Sarah Walor photo
A little more than four years ago, John Titus decided James River High School would be the first Richmond-area public school to start a varsity lacrosse program. Titus sensed the sport was on the verge of unprecedented growth.
"We wanted to accelerate the process," says Titus, who is the principal at James River and a regional lacrosse referee for the past 35 years. "I thought if we could break the ice, it would make it easier for other public schools to support varsity programs."
Now, four seasons later, James River remains the only local public school with boys' and girls' varsity lacrosse, even though his intuition about the sport's growth was correct.
In October, Henrico County announced that three of its high schools — Deep Run, Freeman and Godwin — will have lacrosse teams sanctioned by the Virginia High School League beginning with the 2010-2011 school year.
Lacrosse participation nationwide has nearly doubled since 2000-2001, when 74,225 public and private high school athletes played the sport. Today, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, there are nearly 144,000 prep boys and girls running with a ball in a stick.
Growth in Virginia has been fairly steady — 69 boys' and 63 girls' programs existed in 2007-08, with more than 5,600 players competing during the spring, compared to 57 and 52 programs and 4,200 athletes in 2002-2003. The majority of the varsity teams are in Northern Virginia.
There is a slew of area private schools with boys' and girls' programs, as well as a good selection of prep club teams. Bill Karn is the coach of the Hurricanes, the girls' club team with the Hanover Lacrosse Club. The Hurricanes are made up of three high schools — Atlee, Hanover and Lee-Davis.
What is preventing more public schools from starting varsity programs? "Field space and finances," says Karn. "In the spring, you compete with soccer for field space. Also, there's a lot of equipment involved in the boys' game, and that can get expensive. And it could be a Title IX issue if a school can only afford a girls' program and not a boys'." Boys are allowed to hit in games, unlike girls, so they wear extra padding and full helmets, hence the additional equipment costs.
James River plays many of its games in the Charlottesville area. Titus says that the school has had to absorb the cost, and in these economic times, it's been tough. It costs about $16,000 to start a varsity team and an additional $10,000 to $12,000 in annual operational costs for the teams. "It has come at a price," Titus says.
But when James River's teams made the Virginia High School League playoffs two seasons ago, the cost, the travel and the burden of being the only program in the Richmond region seemed to be worthwhile.
"Lacrosse is one of those games, if you play it or watch it, you instantly become hooked," Karn says.