Over the past decade, the sport of lacrosse has experienced tremendous growth in popularity.
Especially in the Pacific Northwest.
“The growth nationally continues to be pretty strong,” said Dave Low, president of the Washington State Chapter of US Lacrosse, “but in the state of Washington, we’ve grown exponentially.”
Today, more than 4,000 high school students play club lacrosse in the state, according to Mike McQuaid, sports information director for the Washington chapter of US Lacrosse. That includes 10 varsity teams — eight boys and two girls — in Snohomish County.
That popularity has led to calls for the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) to follow the lead of other states and sanction boys and girls lacrosse as official high school sports. The Washington chapter of US Lacrosse has more than 10,000 members from the youth to adult levels. Of states with that many members, only Washington doesn’t offer lacrosse as a sanctioned high school sport.
Lacrosse supporters argue sanctioning would bring acceptance and recognition on campus from peers and administration, give the sport better scheduling priority and allow for state championships run by the WIAA.
“The WIAA is very good at what they do,” McQuaid said. “They administer scholastic sports in this state, create rule structures, interface with the schools and put on state championships. They do everything that makes high school sports great in this state. It only makes sense that here is a high school sport and the kids want to play for their high schools. They want to play and be recognized as playing for their high schools. That’s what they aspire to.”
The decision on whether to sanction a sport falls in the hands of the WIAA’s member schools. The WIAA’s representative assembly, made up mostly of athletic directors from across the state, has the final say.
In 2011, the representative assembly voted down a motion to add boys and girls lacrosse. The measure lost by a significant margin.
According to McQuaid, the concerns expressed by the members of the assembly were threefold: financing, field space and the fear of cannibalizing other spring sports.
At a time when school budgets are tight, the financial concern is perhaps the biggest hurdle. Lacrosse teams require sticks, gloves, headgear and pads. Schools also would have to pay for coaches and transportation.
McQuaid said the cost of outfitting a lacrosse player is similar to that of a softball or baseball player, and that much of the equipment needed is paid for by the athletes’ families, just like softball and baseball.
There also are booster clubs in place to address the costs of additional equipment, coaches and transportation. McQuaid said those booster clubs would still be in place to help pay for costs should lacrosse become sanctioned.
Still, many athletic directors remain skeptical.
“The equipment piece alone was a concern,” said Robert Polk, athletic director for the Everett School District. “The lacrosse people suggested that kids already have their equipment, but there are a number of other kids who might be interested in the sport that don’t have their own equipment, so the schools would have to buy uniforms, buy helmets and buy sticks and all of those different types of things.”
Field space also is a concern, Polk said. The Everett School District has just two fields with lights and scheduling practices and games in the spring is already a problem.
“If I look at Cascade High School and every field is full already, it’s pretty hard to say we’d work at it,” Polk said. “I don’t know what we’d work on. I guess our next option would be to try to find park space and bus kids to practices, which again incurs more cost.
“I’m sure there are some creative ways and people that would have some great ideas to find ways to make things work, but at first glance, it would be pretty challenging just because our field inventory is small.”
McQuaid counters that argument by saying there are 96 high school varsity lacrosse programs across the state that already make it work, including one in Everett.
“It’s already happening,” he said. “These teams are already playing full schedules in the spring. It’s not all happening on school district property, some of it’s happening off of school district property, but it’s all happening.”
As for the issue of drawing athletes from other sports, McQuaid said polling lacrosse players has shown that most of them didn’t leave another sport. In most cases, he said, if they weren’t playing lacrosse in the spring, they would not be involved in athletics.
Still, despite the efforts of lacrosse supporters to address the ADs’ concerns, they don’t seem to be making a lot of headway.
“I know personally my position would be the same: that I would not support it,” Polk said. “I want to be clear that I think it’s a great sport and I think that kids are getting some new opportunities. Sometimes when people speak against something it’s not because they’re really against it. It’s because of a number of other factors. I think fundamentally most athletic directors see the sport as a positive and as a growing sport. We just don’t right now see how we can adequately support it at the high school level.”
Although each year there is enough backing to bring another sanctioning vote before the WIAA representative assembly, McQuaid said that won’t happen until US Lacrosse is convinced the measure has a real chance to pass. For now, the organization is focusing on education.
“There’s not a clear understanding of what passing an amendment to include boys and girls lacrosse means,” McQuaid said. “It does not mean that a school or district has to take on the sport — and that’s fundamental. … It just says if a school or district chooses to do this, that it acknowledges that kids are playing the sport and provides the infrastructure for them to compete for a state championship.
“The student-athletes are already playing lacrosse, sanctioning the sport acknowledges that they can participate in their sport for their school. This is about the kids. Nearly half the states in the U.S. see this. They are sanctioning the sport because the kids want to play it.”
Even without WIAA sanctioning, some Washington state high schools have embraced the sport. They award varsity letters to the players and include the teams in their yearbooks, but for the most part, lacrosse does not get the same respect afforded the WIAA-sanctioned sports.
Low and McQuaid remain hopeful that eventually will change.
“I think there is no doubt it’s a when (it gets sanctioned) and not if issue,” Low said. “I think the only question is: Is it imminent in the next couple of years or is it five to 10 years down the road?
“I can’t see the state continuing to say no if the numbers continue to be there.”
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on Twitter at @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.