An initial fundraising goal of $50,000-$60,000 has been set.
Jason Morales was tired of watching the same, sad cycle.
Children would fall in love with a youth lacrosse program and would continue through elementary and middle schools.
But when it came to the high school level, no public schools offered lacrosse as a varsity sport.
If the parents couldn't afford private school, or if the parents could not furnish transportation to a faraway club program, lacrosse was out.
Morales, a coach for an area youth program, Monsters Lacrosse Academy, decided to take a stand. He played lacrosse growing up in Long Island, N.Y., and in college at Stony Brook University. Morales made calls to local high schools so his Monsters Lacrosse Academy players would have somewhere to land when they reached high school.
Some athletic directors wanted nothing to do with starting a varsity lacrosse program, but one was open to the idea — Lakewood Ranch’s Shawn Trent.
Lakewood Ranch, and Manatee High which subsequently showed interest as well, are attempting to start lacrosse programs for spring 2018 and would become the first two public high schools in Manatee County with such programs.
To comply with Title IX regulations, Trent told Morales, a girls lacrosse team had to be fielded before a boys team, which means they had to find someone to lead that program. Through an elaborate maze of connections, Sammy Stoltz, a teacher at Lakewood Ranch and an assistant coach on the softball team, became the leader of the girls’ team. Stoltz played lacrosse at Shorter University in Georgia.
From there, Stoltz said they needed to show they had enough girls interested to field a team, and then they had to find a place to play. Other important factors include figuring out a budget.
Some of those questions remain unanswered, and will remain that way until funding arrives. Manatee County might provide a little financial support, Morales said, but the majority of funds will have to be raised.
The team has set an initial fundraising goal range of $50,000 to $60,000, which would cover costs for at least one year, possibly more. For context, Riverview High School in Sarasota started its lacrosse programs in spring 2016, and raised approximately $120,000, intended to sustain the program for three years, with costs covering coaches’ salaries, referees, transportation, uniforms, protective equipment, field equipment and maintenance, lights and balls, per SRQLAX, the non-profit which handled the fundraising for Riverview.
Morales said he is not worried about meeting the goal. The program is hosting a fundraising dinner April 28 at Lakewood Ranch High, catered by Carrabba's, which will feature a speech from former University of Notre Dame lacrosse player Chris Sforzo. There are also plans for a golf fundraiser, and the school will host both girls and boys youth lacrosse camps this summer.
Stoltz and Morales, with help from other Monsters coaches, have been holding information sessions and lacrosse clinics at the school. Stoltz said her clinics attracted 35, 33 and 36 girls, respectively, surpassing all expectations. Stoltz worked with the girls on the fundamentals of the game, like catching and throwing. That way, when the first season arrives, players can actually be taught the nuances of the game, she said.
Morales said he was “blown away” by the number of students at his clinics as well. A few years ago, he made similar calls to schools in attempts to get a lacrosse program started, but the interest was not there, from neither the administrations nor the kids themselves. The sport has boomed exponentially since then.
“The last couple years, it's pretty much been the fastest growing youth sport in America,” Morales said. “Most sports have been seeing a drop-off. Football has, just with the injuries. Baseball, I think it's more of a lack of activity. It's a lot of standing around.
"This is kind of a mixture of a lot of sports. Obviously, like in any sport, you can get hurt. I think parents are really nervous about sending at least younger kids into football, with all the head injuries and stuff. Nationally, lacrosse is taking off.”
It has in Florida. According to statistics from the National Federation of State High School Associations, Florida saw a 70% increase in lacrosse participation from 2009-2013, with 8,063 high school athletes playing the sport in 2013. That is the second-largest growth of any state during that period, trailing Minnesota (73%), but Minnesota only had 6,561 athletes participate in 2013. Most of Florida's growth took place on the east coast of the state, Morales said, with the gulf coast now trying to get an equal hold on the sport. The sport has not plateaued. For the 2015-2016 season, the most recent data available, 11,948 Florida high school athletes played lacrosse.
Stoltz has a unique perspective on programs attempting to build from nothing. She experienced it once before, but as a player. Her freshman year of high school, at Etowah High in Woodstock, Ga., was the school’s first year offering lacrosse. Stoltz joined for her sophomore season. The team did not enjoy much success early on, but those years did teach Stoltz lessons she is now passing on to the girls of Lakewood Ranch.
“Every year we got better,” Stoltz said. “My senior year, we made it to the state playoffs after only having a program for four years. I tell them all the time, if they buy into it, then they are going to be successful. Yes, it's going to be rough (at first), but I do think it's going to escalate and get better and better every year.”
Since the sport is not yet official, Trent cannot technically hire anyone to be the head coach of either program. Morales, who works full-time as a physical education teacher at Willis Elementary, told Trent he would offer to fill the boys’ coaching position if the school could not find another coach. Stoltz said she would accept the girls’ coaching position if it was offered.
There is still much work to be done, but Stoltz said things are on the right track. Trent will soon meet with school district officials to show them all the progress made and discuss the next steps. If all goes well with the meeting, and the initial fundraisers are successful, it is just a matter of time until Lakewood Ranch varsity lacrosse becomes official.
“I think think we are doing something really special,” Stoltz said. “ I think only benefits will come from it. The girls are really pumped, and that's what it's about, the players. They are really buying into it, and that is all we can ask for. They are working hard already.”