WESLEY CHAPEL — Lacrosse is one of the fastest growing sports in the United States, and Wesley Chapel hosts two of the southeast's best male lacrosse tournaments, but girls have had less opportunity to compete until now.
The first I Lacrosse My Heart girls' tournament was held last weekend, doubling as a fundraiser for St. Joseph's Pediatric Heart Center. Tampa Tribe coach Renee Diaz helped develop the idea for the tournament to give young female lacrosse players another competitive setting.
"Girls lacrosse always lags behind the boys game a bit, and we see that especially here locally," Diaz said. "Instead of our girls having to go over to the other side of the state all of the time, we wanted to something here that would also benefit charity, so we chose St. Joseph's because a couple of us have had kids who have received treatment at that hospital."
New women's lacrosse programs at Saint Leo University and Florida Southern University were on hand to play an exhibition match and offer a coaching clinic on Saturday.
"The college teams were phenomenal in their support of this tournament, and for the first time we've ever done this tournament, we've raised good money for charity," Wesley Chapel's lacrosse director Joe Palermo said.
Parent Heart Watch, an advocacy group dedicated to protecting youth from sudden cardiac arrest on the playing field, was also on hand to educate parents and coaches on the importance of being trained on automated external defibrillators, or AED machines.
"It's important people realize that cardiac issues can affect their children and if they don't get treated early, they could lose them when they come out here on the field," Diaz said. "The support we've received for this tournament and the exhibition game has been amazing. I expected 50 girls for the game, but we had 109. I think seeing those teams play shows the girls that they can go to college and play lacrosse, so a lot of them were very excited about it."
Diaz hopes that lacrosse will become big enough for the Florida High School Athletic Association and Tampa Bay schools to make it a sanctioned school sport, something that has happened in other parts of the state.
"We have to do things like this so our girls can continue playing competitive lacrosse throughout the year," Diaz said. "Hopefully this can make them stand up and take notice."
The tournament was attended by all of the Tampa Tribe teams that call Wesley Chapel District Park home as well as the South Tampa Sticks, Newsome High School, the FishHawk Coyotes, Orange County Storm and others.
"I think this tournament has a really good format and was well organized," FishHawk coach Chris Crusey said. "From a community standpoint in the bay area, we couldn't have done this two years ago. Now we have over 100 players here, and the level of play is a lot higher than what it was two years ago. Events like this will only keep raising the bar."