Lacrosse building from the ground up in Florida

Jim Burgess/ESPN.com

The Gators' Krista Grabher gives young Floridians a goal to shoot for as the only Florida native suiting up for Florida.

Silence hangs in the air like the warm, thick humidity that awaits Vero Beach High School lacrosse players in their stadium. The locker room's lights snap on and the hush continues as a pregame scouting report starts. Soon, the team makes its way out of the locker room, and each player touches an old piece of athletic tape stuck to the wall above the door.

It reads, "Win."

Before the Fighting Indians take the field, one more stop is made. This time, it's to a sign hanging below the Citrus Bowl's scoreboard. On it are the years 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. As the players approach, they prepare to tap each year -- a tradition to honor each of the teams that have continued the school's seven-year state championship run.

It's a big night as nationally ranked Vero Beach is hosting St. Anthony's out of Long Island, N.Y., the country's third-best team.

With about 10 seconds left, St. Anthony's is on the ropes. Trailing by a point, the Friars attempt one final push, but a Vero Beach interception near midfield seals a 13-12 victory.

J Patrick Rice

Krista Grabher's alma mater, Vero Beach, has built a powerhouse lacrosse program that has won seven consecutive state titles.

A decade ago, this game wouldn't have happened. Friday nights in Florida used to belong solely to football. Now, though, they also include girls' lacrosse.

"It is crazy in a good way," Vero Beach coach Shannon Dean said. "It has exploded as far as popularity and numbers within the last 10 years."

Florida is one of several states that helped make lacrosse the fastest-growing high school girls' sport in the country, up 43.1 percent from 2007 to 2012, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations. The rate is nearly double that of the country's second-fastest-growing girls' sport, bowling (21.8 percent).

Florida has seen growth at the college level, as well. The University of Florida and Jacksonville University are each in their fourth year of NCAA Division I play. Stetson University started a program this season.

Of the three, the Gators have gotten off to the fastest start. After a 10-8 first season in 2010, Florida advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals in '11 and the semifinals last season.

"You can't describe it, it's just such a blessing," said Dean of the addition of college teams in the state. "It gives these girls an opportunity to play in their backyards and their parents can come see 'em."

For Krista Grabher, the Gators' only born-and-raised Floridian, the chance to play at home was too good to pass up, although it almost didn't happen.

Before Grabher was out of diapers, her parents, Clare and Kurt, had their daughter hitting tennis balls.

As Krista grew, she started following her mother's footsteps to major tennis. Back home in England, Clare had been one of Britain's top junior players. She even made it to Wimbledon, earning a spot in the event's junior quarterfinals as well as a return entry as an adult.

It wasn't long before Krista had a tennis coach, two-time NCAA national champion Angela Lettiere, and started representing Florida in interstate competitions.

"I thought that was going to be my path -- play tennis in college," Krista said.

By the time she was in middle school, though, tennis had taken its toll. Krista was worn out mentally and ready to try a team sport. So, with some friends, she decided to give lacrosse a shot, but the transition wasn't without its bumps and bruises.

"My husband came to one of their games -- it was an especially chaotic game, you know, the ball was going everywhere and, if I remember, I don't think she scored," Clare recalled. "[Krista] came home … and he said, 'Well, don't give up your day job.'"

Jim Burgess/ESPN.com

Florida advanced to the lacrosse semifinals after only three years of Division I play.

She did, though, leaving competitive tennis for good and eventually joining Dean's team at Vero Beach.

When Krista took the field for the Fighting Indians as a freshman, a few things about her stood out. The first: The midfielder knew how to put the ball in the back of the net. The second was Krista's less-than-imposing frame.

"When she came in, the girl was -- I don't even think she was 100 pounds freshman year, I mean, she was a rail," Dean said.

The third thing? Freshman jitters, which popped up in her first state championship game.

At one point in the game, Krista found herself with a free position after getting fouled. She never got the chance to capitalize on the scoring opportunity, though, because she false-started before the referee started play. She gave the other team the ball.

"I was just like, 'Oh my gosh,' … it was just hilarious," Dean said.

Over the next three years, Krista grew and ditched her nervousness en route to becoming one of the country's top high school players. When she graduated in 2010, she was a two-time All-American selection by USA Lacrosse and had four state championships to go along with 195 career goals and 196 assists.

Early in her career at Florida, Krista didn't think she would play much. The recruiting class before hers was Florida's first and featured highly decorated scorers Brittany Dashiell and Kitty Cullen, so starting lineup space was scarce.

Headed into this season, though, coach Amanda O'Leary saw the Gators' list of defenders start to dwindle, so she asked Krista to make the move.

As the preseason got underway, Krista began picking up the intricacies of her new position. Toward the end of the season, the 5-foot-6 low defender's transformation was complete. She started two of the team's three final regular-season games and had four ground balls and caused four turnovers.

"I think what Krista has done is she's proven herself," O'Leary said of Krista, now a junior. "She is definitely one of our core defenders."

That's saying something because, back in high school, defense wasn't Krista's calling card.

"Her biggest assets were on offense … she could get separation and score," Dean said. "She wasn't the one, if the game was on the line, I'd want her to be there [defending.]"

Looking ahead, the Gators' added defensive strength could be the missing piece in the NCAA championship puzzle. Regardless, Krista's story isn't lost on the next crop of young Floridian talent.

Three hours southeast of the University of Florida down Interstate 75, Dean uses his former standout as an example for his current Vero Beach team.

After the Fighting Indians' 100th straight in-state victory earlier this season, the coach told his team about the last time the school lost -- it was Krista's first high school game -- and how she grew from the experience and helped make the program what it is today.

He also stresses how important it is to have a well-rounded game, routinely pointing to Krista's position change.

"It gives our younger players someone to look up to," Dean said. "I got girls now in high school who see the posters of the Gators and see Krista on there, and they say, 'Hey, that can be me.'"

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