The path to transition lacrosse from a club sport to an IHSA-sanctioned high school sport continues to be winding, and it’s testing the faith of the sport’s proponents.
On Monday, the IHSA announced boys and girls lacrosse will not include an IHSA state series in spring 2014, the latest setback in what has been a frustratingly fluid timetable for those eager to see lacrosse take on the same structure as mainstream high school sports.
“I really thought it was going to become a reality two years ago and then when it didn’t, I still thought it was just a matter of time before it happened,” Geneva athletic director Jim Kafer said. “And now, I’m not so sure, because it’s hard to say what position schools will take as far as whatever type of program they have, whether it’s a club or just loosely affiliated with the school or whatever. I’m not as optimistic now as I was as recently as six months ago.”
The IHSA board is requiring both boys and girls lacrosse to field a certain number of teams before orchestrating a state series – 40 in the case of girls lacrosse and 65 for boys lacrosse. The girls benchmark was met with 43 but boys lacrosse fell 10 schools short at 55.
Rich Martin, president of the Illinois High School Lacrosse Association, said many more schools have agreed to play by IHSA rules, but a faction of those programs would not go the extra step of agreeing to sign up for an IHSA state series, which came with additional fundraising hurdles.
“It’s created a convenient loophole for some schools to opt out and stonewall the progress of high school lacrosse,” Martin said. “I think the coalition of them are probably saving their district some money or saving their program some money but they’re also holding the rest of the league back. A lot of that has to do with financial considerations, but some of these schools have been playing for 10-plus years.”
Martin, however, places most of the blame for the stalled progress of high school lacrosse in Illinois on the IHSA.
“I think the IHSA should just kind of read the tea leaves, say 90 teams are playing, either we’re going to do it or not,” Martin said. “We could get to 120 teams out there and still have this loophole and still not have them sponsor the state tournament.”
It doesn’t bode well for lacrosse becoming a mainstream high school sport when a community like St. Charles isn’t on board. While Geneva was among the schools ready to take the plunge on the boys side (Kafer said there is not enough female participation for a girls team), St. Charles East and St. Charles North were part of a bloc of schools that decided they were not ready to support the transition.
Considering St. Charles is an affluent community with a strong foothold of lacrosse participation and success at the club level, the district’s reluctance to commit to fielding official, high school teams speaks to how far the sport still has to go.
St. Charles North boys lacrosse coach Sean McCaffrey said more of a “transition period” is required, although the sport’s popularity can no longer be considered a new development.
“That’s just kind of the state of the economy in Illinois,” McCaffey said. “The state defaulted on a lot of things and [school districts] don’t have the budget. I know the Naperville schools and a lot of schools are owed tons of money from the state, so that played a huge factor for us.”
In the news release Monday, IHSA executive director Marty Hickman said “We remain very confident that lacrosse will become a sanctioned IHSA sport in the near future. The number of schools competing in the sport has continued to grow. However, we also know that financial restraints have prevented many schools from committing to the sport and believe it is in the best interest of the schools, and the sport, to wait until we reach the previously established benchmarks before beginning a state series.”
St. Charles East athletic director Mike Sommerfeld wonders if the IHSA could expedite the process if it took a less conditional approach.
“I think if they just said ‘It’s going,’ it would force schools to think ‘Well, a lot of kids are playing it,’ ” Sommerfeld said.
Kafer noted that school districts would not necessarily have to pay the full freight to officially add lacrosse programs, with options such as participation fees and fundraising available to help lessen the burden.
But Sommerfeld said the St. Charles district likely would have to contribute “thousands of dollars” toward the programs, adding that the district also has space concerns.
“If you can give kids opportunities to do something, that’s what you want to do,” Sommerfeld said. “That’s why all of us are here, so from that aspect, that part is disappointing. But there are a lot of questions that need to be answered, big picture-wise.”
Most of those questions have been circulating for much of the past decade.
Whether schools are any closer to finding answers is up for debate.
• Jay Schwab is sports editor of the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.