The program made the Sweet 16 in its first playoff-eligible season.
Two years ago, the Riverview High boys lacrosse team did not exist.
This year, its first with playoff eligibility, the team finished 11-6 in the regular season, then won the District 17 championship 9-8 over Cardinal Mooney on April 6.
They were not done.
The Rams beat Canterbury 9-6 a week later to advance to the state's Sweet 16. With four minutes to go April 18 against Barron Collier, a program with one loss this season, the Rams found themselves in an 8-8 tie, with an Elite 8 spot at stake. But more on that later.
None of this post-season success would have been possible without the work of SRQLAX, a nonprofit group created to promote the sports in Sarasota County. Rams coach Pete deLisser was involved with the group, along with president Rachel Hautamaki and others. The organization raised approximately $120,000 to sustain Riverview’s boys and girls programs for three years. The money pays for referee fees, transportation, uniforms, protective gear, field equipment and upkeep, lights, balls, among other expenses.
DeLisser said he believes area club lacrosse is coming to an end. He wanted his players to have an outlet for the sport once they reached high school, hence the effort to make it a varsity sport at Riverview as a test case. But SRQLAX hopes to eventually get lacrosse set up in all Sarasota County schools.
Once established, the program improved quickly. The Rams’ three senior captains, attackers Jesse Clark and Cole Hautamaki and defenseman Max Drewett, saw the team had potential, but even they did not expect this level of success. They owe it mostly to the chemistry of playing together previously on youth teams.
Drewett recently took his defenders out for a positional picnic, a thank you for the hard work the group put into the season. Drewett brought chips and salsa to eat and blankets for lounging. The goaltending crew brought pizza and brownies. Others brought drinks, like Capri Sun. Corn hole was played.
“It was all very romantic,” Drewett joked.
Clark gave Drewett a hard time for the gesture but called him a “true captain” with as much truth as tongue-in-cheek sarcasm.
DeLisser also pointed out the work done by defensive coach Allan Asselstine, tightening things on that side of the field to give the Rams' prolific offense more time to score.
Hautamaki said while the talent was always there, the team started to believe in itself halfway through the season. Losses to Cardinal Mooney and Maclay, the latter of which saw the Rams blow a five-goal, second-half lead, forced the team to re-evaluate.
“We were all kind of down on ourselves,” Clark said. “We got together and talked, and decided we were a team good enough to beat whoever we face. We took it upon ourselves to get back into things, work harder every day in practice.”
“We got this grit,” Hautamaki said of the change in attitude.
Not only did the Rams feel they had to prove themselves, but they also had to prove Sarasota in general.
Lacrosse is still trying to take hold in the area. The county is behind other parts of Florida in this regard. According to 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. There were 187 high schools with boys lacrosse programs last season (the most recent data available), but just one Sarasota County public school and no public schools in neighboring Manatee County. Lakewood Ranch is in the process of gearing up.
As the first area public school with the sport, Hautamaki said representing everyone else is “the best feeling in the world.” Drewett mentioned the team has received support from other schools. The St. Stephen’s girls team came out to watch the Rams’ first-round state playoff game. Clark said the team has received recognition from teams in Tampa and Naples.
All three captains were happy to help spread the game in the county. The more exposure they and the sport get, the faster the sport will grow in the county.
Ultimately, the game against Barron Collier, and the high school careers of Clark, Drewett and Hautamaki, ended in defeat. Barron Collier scored with just under four minutes left, taking a 9-8 lead. Riverview had the ball with a minute left, but could not find a tying goal. No Rams left the field with heads hung low. They walked off proud of what they had accomplished for themselves, their school, their county, and their sport.
“It was a fantastic season,” deLisser said. “I’m incredibly proud of these guys.”