WESLEY CHAPEL — Anyone uncertain that lacrosse can be a draw in Pasco County should cruise past the vicinity of Wesley Chapel District Park this weekend. Thousands will be taking in the Dick's Sporting Goods Tournament of Champions, one of the most prestigious youth events the sport puts on nationally.
Now, if that could only translate to people showing up for high school games . . .
Despite its popularity on the club level, lacrosse likely won't draw many outside friends and family until Pasco County schools are included in Florida High School Athletic Association districts.
"People might actually go to the games. Right now it's just the parents and close friends," says Eric Handman, director of fundraising for the Pasco County Lacrosse Alliance.
Handman, a lacrosse enthusiast whose son, Jeffrey, plays for Lincoln Memorial University, has been on the job since the Pasco lacrosse alliance was formed in August. He's seen the sport rise in Hillsborough County, after many of its schools joined on an FHSAA level three seasons ago.
In Pasco, Handman knows the popularity is there — but the money isn't.
"Money is a big thing," he said. "It kind of sets it all up. Then once you're recognized as a high school sport, there shouldn't be a problem getting kids to try out. But (most) kids don't want to play a sport that's not recognized. There's a stigma."
With all of that in mind, Handman will be hoping for a good turnout at the Pasco lacrosse alliance tent this weekend. The tournament runs Friday through Sunday, with upwards of 100 teams competing in five age groups (11-under, 13U, 15U, rising stars, elite). Games run from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. each day.
This weekend's goal for Handman, who will be set up in the Vendor Village, is to sell raffle tickets. The kit and caboodle fundraiser is March 25: the Pasco Lax Harley Jam will feature live bands and the chance to win a $20,000 cash prize or 2017 Harley Davidson Street Guide.
Raffle tickets for that prize, $100 each, along with general admission to the event ($10), will be available for the first time this weekend. The March event (more at pascolaxharleyjam.com) is at the Concourse Rotary Pavilion in Spring Hill.
By the time it rolls around, lacrosse will be in full swing in Pasco high schools like Wiregrass Ranch, Wesley Chapel, Sunlake and Mitchell — but for now, still at the club level. The goal is to get it FHSAA recognized for spring 2018.
Pasco County Lacrosse Alliance president David Mazursky says the cooperation from Pasco schools has been great. A rarity for club teams, many of the Pasco squads will have the high school fields available to them.
"It's a pay-for-play sport," Handman said. "We need to help fund the teams, and completely fund teams at Title I schools. Right now it's $300, $350 or so per person. The ref, the bus, the coaching fees, field, goals, balls, equipment . . . and getting it (FHSAA recognized) can help drive down the costs."
Donation information can be found at pascolax.org.
Those who want to drive down to the Wesley Chapel fields this weekend will see the sport at its top level, with national titles at stake. The Dick's tournament has featured many a player who's gone on to an outstanding NCAA career. Lyle Thompson, who set the NCAA career points record, played in the event three times.
And not just anyone can get in. There are more than 65 qualifying tournaments involved.
"This was really the first qualification-based national competition in the sport," says Josh Gross, vice president of business operations for NDP Lacrosse, which puts on the event. "Others have emerged since then, (but) teams keep coming to our tournament because the competition is great, the event is well-run, and the experience of coming to Florida for New Year's is phenomenal. It's massive."