A member of the Coyote Big Dawggz, left, is challenged by a Lil' Coyotes player behind the net during a CCLA game at Vineyards Community Park on Wednesday, April 18. GREGG HARDY/CSI
If you follow high school boys lacrosse in Collier County, you know that 2018 has been a watershed season for the sport.
For 10 years, since lacrosse became a varsity sport, Barron Collier High School has been the county’s lone power program. However, this season has produced a number of challengers to the Cougars’ throne: Community School of Naples, Gulf Coast and Naples. (Barron and Gulf Coast won their respective district titles and were scheduled to meet Friday night in a regional showdown.)
Ask the coaches of those aforementioned varsity programs why they’ve become so competitive all of a sudden, and somewhere in their answer is the Collier County Lacrosse Association.
Created back in 2004, the CCLA will play its season-ending event Saturday at Buckingham Park in Fort Myers. As is the case nationally, youth participation in lacrosse is on the rise in Collier County. Outgoing CCLA president Mark Klym said approximately 160 boys are taking part in this year’s spring season — up from about 130 in 2017.
That number is poised to increase even more, perhaps dramatically, with the recent news that Collier County School District was given a $28,000 grant from US Lacrosse — the sports’ national governing body — to make the sport part of the physical education curriculum. The grant provides all 30 of the county’s elementary schools with a total of 800 soft sticks and balls.
Original CCLA president Ed Calkins, who later this year will move up from vice chair to chairperson of US Lacrosse, recalled CCLA’s early days (Let’s call it a humble beginning, with boys and girls playing together on a nondescript field at Pine Ridge Middle School) and compared it to where it is now.
“There’s not a ton of people in this area with a lot of experience with lacrosse; certainly there wasn’t at the early stage,” said Calkins, who was a member of Princeton’s 1992 NCAA championship team. “So educating the coaches, educating the officials about the sport was sometimes … you just had to make a commitment to do it because people didn’t know the sport, didn’t understand it.
“Now you’ve got a number of coaches — certainly coming through the youth ranks (and) certainly through CCLA — that have coached for a number of years, that actually are very knowledgable now about the sport even maybe if they haven’t played before.”
Now an organization for boys (girls play in the Naples Lacrosse Association), the CCLA has certainly seen an upgrade in playing facilities from those early years. It’s gained access to both Vineyards and Fleischmann Parks. Still, Klym would like to see better conditions as the CCLA grows in popularity and stature.
Asked to look five years down the road, Klym said he’d like to see the CCLA have access to a facility with three or four fields (two with field turf to avoid rainouts) — something akin to North Collier Regional Park.
“The City of Naples is great to us; Collier County is good to us,” said Klym, who is ceding the president’s post to Jason Wyatt but will stay on the CCLA board. “I’d say where we lose out is the fact that there are facilities like North Collier Regional Park, that are pretty much not accessible to us because of soccer.
“We are the low man on the totem poll. I mean, we are certainly not complaining, but there’s definitely room for improvement.”
There’s reason for optimism, as evidenced by the US Lacrosse grant and the increasing competition at the high school level.
Speaking of Barron Collier earlier, CCLA’s two biggest-name products — Michael Nathan and Olivia “Ya” Ferrucci — both graduated from Barron Collier and now play for the University of North Carolina. Nathan is a junior defenseman for the Tar Heels, earning his way on the team as a walk-on transfer from Colby College. His father, Chris, coaches at the 12U level in CCLA. Ferrucci, a sophomore attacker/midfielder, is a member of the U.S. U19 national team and is the Tar Heels’ first player from Florida.
Klym and Calkins both said they take a certain degree of pride in knowing that CCLA is producing lacrosse players who go on to play, and in some cases, stand out, at the high school level … or beyond.
“It’s amazing when you watch the 8Us and the 10Us,” Klym said. “You’ll see kids that have never played before, can barely catch and throw at the beginning of the season, and then you watch a game at the end (of the season), and it’s a complete transformation. It’s pretty cool to see.”