Florida Natives Set for Champion Showcase
by Corey McLaughlin | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff
Cole Millican is one of 13 Florida natives participating in the 2010 Champion High School Showcase, a US Lacrosse event.
© Ron Modra
Matt Bellando's first sport was hockey. Krista Grabher's was tennis. Cole Millican's was football. In a sign of how young the popularity of lacrosse is in Florida, many of the state's best players -- who will play at Division I schools next season and over the next few days at the Champion High School Showcase – do not consider the sport their first athletic focus.
But give a Florida athlete a stick, some time, yearlong warm weather, and see what happens. You just might be surprised, they say.
"Most people think we aren't good, but we are good," said the Stony Brook University-bound Bellando, who had 86 goals and 41 assists to lead perennial Boca Raton, Fla., power Saint Andrew's to a 20-2 record and a state title in 2010. "When you put the best of Florida against the best of New York and Maryland, we all hang with them, and can beat all of them."
Bellando, whose St. Andrew's team went toe-to-toe with MIAA-power Boys' Latin in a 12-11 loss on March 13, is among six Florida boys and seven girls that will play in the Champion showcase in their home state. The event features 96 of the nation's top boys and 80 of the best girls and runs July 18-22 as part of the ESPN Rise Games at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Some of Florida's best invitees -- Bellando, Grabher, a midfielder from 2010 state girls' champion Vero Beach going to the University of Florida, and St. Thomas Aquinas midfielder Millican, who is close friends with Bellando and also going to Stony Brook -- haven't taken a lacrosse-only path to becoming top college recruits. But that should be expected in a state where the sport is new to many.
The Florida High School Athletic Association only sanctioned a state tournament beginning for the 2008 season and only recently youth leagues have caught on. In 2009, the three US Lacrosse chapters in Florida reported a combined total of more than 7,000 youth players. In 2001, that number was fewer than 1,000.
The 5-foot-5 Bellando, the Palm Beach Post's all-area Player of the Year in 2010, first was attracted to hockey. He didn't discover lacrosse until the eighth grade when he went to a middle school jamboree. But by ninth grade he thought that playing lacrosse in college was a possibility.
"I thought college lacrosse was going to be big one day, so I went out and practiced every day," Bellando said. "Lacrosse became my life." Now he's off to Stony Brook, where there are a few Canadians on the roster who no doubt played hockey. "Perfect," he said.
It took Grabher until sixth grade to discover lacrosse, when she gave up tennis and searched for a team sport. Then, when Florida added a women's Division I program, the in-state school became her first college choice. She's part of the Gators' second recruiting class after racking up 43 goals, 22 assists and 33 draw controls as a senior at Vero Beach in 2010.
Vero Beach's season was highlighted by four out of state wins, including an 18-8 victory over perennial national power St. Stephen's & St. Agnes (Va.).
"People downplay it and say that they had an off game, but that was a major accomplishment for Florida lacrosse," Grabher said. "Friends from other teams were congratulating us for winning. It was obvious that people had heard about it."
Millican attended St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, a football power (that was ranked No. 1 in the nation last year) and he grew up playing football. Then he broke his wrist in ninth grade and missed the fall season. When he healed, it was lacrosse season, and he picked up the sport and soon was being invited to showcases and camps.
He joined a travel team, Team Florida, coached by St. Andrew's coach Jeff Goldberg, and on one trip to the Battle of the Hotbeds summer event in Delaware, Millican said he caught some attention while recruiters were there to see Bellando. As a senior at St. Thomas Aquinas, Millican had 61 goals, 34 assists and 55 ground balls for a team that finished 13-3.
"Florida has more athletes," Millican said. "You give them the ball and see more athletic ability overall. They're different from people like Boys' Latin or McDonogh who maybe don't have the athletes but you can see have had a stick in their hand since they were walking. We can also play all year round. I think that's what's making the sport grow. ... More schools are adding it. It's kind of weird. If you don't have a team, you're kind of in the past."
Amanda Graziano, a defender from West Orange, near Orlando, is another Showcase invitee who first tried another sport: soccer. "But I got hit in the face with the ball more times than I kicked it," she said. "I had a friend who played lacrosse so I decided to try it."
She'll play club ball at the University of Florida.
"It's great that the sport is growing and that we're getting better players," Graziano said. "I think we're really capable of very competitive lacrosse no matter where we are. We have skills of people who have been playing much longer than we have."
Maybe one day, lacrosse will be their first sport.