Frances Williams broke into a quick laugh when reflecting on how playing lacrosse influenced her entire high school years.
“I feel like my whole life revolves around it,” said Williams, the senior star for the Gulf Breeze High girls team. “Everyone that I hang out with I have known through lacrosse.”
One of those best friends is Victoria Warren, a junior on the Pensacola High lacrosse team, who may play against Williams for a final time if both teams reach Thursday’s District 1 Tournament championship.
When the girls semifinals are played Tuesday night at Gulf Breeze’s Dolphin Stadium, it will be the first time that lacrosse has staged an all local District 1 tournament to advance the tournament winner into the state playoffs.
How fitting, too, since Williams and Warren have each scored more than 100 goals in their prep careers, both hitting the milestone this season.
All the more, they have helped grow the game and inspire the future among young girls.
They have been local pioneers in a sport that has only recently forged its way into the area prep sports scene.
“It has been awesome,” said Warren, who has scored 117 goals in her prep career, including 45 this season.. “The sport is a lot different than any other sport you can play.”
Therein lies the lacrosse lure. Warren was in grade school when her mother, Nichole had a best friend whose daughter had started playing lacrosse.
“She was like, you should play and I was like, okay,” said Warren, shrugging to duplicate her reaction at that time. “I thought it was a lot of fun. I am glad I played.
“It is something I dedicated a lot of my time to, so I am glad I found something to really focus on, rather than doing a lot of things.”
The same kind of chance occurrence got Williams started. Her mother and father did not play lacrosse, but her grandfather was an acclaimed player for the U.S Naval Academy.
Her peers in middle school started playing at the Gulf Breeze Sports Association (GBSA) fields at Shoreline Park. In eighth grade, while being involved in soccer, she took a try at the game.
“I thought, well, I really like soccer, I might as well give (lacrosse) a shot,” said Williams, who has scored 37 goals and has 16 assists this season and has 137 goals in her prep career. “It started as a social thing and it evolved from there.
“I love how fast-paced the game is. I played every single sport growing up. I still play golf, but I am not really that competitive in golf. In soccer, I was a goalie and it was boring. I like to move.
“I think another thing that helped me stick with lacrosse are the people I have met along the way. I’ve made such great friendships.”
Her rapid development in the sport has enabled Williams to earn a scholarship at Lenoir-Rhyne University, an NCAA Division II member in the South Atlantic Conference. Her Gulf Breeze teammate, goalie Alanna Zambetti, recently signed with Division II power Florida Southern.
“Our team has come so far,” Williams said. “We literally started from the ground up. It would be incredible if you watched us play our freshmen year until now.
“We couldn’t even catch the ball back then. It has been incredible in just four years. I have high hopes for the future.”
The future will include her sister Morgan, an eighth grader and her other sister Delaney, who is in sixth grade and both began playing lacrosse in the GBSA program after big sister Frances signed her college scholarship in November.
“Frances has been this program,” said Gulf Breeze first-year coach Carlee Costello, who has been Williams’ travel team coach with LAX Chix since Williams started playing.
“Not taking away from anyone else or any other player on other teams, but Frances has been far above,” Costello said. “I just think what would have happened if she started playing sooner and how good she could be.”
Williams credits Warren for helping influence the growth of lacrosse at PHS. When the game started in this area, Gulf Breeze and PHS were the pioneer teams, joined by Washington and West Florida. Catholic now has a boys team. Pace, Milton and Escambia have all discussed forming teams to compete in District 1.
“At Gulf Breeze, we have been lucky, because the players have all played in the past,” Williams said “At PHS, for the most part, about 75 percent of the team when they got to PHS, that was the first time for them playing lacrosse.
“So when Victoria was a freshman, she’s had to be a leader and she would have seniors looking up to her. She definitely had to take a big role there and set an example for the other players.”
The Dolphins were 17-1 last year and ramped up their schedule this year to finish 11-4. Three of the losses have been to more established teams in the central Florida area.
The other loss to Leonardtown, Md. which is one of the states, along with Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and the New England states where U.S. lacrosse is the strongest. In many of those states, the game has been played in the high schools for a half-century or longer.
With 11 seniors on the team, the Dolphins are expected to win the girls district title Williams said it will bring a much-needed awareness within the school.
“A lot of people at our school don’t really know how successful we have been as a team, especially going to games and stuff,” she said. “I think being able to bring home a first place trophy from our backyard to just show everyone here.. I think it will be like, well, lacrosse is real.
“I think over the years we have definitely made ourselves known. But to be known as one thing, and to be recognized as a great team that’s different…. That would be cool.”
WANT TO GO?
WHAT: Girls District 1 Lacrosse Tournament.
WHEN: Tuesday (semifinals) and Thursday (championship).
WHO: Pensacola High vs. West Florida High (5:30 p.m. Tuesday) and Gulf Breeze vs. Washington (7:30 p.m. Tuesday). Winners scheduled to play Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Dolphin Stadium, Gulf Breeze.
TICKETS: $6 each day.
NEXT STEP: The district champion will advance to play the District 2 champion (all Gainesville schools) on April 15. In Florida, lacrosse is a single-classification sport. The state final four is April 29-30 at Jupiter High School near West Palm Beach.