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Courtesy Tyler Thatcher
Mason Thatcher competes during a lacrosse game.
We have had conversations with the UHSAA on what sanctioning would mean. Sanctioning has both pros and cons. —Josh Elder, the former commissioner over boys high school lacrosse with the Utah Lacrosse Association

SALT LAKE CITY — When Holladay resident Tyler Thatcher’s son Chase entered his third-grade lacrosse season five years ago, there were just seven boys in the Olympus team boundaries who wanted to play.

They needed at least three more players to even field a team.

At the time, the group had to combine with six boys from Skyline to create a full roster.

Last year, however, it was a completely different story.

In the Olympus boundaries alone, there were 96 participants in Chase's eighth-grade group.

Lacrosse, considered a high school club sport in this state because it is not sponsored by the Utah High School Activities Association, has grown exponentially over the last few years. Its popularity is evident all along the Wasatch Front.

From Cache Valley to the southern end of Utah County, there are currently 39 Utah boys varsity teams and 41 JV squads, as well as 30 girls varsity programs and 17 JV teams participating under the umbrella of the Utah Lacrosse Association.

Last school year, Olympus' girls team had more participants than any other girls sport at the school and the boys team was second only to football. Together, the lacrosse rosters were made up of more than 100 Olympus High students.

So much interest in the sport begs an obvious question: Why is lacrosse not sanctioned by the UHSAA?

Part of the reason is a moratorium currently restricting the state association's board of trustees from making any changes.

The UHSAA is under a self-imposed sanctioning freeze, which was put into effect nearly four years ago as schools struggled to finance the existing 20 sports and three activities of drama, speech and theater.

"We have nearly 90,000 participants in those things that we already sponsor and our member schools were a little hesitant at that time bringing on more activities," said Rob Cuff, the executive director of the UHSAA. "All of that takes dollars out of some budgets and, at the time, schools were losing money."

The moratorium does not have a set expiration date. Rather, if the ADEC, a committee of athletic directors that serves as a filter for the board of trustees, is presented with a compelling and organized proposal about adding a sport, ending the moratorium could be put to a vote.

"We haven’t said nobody can approach the board," Cuff said. "What we’re saying is, (the moratorium) would have to be lifted in order for you to be approved."

Nearly a decade ago, the ULA did approach the board of trustees with a proposal to add lacrosse. At the time, the girls program was not ready and the board did not want to add one program without the other.

Since that time, the sport has been gaining popularity among both girls and boys, and the ULA is exploring its options.

"We have had conversations with the UHSAA on what sanctioning would mean," said Josh Elder, the former commissioner over boys high school lacrosse with the ULA. "Sanctioning has both pros and cons."

Cuff, Elder, and Thatcher each cited benefits and challenges that would come from sanctioning lacrosse and from maintaining the status quo.

The most crucial requirement for any sport looking to join the UHSAA is adhering to its handbook — a 130-page document that outlines the guidelines and interpretations for all sanctioned sports and activities.

"That’s one of the pros or cons, however you want to look at it, in joining our association," said Cuff. "All of our bylaws would have to be abided by if a sport is added."

Those rules include, among many additional items, limited team membership (students can only play on one team of a particular sport during the high school season), the age rule (students are ineligible after they turn 19 or play four years), scholastic expectations (a minimum 2.0 GPA and no more than one F) and all transfer rules.

As it stands, the ULA presides solely over girls and boys high school lacrosse in much the same way the UHSAA governs. It has an executive director in Lisa Schmidt, program coordinators over girls lacrosse and boys lacrosse, a handbook of regulations, and a board of directors that dictates policy.

"All the policies that Utah Lacrosse has — the scholastic requirements, the dead time rules, the boundaries and transfer rules — we tried to model after the UHSAA," Elder said. "They are not always exactly the same, but sometimes they are word for word."

Elder added that ULA intentionally followed the UHSAA so that when the time is right for lacrosse to become sanctioned, the lacrosse community will not have to make many changes to slide into the UHSAA structure.

Aside from the handbook, Elder noted that one of the major factors impeding another formal proposal is the same reason the UHSAA implemented the moratorium: financial impact.

"Sanctioning comes with additional costs to the UHSAA and the schools," Elder said. "Some teams could disappear because of the added cost."

The UHSAA pays for venues, officials and other details that go into running all state-level competitions and all member schools pay dues to the UHSAA at the beginning of each school year for the sports and activities it offers to its students. Those dues are in addition to the cost of facilities, officials, travel and other items schools must cover to run their programs. The total costs amount to approximately 2 percent of the overall budget for a school.

“It’s a very low amount,” Cuff said of the 2 percent, “and yet the importance of education-based activities and what students learn from those activities is, I feel, one of the greatest investments a school can make.”

The next question, Cuff said, is in which season would lacrosse be played?

Both the girls and boys programs currently play in the spring. That, however, conflicts with golf and softball for girls and baseball, soccer and tennis for boys, and track and field for both genders. Fall has additional complications, including the most popular boys sport in football.

Thatcher’s daughter, Hanna, was a four-year starter for Olympus lacrosse and his older son, Mason, has participated in both lacrosse and football at the school. With experience in both sanctioned and non-sanctioned sports, Thatcher’s family has seen the primary differences between the two setups on the ground level.

The greatest difference?

“Access to resources.”

Thatcher said finding some of the same resources that sanctioned sports receive as school-sponsored activities has posed the greatest challenge. Those struggles include access to school weight rooms as a team, traveling on school buses, having enough knowledgeable officials, and even finding a place to play.

“Finding fields is a constant struggle,” Thatcher said. Elder agreed, saying: “The growth of the sport has even been slightly inhibited by the lack of green space.”

Cuff stated that, by being a member of the UHSAA, schools are often more apt to support teams with facilities. However, not even all sanctioned events take place on school grounds. Many soccer and softball teams, for example, compete at fields not located on school property.

Thatcher added that, as the club sport has grown in popularity, support from the Olympus administration and Titan community has also increased. As the new Olympus High was being built, he was part of a parent group that successfully lobbied for lacrosse field lines to be added to the turf football field.

As more and more students get involved with lacrosse, approaching the UHSAA with another proposal seems likely.

“Ultimately,” Elder said, “sanctioning will be a good thing.”

Cuff, too, is open the conversation.

“We’re not opposed to listening,” he said. “We don’t hear from four or five separate groups that are thinking four or five different ways, which is why our board has wanted to be approached by established associations that have been running the sport.”

To make that happen, however, the ULA is looking for approximately half of the 132 member schools that offer sports to sponsor club lacrosse teams. That goal, which was mentioned by the UHSAA board after the first proposal, is in line with the UHSAA 50-percent rule. That rule states that a classification needs half its schools to participate in a sport before offering a state tournament for that class.

Elder said the ULA is working to involve between 50 and 60 schools, which is a minimum of 11 more boys programs and 20 more girls programs.

“We think that number would raise the eyebrows of the decision-makers,” he said. “If we pushed to get smaller schools involved, we could get there in the next couple of years.”

He added that while the number of girls programs is on the rise, it has not grown as quickly as boys lacrosse.

“The big question is, if the boys get there (to 50 teams) and the girls aren’t quite at 50 percent, will the (UHSAA) board still see enough involvement to vote lacrosse in?”

Sarah Thomas earned a degree in Mathematics from the University of Utah and is currently pursuing an MBA at Westminster College. She has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008.