Adding lacrosse to the local high school sports slate has been widely talked about since Florida State’s club team hosted a clinic at Choctaw in October 2015.
“Fast forward to the spring of 2018,” one Daily News article from March 2016 began. “The four large Okaloosa County high schools — Choctaw, Crestview, Fort Walton Beach and Niceville — are preparing for their first lacrosse matches. That is a likely possibility.”
At the time, Seacoast Collegiate High School had already added lacrosse for the 2015-2016 season. In July 2016, South Walton was approved to have boys’ and girls’ teams.
Both Fort Walton Beach and Niceville have established programs that will continue as club teams this coming season.
But the question remains: When will lacrosse become an FHSAA sanctioned sport in Okaloosa County?
“We’ve just been inundated with calls lately,” Okaloosa County athletic director Brian Humphrey said. “A bunch of parents have been calling about lacrosse. There’s a big interest.
“We’ve had quite a few meetings with athletic directors over the past two and a half years and the subject of adding lacrosse has come up. I think everyone agrees that it’s coming.”
So where does the situation stand?
“There are a couple of things that need to be addressed,” Humphrey said. “I hate to put a time limit on it and I hate not to put a time limit on it because I know that’s what everyone’s going to want to know. It won’t be this coming year, though.”
Fort Walton Beach athletic director Phil Dorn said it was decided that both the Vikings and Niceville need another year to “establish lacrosse as a club sport and make sure we know what the exact costs are to get it up and running full time, all the time.”
Dorn also said the upcoming season will be another opportunity to gauge interest on campus, promote the teams in the community and raise funds.
“We felt like everybody had a great year, both at Fort Walton Beach and at Niceville,” he said. “It got off to a great start in the community. I think the general feeling, going forward, is that there are a lot of great possibilities for it as a sanctioned sport. It won’t be long before we have it sanctioned and all the schools have it.”
Dorn added he would be comfortable with the Vikings joining a district — with Niceville — comprised mostly of teams from the Pensacola area. (Humphrey said he sees multiple Okaloosa County schools adding lacrosse at once so they have local opponents to play from the get-go.)
One major area of discussion is funding.
“The budget we have in Okaloosa County has been the lowest it has been in many, many years,” Humphrey said.
“Superintendent (Mary Beth) Jackson recognizes the funding for this year’s school district budget will be especially challenging due to cuts state legislators have made to funding public schools. She has shared with principals that if they have the money and are satisfied all other issues can be resolved, they have the green light to open a program.”
Dorn — who was athletic director at Bishop Verot (Fort Myers) when the school started a lacrosse program — said he’s estimated starting a lacrosse program, with girls’ and boys’ teams, would cost between $20,000 and $25,000 between equipment, uniforms, transportation and paying a head coach.
Niceville club coordinator and boys head coach Lou Albiero said in early April that Niceville and Fort Walton Beach’s club organizations have offered one year of funding — through donations and fundraising — so any Okaloosa County school that wants could support both a boys and girls team for one season. Albiero, if named Niceville coach, would put any salary back into buying equipment and field time.
That statement was scaled back this week by Fort Walton Beach club coordinator Duke Pope, who said the funding would be for just the Vikings and Eagles.
“It really hurts to be a club sport for another year because it’s actually going to drive up costs,” Pope said. “It’s cheaper to go sanctioned because of reduced travel costs. Now we’re going to have to travel to Alabama and maybe play some club teams in Georgia to get a decent season. We can’t play the eight teams that surround us because they’re all FHSAA sanctioned and can’t play club teams.
“It puts us on an island with no lacrosse.”
If Fort Walton Beach and Niceville were granted FHSAA status, they could still remain independent, allowing them to play the six schools from Pensacola and two from Walton County without FHSAA restrictions.
Pope also said he “guarantees” if Fort Walton Beach and Niceville gain FHSAA status there would be a community effort to raise funds for Choctaw and Crestview teams.
“Suffice it to say, there’s funding available,” he said.
Another major topic being discussed is equality between boys’ and girls’ programs. Escambia County has both girls’ and boys’ lacrosse in six schools, but Tallahassee has only boys’.
Said Humphrey, “Once Okaloosa County and the people looking at this agree the girls’ programs will be equal to the boys’ programs, then there will be serious discussions. But as long as we look to our east and look to our west and see the girls’ programs aren’t equal to the boys’ programs, I don’t think lacrosse will be added.
“Right now, the holdup is gathering information from our neighbors.”
Another concern is ensuring there are trained FHSAA registered officials for both the boys and girls lacrosse. (Rules differ slightly, and there are currently only two officials registered for girls’ lacrosse).
One final issue is Title IX, a law that states the percentage of male and female athletes participating in the overall sports at a school must equal the percentage of male and female students enrolled at the school.
Said Dorn, “One thing about lacrosse is that once it gets going and people learn about it and watch it, the interest and excitement for it grows. I’m kind of anticipating a phenomena, if you will (similar to what’s happening up north), happening in the panhandle.”