Spreading the word about the sport of lacrosse is a grass roots effort and Joe Feuerstein is actively involved.
Whether it be person-to-person in the halls of Neenah High School or indirectly by putting up signs on game days, the senior midfielder is willing to do what it takes to make sure people are aware of the sport he loves to play.
And because lacrosse isn’t officially a part of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association’s list of sanctioned sports, being part promoter and marketer is a necessary requirement as a lacrosse athlete.
“We aren’t connected with the (school’s WIAA sports), we rely on word of mouth and the signs we put up on game day for students to come,” Feuerstein, 18, said. “A lot of students just aren’t aware of our schedule and some view us as less official because we’re not technically part of the WIAA.”
Neenah boys’ lacrosse, while not a WIAA-sanctioned sport, is a member of the Wisconsin Lacrosse Federation. Head coach Paul Zielski, 42, has held many different roles with the organization and is currently the lacrosse coaches director for the state of Wisconsin.
Zielski has been the Neenah coach since the program started in 2003 and he has also been locally involved in the Bay Valley Lacrosse Association, which includes teams from Appleton, Bay Port, D.C. Everest, De Pere, Green Bay Southwest, Green Bay Metro, Notre Dame, Oneida and Wausau.
Girls’ lacrosse teams include Appleton, De Pere, Green Bay Southwest and Neenah.
Zielski said there are two types of club programs.
“We have those that are varsity club-level sports in high school and that’s what Neenah (lacrosse) is,” he said. “They’re held to the same standards as (WIAA athletes) in terms of code of conduct, academic requirement. The other half are programs that run independently as co-ops, drawing from multiple schools.”
Zielski added that those club programs within the BVLA must abide by the conference rules as well as WLF rules and regulations.
“The BVLA and WLF rules and regulations are guidelines for the programs, so many teams will then govern their players in-house,” he said.
Becoming a WIAA sanctioned sport
The WIAA sponsors state tournaments for 25 sports and lacrosse is one of many sports that have been mentioned as possible additions to that WIAA state tournament roster.
WIAA Executive Director Dave Anderson said that it’s up to member schools to pool their interest together and approach the WIAA about adding a sport.
Anderson said that there has been interest, at one time or another, in a wide range of sports that include mountain biking, lacrosse, weight lifting, field hockey, cycling, bass fishing, walleye fishing, ice fishing, rugby, bowling, equestrian, marathons, skiing and even sporting clays.
“When we begin hearing from member schools — who have the voice and status in this Association — then we are charged with the responsibility to carry that conversation forward across the membership, to and through the various member-elected committees and ultimately to their elected Board of Control (school administrators),” Anderson said.
WIAA policy on “sport recognition and WIAA tournament sponsorship” states that the WIAA’s Board of Control “may consider adding a new sport to the list of recognized and regulated activities at such a time as five percent of the membership are participating in that sport at the same time of the year and indicate an interest in WIAA involvement.”
For there to be a WIAA-sponsored tournament, however, there has to be at least 10 percent of the total membership participating at the same time of the year and “indicate an interest in such a tournament series.”
“Usually it begins with interest and involvement locally and then at the conference level,” said Todd Clark, the WIAA’s Director of Communications and Advanced Media. “At that point, if it gains momentum, we would have discussions about adding sports at the Area Meetings and see if the sentiment is widespread to have the committee structure review the prospects to add it as a sponsored sport with a tournament series.”
With school budgets stretched thin, it may be awhile before that happens.
“Lacrosse has been talked about, but the membership has not been interested in adding any sports,” Clark said.
Zielski said that while he would like to see lacrosse join the WIAA, there are some factions within the lacrosse community that would rather stay independent.
“I feel that a move to the WIAA would help expansion and growth of the sport,” he said.
Zielski added that helping lacrosse’s cause is the formation of a coaches’ association that can be in contact with athletic directors in terms of bringing a request to the WIAA.
“This year, we formed the Wisconsin Lacrosse Coaches Association and I’ll be a member of the executive board. (Arrowhead coach) Erin Ennis and I and a few others are trying to get that organization off the ground.”
Neenah activities director Nate Werner said there is no immediate plan to petition the WIAA about lacrosse but said that it may happen in the near future.
“I know at this year’s WIAA Annual Meeting they talked about some sports that may be coming down the pike in terms of recognition and lacrosse is one of them,” Werner said. “I have spoken with (Neenah superintendent) Dr. (Mary) Pfeiffer about this and she said that she is willing to have that conversation when the time comes. Therefore, Neenah is certainly open to the idea.”
Until that happens, the Rockets lacrosse team will continue to play in relative anonymity and continue to have success. The Rockets are 13-4 overall and 8-1 in the BVLA. Neenah is led by Feuerstein and fellow senior captains Brandon Gillis (defender) and Nick Malcore (goaltender).
Another key team leader is senior Nate Stubing, the team’s leading scorer, with seniors Jacob Lange (attack) and Christopher Birtch (midfielder) also figuring critically in the team’s success.
“It’s a relatively new sport to the area, so a lot of people don’t know how it’s played,” Feuerstein said. “But a lot of the students that come to the games say they really enjoy watching and learning about it.”
The program’s numbers continue to be on an upward tick, according to Zielski.
“When we started (in 2003), we had 18 players or so over the first three or four years,” he said. “Those numbers grew. In fact, they doubled to where we have 45 to 50 players a season. We have a full JV program and full varsity program.
“Most recently, we brought forth a whole feeder program at Shattuck (Neenah middle school), which consists of 33 players. This is their first year. And in two years, we hope to begin a fifth-/sixth-grade program.”
Feuerstein sees lacrosse being a WIAA sport by the time those middle schoolers are seniors.
“(I see it) as a WIAA sport,” he said. “I think (Werner) and a lot of other people want to see the sport grow and will help that happen.”