Lacrosse in W-JCC schools continues deliberate climb to VHSL ranks

Contact Reporterkholtzman@vagazette.com

Jamestown senior Zach Pennycuff is a rare example of a student-athlete who excels in about every sport he has competed in.

The list includes football, track and field and wrestling. Pennycuff claims he was not very good at baseball, so he picked up a lacrosse stick in fourth grade and started running by people. I was like, 'Oh, this is kind of fun,' he said. "I worked on my stick skills and stuff, and it's my favorite sport."

Pennycuff, a standout midfielder for his school's boys club lacrosse team, is emblematic of many of his Williamsburg-James City County lacrosse peers in being a veteran of the sport. When Jamestown, Lafayette and Warhill introduced club teams last year, most of the players possessed advanced skill levels gained through playing on club teams not affiliated with high schools. A season later, each W-JCC boys team is ranked in the top five of the 20-team Hampton Roads Lacrosse League (HRLax), and the Jamestown and Warhill girls club teams are in the top six of a 12-team league.

Hampton Roads boasts no Virginia High School League lacrosse representatives, although varsity sanctioning in Virginia Beach appears to be imminent, according to local coaches. The push in Williamsburg is moving at a more deliberate pace, although some of coaches tend to say it is hard to tell the difference between a varsity sport and not on a typical stroll between the Warhill Sports Complex fields on game or even practice nights. It looks and feels like high school lacrosse.

"This is high school lacrosse," Jamestown boys coach Todd Vischer said. "We have a good program. We work really hard. We practice five days a week. We play one or two games. The kids are all working and held to the same standards as any other high school sport would be."

"I think we're moving in the right direction," Lafayette coach Thomas Rice said, "but I think we're moving slowly. There's a big push by HRLax to get it as a varsity sport."

How soon might that happen for W-JCC schools?

The answer is unclear, but almost certainly it will not be in time for the next season.

Growth of the game

National high school lacrosse participation exceeded 300,000 for the first time in 2015, according to the most recent U.S. Lacrosse survey. It has been the fastest-growing team sport in the National Federation of State High School Associations member schools since U.S. Lacrosse began monitoring participation levels in 2001. The participation number for organized teams in 2015 was more than 800,000.

Virginia was one of 14 states in 2014 and 2015 with at least 10,000 players at the youth level (14 and under).

There are 15 VHSL lacrosse conferences for the 2016-17 campaign with a heavy concentration of schools in Northern Virginia, where the sport's popularity has thrived. Albemarle and Western Albemarle high schools, both in the Charlottesville area, are the only schools outside Northern Virginia to have claimed boys or girls state championships since 2006.

Push for VHSL

At the earliest, the issue could be raised the next time W-JCC athletic directors meet with Valerie DiPaola, the division's senior director for school performance. But DiPaola said the next meeting will not be held until Lafayette's vacant athletic director position is filled.

DiPaola noted she is a fan of the sport, having attended college in lacrosse-mad Maryland in addition to growing up in New York, which leads the country in youth participants with more than 55,000.

"We look at student interest, first of all," DiPaola said. "We look at equity, to make sure we can have programs at all three schools. And then we look at the financial piece of it. How much is this going to cost to start up, whether or not we need to budget for any kind of equipment, what the transportation budget is going to be. We also consider how many other schools in our conference are participating in a sport."

The VHSL will scrap its conference format for 2017-18 and return to the preexisting district structure. Tabb, Grafton and York are the other Bay Rivers District schools that currently compete in HRLax, for both boys and girls.

The Jamestown boys team has one Bruton player, and an important one, starting goalie Zack McKinley. The Eagles also have a player from Walsingham Academy, which has a school-sponsored girls team in the independent ranks, but did not field a boys team this year.

Warhill's girls roster is dotted with Lafayette students and also features players from Bruton and Mathews.

There is no W-JCC rule that specifies an equal number of boys and girls sports, but schools must exhibit one of the following, according to Adam Otsot, the W-JCC coordinator for health and physical education:

•That the percentage of female and male athletes is proportional to the percentage of female and male students enrolled in the school.

•The school has a history and continuing practice of expanding opportunities for the underrepresented sex.

•The school is fully and effectively meeting the athletics interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex.

"In order to add an activity," Otstot said, "W-JCC would petition to request that specific sport or activity is added to the annual VHSL membership application, where it will be subject to executive committee approval."

Last year, Jamestown was the only W-JCC school to have a girls club team and this season, the Eagles finished the 2017 regular season ranked second in the league behind Tabb.

Jamestown emerged with the best local boys team last season, but lost to rival Lafayette in the regular season this year. And Warhill lost by only a goal to Lafayette, illustrating how the talent gap among the schools may be narrowing. Jamestown and Lafayette could meet in the championship game of their division of HRLax next week.

"Many Jamestown High students play on lacrosse club teams, and we know there is interest in the sport in Williamsburg," Jamestown Athletic Director Kenneth Edwards said. "There are a lot of factors involved with adding a high school sport, and adding lacrosse would be a division-wide decision."

Steady as she goes

When the Warhill girls club team breaks its huddle, the girls shout "Lions" instead of "Warhill" as not to alienate their Lafayette teammates.

With 26 total players (10 players on the field per team in competition), a split would not have given them enough players for separate teams.

Sophomore attacker Mackenzie Flannigan, a Warhill student, said the team chemistry dynamic is not as bad as it seems since a lot of them grew up playing together. "I think everyone just wants to come play lacrosse," she said.

Separate teams for each school still represents a sign of growth, though.

Jamestown coaches Holli Sawyer and Jeff White have noticed sure signs of progress locally in the girls game.

Sawyer, of Northern Virginia, started coaching with the Williamsburg Lady Warriors about eight years ago after playing for Christopher Newport University while White has coached for about the same length of time in boys and girls. His daughter, Mary-Parker, is one of Jamestown's standouts.

Sawyer said she used to notice only dads coaching their kids. And there is still plenty of that. But now the moms who played competitively have more of a presence on the sidelines for youth teams.

"I think traditionally this area is a field hockey/baseball/soccer stronghold and especially for girls, it's all about field hockey," Sawyer said. "And the last couple of years, there has been so much success with the Williamsburg Lady Warriors and now with Jamestown that younger girls are at the (Warhill Sports Complex) and walking to their soccer field, and they see lacrosse sticks and they're like, 'Oh, my gosh, that looks really fun. Let's do it.'"

The best news for Jamestown is its "army" of talented freshmen. Sawyer and White don't have a lot of basics to teach. Most of the girls, like the boys, already know how to play, although the Jamestown boys coach pointed out in order for the game to grow, the sport needs to attract more kids who have not been introduced to the sport.

On different fields and different days, Vischer and White generated similar takes on the level of talent, coaching and overall organization that goes into high school club lacrosse.

"You would never know that Jamestown, Lafayette, Warhill did not have varsity lacrosse teams," White said. "It all looks very professional with the uniforms, the helmets. You go out there and watch these guys play and I can imagine there's a parent that shows up at school the next year and says, 'Where can I sign my kid up for lacrosse?'"

The answer to that question could be changing in the relatively near future.

Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-298-5830.

Lacrosse, by the numbers

20 - HRLax boys teams

48- goals scored by Lafayette's Matthew Rice

12- HRLax girls teams

-10,000-plus Virginia youth players in 2015

2 - schools from outside NoVA have won state titles since '06

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