WESLEY CHAPEL — Lacrosse may be the fastest growing youth sport in the nation, but when it comes to high school, finding a place to earn a varsity letter jacket with a stick in your hand isn't so easy.
In Pasco County, there isn't a single school that belongs to a Florida High School Athletic Association-sanctioned district, despite the fact that Wiregrass Ranch and Wesley Chapel have highly successful lacrosse clubs.
In neighboring Hillsborough County, there are only four schools that can play for an FHSAA title, all of which are private schools. The story is similar in Pinellas County, where the private Admiral Farragut Academy has the lone sanctioned team.
Parents and organizers of school lacrosse teams have grown tired of working under the label of "club team" and want their kids to have the right to play for a state title and letter jackets. But that decision rests with the local school district.
"The kids want to play for their school," said Tampa Tribe coach Renee Diaz, whose daughters attend Wesley Chapel High. "They want a varsity letter. Many players, boys and girls, who would play lacrosse don't just for this reason, or lacrosse is their secondary sports commitment. This severely stunts the growth of lacrosse in our area. The rest of the nation is booming, but locally growth is slow."
Phil Bell, the Pasco school district's athletic director, is the man many feel needs convincing. Bell is quick to point out the number of schools involved in lacrosse is still small, despite the growth of the sport on the youth level. Only 138 of Florida's 800 high schools participate in FHSAA-sanctioned lacrosse.
"In our county we recognize that lacrosse is growing and we're not going to say never for the future, but at this point, only 17 percent of schools in the state are sanctioned," Bell said. "These decisions are based on the need of the students, and at this point we have some interest in lacrosse but I don't think we're there yet from a countywide perspective."
If the issue is funding, some parents and organizers have suggested the lacrosse program could pay its own way. But Bell believes it to be too big of a task for a public school to take on.
"The budgetary logistics of it are difficult when you consider fields, equipment and coaches," Bell said. "We haven't added any sports over the last four or five years, and with the way the economy has gone we're just hopeful we can keep what we have. Adding lacrosse is a much bigger task than I think a lot of people realize."
That reasoning doesn't satisfy those working to see the sport sanctioned.
"The money and cutbacks excuses are not acceptable," Diaz said. "They really don't want to take anything away from football. They don't want to say yes to us because we have a challenge with the number of teams we have in the county. We play the teams in Hillsborough right now, though, and could increase the number of teams by splitting some up. The sport is sanctioned in most other heavily populated areas of the state but we're left out to dry."
In fact last June the FHSAA issued a ruling that a school cannot sponsor a club team in a recognized FHSAA sport such as lacrosse. This made things even harder for local club teams because they cannot receive any support from the school, such as free access to fields. In fact, the Wesley Chapel team had to buy an ad just to be included in the yearbook, Diaz said.
The sport's annual jamboree was held last weekend at Wesley Chapel District Park and included 34 teams from as far as Ocala and Port Charlotte. Coaches like Robinson's Eric Smithers thought about forgoing the exhibition, but couldn't resist the rare environment it offers teams that have minimal opportunities to play meaningful games.
"Our season kicks off officially next week and this is a good way to get our offense clicking and play some good teams we may not normally get to see," Smithers said. "We almost thought about not coming but because of the atmosphere and all the different schools you face, it's worth the trip up to Wesley Chapel for us."