Known for its tropical climate, laid-back lifestyle and cruise ship visitors, Key West, Fla., now is staking its claim as the southernmost home of youth lacrosse in the continental United States.
Located closer to Havana than Miami, this tiny island has developed a reputation as an enticing vacation destination for mainlanders. But don’t be misled, said Alex Smith, co-founder of the Key West Youth Lacrosse League (KWYLL). “There are a lot of families down here too.”
And it was precisely that family influence that motivated Smith to join with a few others in spearheading the birth of the KWYLL in 2012. Having grown up Pennsylvania and played lacrosse through high school and college, Smith wanted to provide the same opportunity for her daughter, Kathryn, now 8.
“I love the game and really wanted her to experience lacrosse,” Smith said.
Smith moved to Key West in 1995 with the intent of staying for just one year. Seventeen years later, she banded with five other transplants that had also previously played lacrosse to start a youth program with 10 free clinics, which attracted about 100 kids.
At the same time, Smith applied for the US Lacrosse First Stick Program, and received grants for both a boys’ and girls’ team. In addition to coaching education resources, the grant provided much needed equipment for both teams.
“That First Stick grant was really a key to getting us started,” Smith said.
Last spring, the KWYLL had approximately 65 players, both boys and girls, ranging in age from 5 to 15. The league has added 25 to 30 more kids and has four boys’ and four girls’ teams, with 12 volunteer coaches, signed up for 2014.
“Our focus is on fun, fitness, and good sportsmanship,” said Smith, who also works as an elementary school teacher on the island. “The kids seem to love the game, and the parents are excited that there is another sports opportunity available.”
Jake Luce, a former club player at South Carolina, serves as the KWYLL’s coordinator for boys’ coaches. He answered the call for volunteers within 10 days of moving to the island in 2012.
“It’s been exciting to see the growth between year one and year two,” said Luce, who attended the 2014 US Lacrosse National Convention, presented by Champion, in Philadelphia and recently completed Level 1 of US Lacrosse’s Coaching Education Program. He is one of four KWYLL coaches that have gone through Level 1 training.
“First Stick has been an amazing thing for us,” Luce said. “It has allowed us to offset costs so that kids can try the game. It gives them an opportunity to start. We know that the kids that are dedicated will eventually invest in their own gear.”
An island location 125 miles from the U.S. mainland does present some obstacles, but Smith noted that the support of the local Key West community as well as the assistance of the South Florida Chapter of US Lacrosse have helped ease those difficulties.
The town of Key West has accommodated the league in finding available field space, and local businesses have been generous in their support of the KWYLL’s fundraising efforts.
“Key West is known as a big tourist location, but really, it’s a small town,” Luce said. “The locals want to give back to the kids.”
Another critical factor to the KWYLL’s success has been the selfless assistance offered by its closest lacrosse neighbor, Coral Shores High, located 90 miles away in Tavernier.
“Their boys' varsity coach, Barney Rich, and girls' varsity coach, Mark Hall, have been like family to us,” Smith said. “Some of the boys from the Coral Shores team came down to Key West to help with a few of our free clinics.”
Rich also runs the non-profit organization, Believe Lacrosse.
“It just made sense for us to be at Key West and to help them out,” he said “It’s really all about giving back, and the players that we take down to Key West get a lot more out of the experience than they put into it.”
Said Luce: “Barney is like a mentor to me. It’s great to be able to pick his brain.”
Luce, Smith and others are already talking expansion. Luce’s goal is to have a high school team in 2015 at Key West High, while Smith talks about bringing new events to the island.
“Key West is a melting pot of people from different countries and backgrounds,” she said. “Our island would be a wonderful location to host lacrosse tournaments. It’s a beautiful destination with much to offer — fishing, diving, historical landmarks, museums, sun.”
And now, lacrosse.
The First Stick Program is the ultimate grassroots initiative for new and developing youth (U19) lacrosse teams. Designed as a two-year partnership between US Lacrosse and awarded teams, First Stick will deliver comprehensive US Lacrosse team development resources—such as equipment, USL membership and coaching education—to expand participation and help create self-sustaining programs. 2014 First Stick applications are now being accepted.
First Stick Program