As several Pasco County schools this year fielded inaugural FHSAA (Florida High School Athletic Association) varsity lacrosse programs, one newcomer stands above the rest.
The Wiregrass Ranch High School boys lacrosse team recently clinched the No. 2 seed in District 15 — best among all Pasco County schools.
And, a win in the district playoffs this week guarantees a spot in the regional tournament on April 27.
As of April 15, the team stands with a 12-2 record and 7-1 district mark.
A club team last year competing in the Florida Gulf Coast Lacrosse League, the Bulls have had little trouble transitioning to FHSAA play under second-year head coach T.J. Fitzsimons.
Its success is evident by the Bulls’ current nine-game win streak and its ease in dismantling other Pasco schools, including Sunlake (14-2 win on Feb. 28; 15-5 win on March 16); Wesley Chapel (11-4 win on March 29); and Mitchell (14-6 win on April 4).
Meanwhile, its lone defeats have been at the hands of well-established Hillsborough County programs at Sickles and Newsome, who stand 15-2 and 13-2, respectively.
“We had some thoughts from people that we’d be good, but nobody expected us to be where we’re at,” said Fitzsimons, a former NCAA Division III lacrosse player at State University of New York Maritime College in the Bronx.
“We’ve turned a lot of heads this year,” he said.
The coach credits a large, skilled group of upperclassman—nine seniors and eight juniors—many who have played for years through the Wesley Chapel Athletic Association youth lacrosse program.
Fitzsimons explained: “Most of the guys that are seniors this year have been playing together for almost eight years now…since they started at like 10 years old. We’ve got a solid group of about 16 solid players—and you only need 10 to play the game.”
Senior defender Patrick Sullivan noted the group’s leadership, too, has proved critical to its winning ways.
“We…keep people going. “We’ve got some really good guys who get people excited,” Sullivan said.
One of those seniors leading the charge is attacker Jeremy Handman, also a team captain.
Handman, who leads the team with 41 goals, has signed to play NCAA Division II lacrosse at South New Hampshire University — the Bulls only committed college player.
He follows in the footsteps of his older brother, Jeffrey, who’s a senior lacrosse player at NCAA Division II Lincoln-Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee.
Handman, a lacrosse player for about seven years, said his game “skyrocketed” into a bona-fide college prospect.
“I’m a much better player,” Handman said, comparing his game to his freshman year.
“My passing has been a lot better, and my shooting accuracy has been a lot better.”
Though his contributions on offense don’t go unnoticed, Handman is quick to credit the team’s defensive prowess.
The Bulls average about 11.4 points, while allowing just 6.4 points per game.
“Defense has been huge,” Handman said, applauding the team’s new defensive coach Seth Kanowitz for improvements and adjustments. “He put in the defense, and it’s just gotten so much better since.”
Handman also lauds Fitzsimons for implementing varied offensive combinations and formations, based upon each opponent. “He knows how to change up the offense depending on the defense, so he does a pretty good job with that,” Handman said.
Sanctioning lacrosse at Wiregrass Ranch and other Pasco schools has been in the works the past few years.
In 2016, the Pasco County Lacrosse Alliance (PCLA), a nonprofit organization, announced an agreement with Pasco County Schools to manage the transition of a select number of high school boys and girls lacrosse from a club sport to a FHSAA-sanctioned sport, beginning with the 2018 spring season.
In addition to Wiregrass Ranch, other FHSAA varsity programs in Pasco include Land O’ Lakes (girls team only), Mitchell, Sunlake and Wesley Chapel. Cypress Creek will have an FHSAA-sanctioned girls team in 2019.
The agreement was similar to a three-year pilot program approved for 10 schools in Hillsborough County in 2014.
“It’s one of the fastest growing games in the country,” Fitzsimons said. “Because of the way football is declining, basketball and lacrosse are taking off. The fact that there’s girls and boys on both sides of it is a very good Title IX adjuster.”
Known primarily in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, lacrosse has recently made waves in the Sunshine State.
According to the National Federation of High Schools, Florida saw a 70 percent increase in participation to about 8,600 players from 2008 to 2013.
Moreover, more than 150 Florida schools are currently sanctioned to play for state titles in both girls and boys lacrosse. In 2005, there were 52 schools playing boys lacrosse in the FHSAA and 42 schools playing girls lacrosse.
“What used to be a very Northern sport is getting a lot popular down here,” Sullivan said.
“I think it helps that people come down here a lot from the north, and people pick it up. I know my neighbors started playing. I see young players playing all the time.”
Growing up playing baseball, soccer and football, Sullivan found his true calling with lacrosse and its nonstop action.
“Lacrosse is great because it mixes everything I like about sports,” Sullivan explained. “It’s fast. You get to run. You get into (contact with) people. It doesn’t stop all the time. It’s very fluid. It’s just on the fly.
“It helps to just have a good strategic understanding of how to play the game. It’s critical thinking. You have to be able to think on the fly, because you’re adapting to situations. You’re always adapting to something new,” he said.
The Wiregrass Ranch boys team actually has three players on the roster who never played sanctioned lacrosse and another two who picked up the stick again after not playing for several years.
Fitzsimons said mastering the sport takes ample practice and determination.
“It’s a pretty tough game,” Fitzsimons said.
“Lacrosse is not one of those (easy) games because in order to be out on a field, you have to learn how to throw and catch, you have to learn how to cradle, and how to move the stick; and all that stuff takes time,” the coach explained.
Florida District 15 boys lacrosse standings, as of April 15
- Sickles (5-0; 15-2 overall)
- Wiregrass Ranch (7-1; 12-2 overall)
- Steinbrenner (4-2; 9-8 overall)
- Tampa Catholic (0-2; 8-7 overall)
- Mitchell (2-3; 5-7 overall)
- Sunlake (1-5; 1-7 overall)
- Wesley Chapel (0-6; 0-14 overall)
Published April 18, 2018