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Saturday, Nov 18, 2017
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Lacrosse players sticking by their sport

WESLEY CHAPEL - Renee Diaz didn't set out to become a lacrosse mom. Things just happened. About six years ago, one of her daughters, Arianna, was all set to play soccer, but at the last moment the soccer team for her age group was canceled. Diaz cast about for a replacement sport and a friend suggested lacrosse.
Diaz was skeptical. "I thought, 'Lacrosse? That's an elitist sport,' " she said. Her attitude changed quickly. Now she has two daughters — Arianna, 17, and Michaela, 15 — playing and Diaz has become so involved that sometimes she forces herself to dial things back a bit and take a night off. "I absolutely love it," Diaz said. One of the local downsides to the sport: High schools in Pasco County don't offer lacrosse as a varsity sport, so her daughters and other teenagers can't earn a letter from their schools. That's also true in Hillsborough County, but lacrosse players in Hillsborough could see their situation improve. The Hillsborough County School District is working on an agreement with a local lacrosse organization that could introduce the sport at the varsity level at several high schools that already have club teams. "I really believe it's what's right for the kids," Hillsborough board member April Griffin said at a recent meeting. "I want the students to have more opportunities." If board members vote to offer lacrosse, it will become the first pay-for-play sport in the Hillsborough district. Students would pay about $300 to participate. Students who could not afford the fee could qualify for a scholarship from the local lacrosse group. The Pasco County School District isn't expected to follow Hillsborough's lead any time soon. Diaz has lobbied Phil Bell, the school district's athletics director, on several occasions with no luck. "Unfortunately, we don't have enough teams in Pasco County," said Diaz, who serves as assistant director of Wesley Chapel Athletic Association Girls Lacrosse. "I don't think he'll take us seriously for awhile." Bell said he is monitoring what happens in other school districts, but Pasco is not ready to add lacrosse. The budget is one reason. Pasco has faced multi-million-dollar revenue shortfalls several years in a row, forcing spending cutbacks and making adding new athletic programs problematic. "We've been fortunate to hold onto the programs we have," Bell said. Also, interest in the sport is regionalized in Pasco. Teams are active in Wesley Chapel, where they participate as part of the Florida Gulf Coast Lacrosse League, but nowhere else. Bill Shatz, director of lacrosse at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, agrees with that assessment of the Pasco situation. "There's an interest, but the problem in Pasco is there is nowhere near the penetration of the sport as in Hillsborough," Shatz said. Even Hernando County has a more active lacrosse community than Pasco, said Shatz, who coaches a group of indoor lacrosse players at Sportszone2 in New Port Richey. Indoor lacrosse, also known as box lacrosse, is different from field lacrosse, though there is an overlap of skills, and people who play both often are among the better players, Shatz said. Shatz's group plays in New Port Richey, not because of a burgeoning lacrosse interest in west Pasco, but because that is one of just two communities near Tampa with the facilities for indoor lacrosse. Just a couple of the young people who play in New Port Richey are from Pasco, Shatz said. The bulk of the participants come from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, and some travel from Sarasota and Manatee counties. Lacrosse has grown as a sport in high schools across Florida, with 150 schools in the Florida High School Athletic Association now offering it, Shatz said. He suspects it could be just a matter of time before Pasco joins the trend, especially with Hillsborough now heading in that direction. "I think Pasco will sit up and take notice," Shatz said. The pay-for-play model Hillsborough is looking at is common for high schools that adopt lacrosse as a varsity sport, especially since tight budget times make it difficult for the schools to take on the cost, Shatz said. "So parents say, 'If you sanction it we will pay for it. We pay for it anyway,' " he said. Pay-for-play wouldn't be a foreign concept for Pasco. High school athletes already pay a $60 participation fee for other sports, Bell said, though that's much less than the $300 lacrosse fee being discussed in Hillsborough. Pasco schools may not yet be ready to accept lacrosse as a varsity sport, but Bell is complimentary of the lacrosse efforts in Wesley Chapel. "They seem to be doing a really nice job out there," he said.

Reporter Rob Shaw contributed to this article. [email protected] (813) 371-1853 Twitter: @rblairTrib
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