Special Report: What is the End Goal?

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) — We are investigating this question: how come, what is considered the fastest growing high school sport in America, isn’t a varsity sport in Hampton Roads.

We know why lacrosse is the fastest growing sport. It’s fast, physical, high scoring, a team sport that has intense camaraderie. But for some reason lacrosse remains a club sport only in Hampton Roads.

There are great club teams like the one at Princess Anne High School, but it’s not the same as a varsity sport.

“We are not getting looked at by colleges at all. We have to go to select teams for that exposure, and there is no attention from any school,” says 10th grade player Sam Peal.

The public high school varsity map doesn’t lie. From Boston to Northern Virginia to Richmond to Charlotte to Miami, Hampton Roads is the only major metro area on the east coast that doesn’t offer public high school varsity sanctioned lacrosse.

Princess Anne’s Club Coach Jess Stevenson is the president of Hampton Roads LAX, which represents 1,029 boys and girls club lacrosse players.

“Take any of the sports that are sanctioned like soccer, and go tell the parents your sport is a club sport, and it is not as important as the other sports and see how that goes over,” says Stevenson.

Area private schools have varsity lax programs, and have had for years. Norfolk Academy’s legendary coach, Tom Duquette, has been a coach 44 years,

“Sanctioning lacrosse (at the varsity level) brings with it a lot of good things: better competition, and better competition makes everybody get better, but the bottom line for a college coach they want to see someone who can play,” says Coach Duquette.

Varsity lacrosse programs bring better coaches, training, equipment and all the things that go with those three things. Hunter Francis was a top goalie at the University of North Carolina,

“Why would a college coach take a risk on the best player on this team (pointing to the players on the Princess Anne club team) when the coach can go to Richmond or Charlottesville or Northern Virginia and have dozen of kids like this kid. They want players from varsity programs,” says Francis.

Richey Boyd’s son plays for Princess Anne and he knows that reality, “I think he is very limited because I think they are not getting the recognition and the visibility.”

The top guy at Virginia Beach City Public Schools is Superintendent Dr. Aaron Spence, “I think there is a real possibility we could have lacrosse in Virginia Beach.”  Dr. Spence is looking at city-wide interest to determine varsity status in high schools,

“We would need to have half of the schools to be school based teams, so all the members from the team would have to be from that school,” says Dr. Spence, who makes the distinction between players only from the school and community based teams that take players from other schools that don’t have club programs.

But there’s good news for Virginia Beach. Dr. Spence’s criteria for the 11 High Schools with student only teams is almost being met. Currently five teams; Bayside, Cox, First Colonial, Kellam, and Ocean Lakes, have boys club teams. Two other schools, Landstown and Princess Anne, have community teams but will have student only teams by 2019. It should be noted that Stevenson’s Princess Anne team could be student only right now, but the team has elected to be open to current seniors who don’t go to Princess Anne. This is so they can finish their club experience where they started.

“It would not be the right thing to do to suddenly tell that senior he can’t play on our team,” Stevenson says.

On the girls club side five teams are student teams only; Bayside, Cox, First Colonial, Kellam, and Princess Anne. Ocean Lakes and Landstown aren’t far behind.

“If we follow this process, and we generate enough interest we will be the first to have it,” says Dr. Spence.

Spence thinks generating interest involves diversity, and Stevenson agrees, “We have got to get out, and put the game in Kempsville, Aragona, Tallwood. We’ve got to get out of our usual community, and grow the game there, and that’s a huge part of it.”

It should be noted that Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools should be best positioned to be first to have varsity lacrosse. All three high schools have boys lacrosse club teams named for the school, and two have girls lacrosse. Those schools are within one hour from Richmond area schools with well-established programs for competitive games that make everyone better.

They have excellent players who are enrolled in the high school, and the Lafayette High School Rams were this year’s Virginia Club LAX champions. Their coach Thomas Rice, who was coach of the year, knows the power of sanctioned lacrosse.

“There is a cloud (over us from) the bigger programs. We are not going to attract top tier coaches, and not being Virginia High School League recognized and being seen as a club sport, you are not going to get the top looks,” says Coach Rice.

Rice’s younger brother, Matt Rice, is considered one of the best high school lacrosse players in Hampton Roads and is trying to get D-1 playing opportunity.

“Just coming from this area, coaches are a little skeptical of recruiting me because they don’t see me against the best competition,” Rice says.

We found a disconnect between the Williamsburg-JCC lax community and the school board which would have to approve varsity lacrosse. 10 On Your Side met with Superintendent Dr. Olwen Herron, and School Board Chairwoman Kyra Cook,

“I’ve only been in the school system four months and I have had nothing brought to me in that time,” Dr. Herron says. “I have been here 2 1/2 years, and nothing, no,” Cook adds.

Dr. Herron says she’s still waiting for a formal petition requesting varsity lax, but lack of funding may be the killer.

“We need a lot of information, cost of equipment, cost of coaching, accessibility to playing fields which we currently don’t have,” Herron says.

We are told a petition from the LAX community to the School Board is imminent.

The VHSL liaison director at the local Chapter of United State Lacrosse (USL) is Wayne Borchers, “The problem has been we have not been aggressive enough reaching out to school board members, school superintendents, recruiting parents to help get out the word, and we are now doing that.” USL is the governing board for all lacrosse in America.

“The USL Tidewater Chapter is doing a better job at not only knowing the process to get a varsity aport, but lobbying it,” Borchers says. “The progression is community club (i.e. HRLax), school-sponsored club, and then varsity sport. Additionally, there is a requirement that a majority of the schools in the district must have a school-sponsored club before going forward.”

“The bottom line, in the last few years it became increasingly apparent to me and others that there was within our midst a vibrant, long-standing lacrosse school club community that yearned for direction on how to achieve its ultimate goal of VHSL status. Once a school division blueprint was provided HR LAX has, to its credit, taken the ball and run with it,” says Virginia Beach School Board Member Carolyn Rye.

In Virginia Beach, Dr. Spence is also concerned about funding, and gave this as one reason lacrosse has failed to grab hold in Virginia Beach.

“We have a lot of students who are incredibly busy, and play multiple sports, and I think when you introduce another sport to the arena it’s just another thing we are adding to their plates,” says Spence.

Coach Jess Stevenson is optimistic of eventual success, “The only thing we can do is to keep putting sticks in hands, keep teaching the right way, keep moving, and something exciting is going to happen. Something is going to happen eventually.”