How lacrosse is becoming an official IHSA sport
Seven years ago, suburban athletic directors went to the Illinois High School Association to promote lacrosse, a sport that was growing in popularity among youths in the suburbs.
More and more high schoolers were joining school-sponsored and parent-organized club teams, and supporters believed lacrosse deserved the same recognition as other sports by the IHSA, which governs high school athletics statewide.
"I thought it should be like football, baseball, golf and everybody else," said Steve Rockrohr, athletic director at Glenbrook South. "I thought it was only fair. They deserve to be on an equal footing with everyone else."
Beginning in the spring of 2018, lacrosse players and boosters will finally get their wish. The IHSA in two years will hold its first "state series" in both boys and girls lacrosse, which marks the official sanctioning of the sport by the organization.
With the addition of boys and girls lacrosse, the IHSA will recognize a total of 31 sports. The last sport added was competitive dance, which debuted in 2013.
Backers of lacrosse had hoped it would have happened sooner, but IHSA officials said they wanted to be sure enough kids would participate before granting the sport official recognition. So in 2009, the IHSA board set benchmarks requiring the establishment of 65 boys teams and 40 girls teams statewide before lacrosse would be approved.
The board, composed of 10 principals from across the state, reviewed the numbers each January, but both thresholds were met only recently. At last count, the IHSA reports 83 boys teams and 59 girls teams have signed up, and officials expect more to join.
"As soon as the numbers got to this level, where they felt comfortable it would be a legitimate state series and people were not going to back out, then they instituted it," Rockrohr said. "It took many years, but I understand why it took many years."
Though lacrosse has traditionally been an East Coast sport, it's grown in popularity in Illinois, and especially in the suburbs.
The youth participation rate in Illinois grew by 69 percent from 2009 to 2014, according to US Lacrosse, a national organization that tracks the sport's growth. During the same time period, US Lacrosse's statistics show youth participation rose 53 percent in the Great Lakes region and 43 percent nationally.
"It's definitely the fastest-growing sport in the nation when you look at participation numbers," said A.J. Collier II, coach of the Bartlett High School boys varsity club team. "It's obviously hitting new areas that are not traditional lacrosse hotbeds."
Collier credited much of the sport's suburban growth to North Shore teams, some of which have had programs for four decades. Some also have feeder programs allowing kids to play lacrosse before entering high school.
Many teams, like Glenbrook South's, already are sponsored and funded by the school. Others are club teams run by parent organizations, which coordinate fundraising efforts to help pay for costs.
The Bartlett boys club team is one such group that's now expected to come under the umbrella of Bartlett High School.
Collier said he's happy to pass on the administrative functions of running a lacrosse team to school officials, so he can focus more on Xs and Os. He hopes the program also gets financial support from Elgin Area School District U-46, in which there's only one other lacrosse program (South Elgin).
Rich Martin, president of the Illinois High School Lacrosse Association, has pushed for IHSA recognition of lacrosse for years and believes it will lead to even more participation over the next decade. But he also fears as many as 20 existing programs could be lost because school districts can't afford them.
"I'm not concerned with not having enough teams, but maybe there are teams that have been out there for several years that may not be part of the party in a few years," Martin said. "It's going to be dependent on how leadership approaches school districts and school boards on creatively making lacrosse happen in a very funding-challenged environment."
The cost of equipment and fees for an average high school lacrosse player can be as much as $1,000. Add in costs for transportation, referees and coaches -- plus trying to find space for games and practices -- and Rockrohr says he understands why some schools were hesitant to jump on board over the past seven years.
"Sports aren't cheap. They're expensive. But as an athletic director, I think it's an invaluable experience," Rockrohr said.
IHSA officials say establishing a March 2018 start for the state series will give schools time to budget and build their programs. Meanwhile, the IHSA will begin recruiting referees and looking for a site to host the boys and girls state championships, tentatively scheduled for May 25-26, 2018.