The popularity of lacrosse in Wisconsin high schools has risen significantly in recent years.
In 2004, there were about 500 boys playing in the state. Now there are more than 2,500. If you add up boys and girls, youth and high school, there are 6,500 Wisconsin kids participating in the sport, according to the Wisconsin Lacrosse Federation.
Other sports also are growing in interest: bowling, rugby and cheer and dance.
All are club sports at the high school level. None are sponsored by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, the state's governing body.
When Neenah lacrosse coach Paul Zielski started his program in 2003, he had 18 players on varsity. It became a varsity club sport in 2007. The team has averaged 50 players per year the past four or five years, and a few years ago started its own youth program that has 50 to 60 kids starting in third grade.
The high school players follow the same code of conduct and academic requirements as the student-athletes participating in WIAA sports, and they also can earn varsity letters. They are part of the same strength and conditioning program and have played almost all their home games at Rocket Stadium, which is behind the high school.
“I see both pros and cons to becoming a WIAA sport,” Zielski said. “From the outside looking in, I’ve had plenty of other coaches from other teams say, ‘Oh, you are just a club sport. You’re not even state-sanctioned.’ In some ways, it feels like we don’t garner the same respect as a WIAA sport just because of four letters. … we have a state association that has done a nice job organizing us and helping us stay set.
“Does it make a big difference to me? In some respects, it would be nice to take some of the power and shift it away from some influential parent groups that run our state association right now. Having an impartial athletic director would probably help us and help our sport grow.”
That hope likely won't be realized, at least not anytime soon. It does not appear the WIAA is close to sponsoring additional sports.
“Bowling has come up. Rugby has come up. Dance and cheer has come up,” said Manitowoc athletic director Dave Steavpack, who is part of the WIAA’s Board of Control. “When I say come up, it’s been broached at area meetings, which are held in September. So somebody from that coach’s association from dance and cheer will come up and say, ‘We would like to be recognized as a sport in the WIAA.’”
The WIAA and its 500-plus member schools sponsor state tournaments for 24 sports. According to its bylaws, the Board of Control can consider adding a new sport to the list when 5 percent of the membership are participating in that sport at the same time of year and indicate an interest in WIAA involvement.
Funding among the hurdles
There are several challenges to adding a WIAA sport. The athletic directors would have to figure out what time of year to have the season and how that would impact other boys and girls sports going on during that time period.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle, though, is money. Fundraising and booster clubs always are options to help offset costs, but those costs can be significant.
If a club sport doesn’t get help from a school, the team must raise all the money for equipment, travel and coaches. If there isn’t a venue provided or the school doesn’t have one, that’s another cost.
For a sport such as lacrosse or rugby, Steavpack detailed the financial considerations to get a program started.
He estimated a two-person coaching staff would run $7,000 to $8,000. Transportation would be about $8,000. For every road game, there has to be a home game to balance the schedule, which means another $4,000 to hire officials when hosting a contest.
Still, he never says never when it comes to the WIAA adding a sport. If there is an activity that gives a student a connection to their school, it’s something Steavpack wants to explore.
Although some of the sports have come up for consideration during local meetings, there hasn’t been enough momentum.
“The most feedback we have heard from members over the past decade is to not add any sports,” WIAA communications director Todd Clark said. “There have been some discussions and some interest, but the members have not petitioned to add any sports.”
That might not be such a bad thing, some say. It sometimes can be a careful-what-you-wish-for proposition.
Unless the club sport has a connection with a school, teams don’t have to follow the same guidelines as WIAA sports. They can practice as much as they want, have as many contact days in the offseason as they wish and decide on their own code of conduct.
“For us, it’s really not that big of a change,” Zielski said. “We work directly with our athletic director Josh Murnane. It’s his first year with us, but he allows me some flexibility when we do our scheduling. I work hand in hand with him, like any other sport.”
Success despite status
Amanda Brooker has been influential for lacrosse in the Green Bay area. She started the boys community program in 2000 before coaching the Bay Port boys team from 2001-12. She also helped start a Green Bay United girls squad that combined players from several local schools.
Bay Port went from 19 players when Brooker got there to 55 and having both a varsity and junior varsity by the time she left.
But the sport being WIAA sanctioned is not something she thinks will happen quite yet.
“I know school district budgets are really tight, and they are getting tighter,” said Brooker, who also served as the spokeswoman for Green Bay schools until 2013. “I think it’s very hard for them to take on more activities. But I also think that lacrosse is the fastest-growing sport in the country, and it’s providing great athletic opportunities to young men and women.
“It is booming in the Midwest. Illinois, Minnesota, they are now sanctioned sports. … my hope is that these schools see that there is opportunity. We have kids playing in (Division III college programs). We had a kid from Wausau play at the University of Richmond. It will probably take a little more time than a lot of lacrosse families would like, but I think the sport will probably become more elevated as schools get invested in it.”
Not all athletes in club sports care much about being WIAA sanctioned.
Maria Macco was part of the Green Bay Southwest dance team before graduating in 2015. The Troyettes competed at the WACPC State Dance Competition each year and received media coverage while there.
Macco, now a junior at the University of Wisconsin, has attended the WIAA girls state basketball tournament and felt the atmosphere and vibes were the same.
She and her teammates did have to raise money to fund the program, which included cleaning Lambeau Field three times each during her junior and senior years. The only reason she would have liked to have been sponsored by the WIAA is that it would have meant her coach, Shawna Landes, would receive a salary. She said Landes has done everything for free.
That’s the way it was for Zielski for several years when he started, although like Landes, he does it because he loves the sport and teaching kids.
Said Macco, “I cared more about being recognized as a sport by my peers than the WIAA. At Southwest, I wouldn't have wanted to be recognized as a sport because with that comes a whole different set of guidelines such as us having to (wear) blue and white rather than our flashy neon, in addition to different practice schedule requirements and stuff like that.
“We always talked about how we don't want to be school colors all the time and we wouldn't be able to practice every day … Troyettes is an 11½-month commitment.”