When the Delano boys’ lacrosse team took the field for pregame warmups last week, they wore mismatched shirts and shorts, displaying a disparity in school funding that runs deep through the state’s newest and fastest-growing varsity sport.
Three funding levels exist for Minnesota’s boys’ and girls’ programs, coaches said. Small percentages of the 67 girls’ and 63 boys’ programs get full funding for essentials such as coaches, transportation and game officials, while others such as Delano get no school assistance. In the middle are the majority of teams, which getting partial funding.
As a result, coaches said, the playing field is unequal.
That overall field continues to grow, from a combined 82 boys’ and girls’ teams five seasons ago to 130 this spring. The state tournament this spring will expand from four to eight teams. But even as the lacrosse community celebrates its growth, subdivisions are taking shape.
One of them includes schools such as Delano, where fundraising to pay for the essentials left coach Dan Willette’s program short on extras such as matching warmup gear, team bags and jackets. His Tigers, who lost two games in the past two seasons of club lacrosse, opened their season at Stillwater, a team in the second funding tier with the added perk of having a domed field available at the nearby St. Croix Valley Recreation Center.
Willette said his players practiced indoors this spring at the Delano Area Sports Arena. But the team could only afford to lay turf on half of the arena floor. Stillwater won 14-7 but Willette said playing in the Minnesota State High School League is worth the challenges.
“We felt at a bit of a disadvantage but the boys played well,” Willette said. “When they step on the field, they are going to be competitive. Everything comes from that. We got to see what we need to fix, and we will look to get better.”
Lower-level teams bear brunt
At the other end of the funding spectrum is Prior Lake, which fully funds coaches, busing and game officials for all lacrosse teams, from varsity to B-squad. But most schools fall into the middle ground, including successful programs such as Eden Prairie, which provide partial funding. Only the varsity and JV teams get those items paid for, leaving teams to raise funds to support its lower-level squads.
Willette’s attitude is similar to that of his lacrosse coaching peers. They aren’t blaming their districts for a lack of support. Rather, they accept their place as the new sport on the block and temper their passion with patience. They also know that some of the state’s top programs can compete for state championships without being fully funded.
Said Bill Moir, coach of the Armstrong girls’ lacrosse program: “We try to put the best product out there and have the best attitude possible to create a great experience for the kids without being a burden to the school.”
With budgets ranging from $10,000 to $18,000, many varsity teams rely on parents’ and players’ fundraising efforts and the support of local youth lacrosse associations.
When asked what sorts of changes they would push for, some coaches acknowledged that school funding of lower-level teams would be ideal.
Tough on younger players
Life within the second tier of school funding can be tough on younger players.
Rosemount does not fund its freshmen/sophomore team, said Lance Kuehn, president of the boys’ lacrosse coaches association. Junior Teddy Moeller, who spent the past two seasons on the team, said players “couldn’t practice on the high school fields” and called the middle school home. And navigating away games could be an adventure.
“Having buses makes it a lot easier,” Moeller said. “We know we won’t get lost.”
Rachel Aiken, president of the girls’ lacrosse coaches association, said her program at Chaska/Chanhassen “had to push to get full funding” and recalled the troubles of being a nonfunded, lower-level team: being usurped by community education events and getting kicked off fields or having to shorten games.
“With varsity there is an allure,” said Aiken, who played lacrosse as a senior in 2001 at Hopkins. “When you’re not recognized at the lower levels, you can lose athletes.”
Schools support their lower-level teams in different ways even though they do not provide full funding. Moir said Armstrong activities director Patti Weldon handles referee scheduling. With concussion concerns in the national spotlight, District 196 purchased new helmets for Kuehn’s team this season. And Eden Prairie coach Judy Baxter said her B-squad does not have to rent its own facilities, a significant cost savings.
Kevin Reed, who coaches the St. Louis Park boys’ club lacrosse team and serves as director of community development at Homegrown Lacrosse, said, “The nerve-racking part of the whole deal is that it’s hard to compete when teams have nice facilities and can spend $5,000 on a coach.
“Lacrosse is a new sport and a lot of school districts are afraid of change,” he said. “But all it takes is a school district or AD to flick a pen to open doors.”