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Student-athletes fight to bring varsity lacrosse to Hillsborough high schools

When Olivia Harris started playing lacrosse a few years ago, she instantly fell in love.

"I've played other sports," the 14-year-old said, "but lacrosse is the one I like best."

She spends between 15 and 20 hours a week body checking opponents, cutting toward the crease and flinging the ball from the pocket of her crosse. For the past three years, Olivia has traveled from her Valrico home to play the games with teams in Wesley Chapel and, most recently, South Tampa.

"It's a long way," she said. "I think it's worth it though."

But as of the upcoming year, Olivia may be a player without a team.

In Hillsborough County, lacrosse is a club sport. The teams often have names that allude to their geographic locations such as the Freedom Lacrosse Club, a nod to their proximity to Freedom High School. But lacrosse teams are not officially affiliated with public schools.

Until last year, the sport's governing body allowed lacrosse players to join teams in other areas if no club team existed near their home or school. But a new rule, designed to prepare for the day when Hillsborough County sanctions lacrosse as a varsity sport, changed that. Now, if there is no team near the player's school, that player will have to sit the season out.

That's the case for Olivia, who will be a freshman this fall at Bloomingdale High School. With no Bloomingdale team, she won't be able to play.

"We keep trying to find out why this is happening, and we keep running into brick walls," her mother, Jolie Harris, said. "We feel like all the time and money we have spent over the last three years is going down the drain because of this new rule."

• • •

Lacrosse's popularity has skyrocketed over the past decade, and Hillsborough County is no exception. According to a study by US Lacrosse, the sport's national governing body, youth participation has blossomed from 125,000 in 2001 to more than 350,000 today.

The Florida High School Athletic Association adopted lacrosse as a varsity sport in 2007 and since then, a number of counties throughout the state have joined, rising up from the club level.

"It's growing across the state," said Ginger Bean, a member of the girl's varsity lacrosse committee leadership group for the Florida Gulf Coast chapter of US Lacrosse. "It's big down in the southern part of the state."

Yet Hillsborough County, where an estimated 2,500 students in middle and high schools play the sport, has yet to join. Representatives of the sport request each year that lacrosse be added in the county, but officials haven't budged.

Adding a sport in the current economic conditions is highly unlikely anytime soon, county officials said.

"I don't care if there are a million teams (playing), the interest level is not an indicator of our decisions," county athletic director Lanness Robinson said. "No outside influences will affect us. We do what we feel is best for all the student-athletes in the county."

Because Hillsborough doesn't recognize lacrosse as a varsity sport, schools have no affiliation with the teams.

"The parents and league provide all financing for uniforms and things like that as of right now," said Bean, who also coaches the Freedom Lacrosse team. "But the goal is to eventually have it sanctioned by the county."

Before West Florida and Sunshine State Lacrosse merged to form Florida Gulf Coast Lacrosse in 2010, club teams that went by school names could have up to five players from other areas on their teams.

But that changed when the newly formed chapter decided players must be students at their club team's associated school — even though the schools have no official connection to these teams.

"(The rule) came about to prepare ourselves and the teams for a possible inclusion (into the FHSAA) through the county recognizing lacrosse as a varsity sport," Bean said.

That leaves Olivia and other players out in the cold.

"It's sad because (Olivia) is very talented and really loves to play the game," said Tim McGoff, who coaches her this summer with a Tampa Catholic High club team. "And some girls are going to get caught in the middle."

• • •

Olivia had played with a middle school team called the South Tampa Sticks and planned to later join a club team near Robinson High School. Then she learned the new rule.

"I was surprised and, yeah, I think it's unfair," she said. "It's not my fault we don't have a Bloomingdale team, so I should be able to play somewhere."

Kids who are currently enrolled at one school and play for another club team outside of their area will be "grandfathered" in and allowed to stay with their current team. Bean is aware some incoming freshmen will have nowhere to play next year, but said the change must be done.

"In order to move toward being recognized as a (varsity) sport, we have to emulate the FHSAA rules as much as possible," she said.

Ed Whitson, who coaches the South Tampa Sticks, said the new rule "is shutting the door in the faces of players."

"This is not the way to grow the sport because you're just ostracizing kids who want to play," he said. "All this is doing is freezing them out."

Olivia's only options are to attend another school or start a club team that goes by the name Bloomingdale. But she knows few girls around her area who play. Besides, starting a club from scratch is a massive undertaking.

"You're going to put that on a 14-year-old?" Whitson said. "If that's the case, then at least give them some support."

Bean said it has been done before.

"It is a big undertaking that requires a lot of commitment from parents and volunteers," said Bean. "But it's what we all did seven years ago when we got started."

Situations like Olivia's are "unfortunate," Bean said.

"We're trying to figure out a way to rectify this," she said. "Maybe there can be some type of override but it's something we will have to review at the next meeting."

The Florida Gulf Coast committee is supposed to meet some time this summer. Until then, all Olivia can do is keep playing this summer for the Tampa Catholic team.

She hopes something can be worked out before the fall.

"I've played other sports like flag football and softball so if I can't play (lacrosse), I guess I'll just play one of those," Olivia said. "But I really love lacrosse."

Brandon Wright can be reached at hillsnews@sptimes.com.

Student-athletes fight to bring varsity lacrosse to Hillsborough high schools 06/23/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 23, 2011 3:31pm]

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