TAMPA — To get an idea of how lacrosse is increasing in popularity in the Tampa Bay area, just look at the past couple of weeks.
Let's see, kids played at more than 10 youth leagues from “South Tampa Sticks” to “Wesley Chapel Lacrosse,” from a prestigious national high school tournament at Jesuit High to local face-offs at Plant High, Jefferson and Tampa Bay Tech.
Add it up, and thousands played, probably somewhere near you.
“Momentum is building,” said Jim Shaler, who started South Tampa Sticks in 2001 with 20 kids, a number that increased to more than 400 this year. “The wave is growing.”
This year, the lacrosse wave swept into Hillsborough County Athletics, which approved a three-year pilot program that moved lacrosse from a club sport to a Florida High School Athletic Association sanctioned sport for county public schools.
It is a plan conceived and executed by the Hillsborough County Lacrosse Alliance (HALAX), a non-profit organization working with boys and girls teams at 10 county high schools: Alonso, Durant, Freedom, Jefferson, Newsome, Plant, Robinson, Steinbrenner, Tampa Bay Tech and Wharton. More schools can be added as time goes on.
For now, it is set up as a “pay to play” sport, which translates to a $390 participation fee (plus a $35 membership fee to U.S. Lacrosse). The money is put into a “centralized-funded” pot for goals, balls, refs, uniforms, equipment, field maintenance, coaching stipends, some transportation and other costs as needed.
At Jefferson and TBT, grants from U.S. Lacrosse paid for the teams' equipment, which according to a couple of Dragons was both unexpected and much appreciated.
“I had never even heard of lacrosse until I saw it on (the TV show) 'Teen Wolf,' ” Jefferson senior defender Adis Morin said. “I had no idea how to play it. I had never even played a sport before.”
But there Morin was with 100 other boys and girls at five after-school clinics in the spring of 2013, learning from parents and coaches (some from Plant High) about lacrosse, the sanctioned sport that was coming to Jefferson in the spring of 2014.
“I fell in love with it,” Morin said, moments after being beaten 16-0 by visiting Robinson. “I wish it had been here four years ago, because I would have played it every year.”
Jefferson has not won a game and has been outscored 75-14, but as Morin said, “It's been fun!”
In the Dragons' game against local powerhouse Plant, Jefferson lost 20-4, and it could have been a lot worse if the Panthers — winner of club-sport titles the past several years — hadn't let off the accelerator.
Afterward, everyone was smiling, especially after Plant's girls passed along hand-made goodie bags to the Jefferson girls.
“We wanted to say 'Welcome to the sport, we're glad you're here,' ” Plant coach Jayne Chapman said. “We need Jefferson and Tampa Bay Tech and all the others to succeed. We want lacrosse to (remain a sanctioned sport) in our schools. We'll help anyone who wants to get better.”
This year at Plant, Chapman said she has seen a “tremendous increase” in the interest because lacrosse is sanctioned, and that means the team can practice and play games at the school, something it couldn't do when lacrosse was a club sport.
For Shaler, who refereed one of the Jefferson boys' first games, the experience of watching the Dragons suit up and play, “gave me goosebumps. It was so cool to see those kids (including several Jefferson football players) get into it. It gave me more hope.”
Three years from now, Shaler hopes to feel super confident when HALAX and the county sit down and evaluate the pilot program. If enough interest and financial viability has been established, then it's likely lacrosse will remain sanctioned.
“Because of the cost, it might be a challenge as time goes on,” Hillsborough County director of athletics Lanness Robinson said. “But I do know that there are many people passionate about the sport, and there are college scholarship opportunities out there. There are many positive things that can come out of this. We'll just have to see how it goes.”
The fact remains that lacrosse is not only the fastest-growing sport in Hillsborough County, but in the state and the country, as well. In Florida, more than 150 schools are sanctioned this year to play for state titles in both girls and boys lacrosse.
District tournaments begin the second week of April, and the state finals will be held May 2-3 at Bradenton's IMG Academy. Of the local schools, Jesuit, ranked No. 8 in central Florida, appears to have the best shot at making some noise in the boys' state series. For the girls, watch out for Plant, which is 6-0 and ranked 20th in the state, highest among local schools.
“The exciting thing is that you get to represent your school and play for a state title,” Chapman said. “There is something about playing for your school that makes it special.
“It's an exciting time, an exciting time for lacrosse.”