. "We want to get them all to play and to keep active."
The approach is well suited to Juan Uribe, 9, of Wesley Chapel. He hopes to earn more playing time. He likes all of the positions on the field – offense, defense, midfield and goalie.
"I like it because it there is a lot of action from one side of the field to the other," Juan said. "I like scoring goals."
Isaac Kim, 11, of Heritage Isles, considers lacrosse a good source of exercise. But the rising Benito Middle sixth-grader isn't so sure he wants to pursue the game beyond the summer program.
Jack Saturno, 9, of Hunter's Green, thinks playing lacrosse with a bunch of new friends beats alternatives.
"You don't want to sit around and play videos all day," Jack says. "You want to get exercise and don't be lazy."