MANATEE — There’s a new player on the Manatee County athletic field.
Thanks to some financial help from a national sports organization, Johnson Middle School is the first school in the Manatee district to offer lacrosse as a team sport.
U.S. Lacrosse, the national governing body of lacrosse, recently awarded the school a $10,000 equipment grant.
Johnson was one of 43 schools out of 300 applicants to get the grant, geared at bringing lacrosse to kids who can’t afford to play. The grant was for respective boys and girls teams, but the school was only able to muster up a boys team.
“We couldn’t get a full girls team, though, so we’re holding off for next year,” said Principal Omar Edwards. “We are really excited. Our kids are enthusiastic.”
The Johnson Eagles consists of 22 boys led by Coach Guy Coleman, an eighth-grade teacher at the school who applied for the grant.
“The kids are good,” said Coleman, 34, who is a veteran high school lacrosse player and also plays in a local mens’ league.
Their first practice took place Jan. 18, and their first game was Feb. 13.
The Eagles defeated the Sarasota Spartans, 13-2.
Had it not been for the grant, there wouldn’t be a team, said Coleman, who is also Johnson’s boys assistant soccer coach.
“I don’t have rich kids,” Coleman said. “Most of the area clubs charge kids 150 to 200 bucks a piece and they have to buy their own equipment.”
And that equipment, which includes a helmet, shoulder pads, arm pads, gloves and a stick, can cost $200 to $400 per person, he said.
Thanks to the grant, the only cost to the Johnson players is $40.
Of that amount, $25 goes to U.S. Lacrosse for injury insurance and $15 goes toward that cost of team travel.
Like most of his teammates, goalie Michael Tursellino is a novice when it comes to the sport.
The eighth-grade boy had never picked up a lacrosse stick until January.
“I wanted to try the sport but wouldn’t have been able to afford brand new equipment had it not been for the grant,” said Michael, 14.
The new player said he has high hopes for the team, too.
“Our team functioning wise is good,” he said. “We’re communicating well.”
Wyatt Knopfke, 13, said he was ecstatic when he learned the school was starting up a team.
That’s because last year, the seventh grade student played lacrosse on a club team at Sarasota Military Academy.
“They charged through the roof to play so this was a blessing,” Wyatt said. “I think it’s great the school picked it up and everyone is learning. We’re doing great.”
The Eagles are one of 12 teams in the middle school division of the West Florida Lacrosse League.
They also play community teams, including some in Lakewood Ranch and Sarasota.
This past weekend, they lost 6-5 in sudden death overtime to the Lakewood Ranch Lightning.
“It was tough,” Coleman said.
Assistant Coach Justin Kiner, like his players, also has high hopes for the team’s future.
“This is an exciting new endeavor for Johnson Middle School and an opportunity to showcase our pursuit and commitment to providing our students with unique, challenging, and rewarding experiences,” said Kiner, 30.
“Lacrosse at Johnson Middle School gives young athletes a chance to participate in and learn a sport not offered in most Florida school districts.”
The Johnson Eagles next play on March 6 against the South Tampa Sticks.
“We’re gonna get ready because they’re supposed to be tough,” Coleman said.
Eventually, Coleman said he plans to push to get the sport started in some of the school district’s high schools.
“There’s really no option for my eighth graders to move on because there aren’t any teams in our district,” he said, “So that’s the goal right now.”