High school lacrosse in final season as club sport

TAMPA — In a November School Board meeting teeming with supporters, the landscape of Hillsborough County sports changed.

"It was very surreal," Robinson assistant coach Eric Smithers said.

The dreamlike scenario unfolding into reality that day was the culmination of efforts that had been in the works for years. All the fundraising, cajoling and advocating finally came to fruition.

Lacrosse would soon be a sanctioned varsity sport in Hillsborough County for boys and girls.

"The room was packed (with supporters)," Smithers said. "We were one of the last few things (the School Board) was voting on so we had to wait until near the end, but I could start to tell by the way the moderator was talking that the outcome would be in our favor."

The board voted unanimously (7-0) on an agreement with the Hillsborough County Lacrosse Alliance (HALAX) to bring the sport to around 10 schools. Alonso, Newsome, Robinson, Plant, Freedom, Wharton and Steinbrenner — which have strong feeder programs in the area — are all slated to be included, while the remaining schools are still in the works.

It marks the first time the district won't require every high school to offer a particular sport.

"I absolutely see every high school having a team in the next couple of years," said Robinson head coach Max Weinberg said. "It's very feasible that three or four schools will want to join in. HALAX will have to provide some financial support, but there will definitely be some interest. There already is some interest from other schools."

A 13-game schedule will commence in the spring of 2014. That makes this season the final one as a club sport for Hillsborough teams. They currently are competing one last time for the Florida Gulf Coast Lacrosse League championship against other bay area squads before moving into the Florida High School Athletic Association in 2014.

"The dynamics of the FGCLL will certainly change with the reduction of teams, but overall the league is happy to see the county move forward with hopes others will follow shortly," Newsome coach Frank Lanuto said. "The Hillsborough clubs are eager for 2014 as this is something the players have been hoping for for some time. I am sure there will be growing pains at first but this is the move forward we all wanted to see."

The alliance will foot the bill for the majority of costs when it becomes a varsity sport, including player equipment, uniforms and field maintenance.

"It's an expensive sport," Smithers said. "You have sticks that cost over $200, helmets that cost over $100, in addition to shoulder pads, elbow guards, (and) gloves."

And cost was the main sticking point with introducing lacrosse as a varsity-sanctioned sport in the county. The agreement between the school board and the alliance hopes to add lower-income schools, with Jefferson and Tampa Bay Tech being the most likely targets.

To drum up support there, clinics will be held at the two schools to introduce the sport. To date, the response has been positive.

"Our relationships with Jefferson and Tampa Bay Tech high schools are off to a great start," said Bruce McGonigal, an alliance board member whose daughter plays for Plant.

"Both school administrations are willing partners and are pleased to introduce lacrosse to their girls and boys," he said. "Area coaches, players, parents and programs, such as the University of Tampa, are stepping up to share their love of the sport. US Lacrosse's experience in developing and supporting new programs nationally will be a great compliment."

Smithers said he hopes this grass roots approach will improve the sport's profile and make it accessible to all schools.

"It sounds kind of cliched, but we think if you build it they will come," he said. "The thought is that more exposure will translate into more kids trying out and showing up."

That's pretty much how Robinson's program started in 2010. Smithers said just two players with any experience came out that first year for him and Weinberg. As word spread throughout the school, more and more kids came out every year. Even though the sport is a season away from becoming a sanctioned varsity sport, Smithers said it was tough to tell those original two players they would not get a varsity letter for lacrosse.

"They had been with me from the beginning and really started this whole thing here, so it was hard to tell them that lacrosse was going to be a varsity sport but not until they were gone," he said. "But this sport is a big family and I think they were happy for the (future) players too. It's all about getting the word out and growing the sport."

Times staff writer Ernest Hooper contributed to this report. Brandon Wright can be reached at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

High school lacrosse in final season as club sport 02/23/13 [Last modified: Friday, February 22, 2013 5:19pm]

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