Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series analyzing the current push to expand lacrosse programs in the city of Philadelphia.
By Chris Goldberg
Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 3/19/09
A major milestone will occur next week when the boys’ team at Thomas FitzSimons High becomes the first to play varsity interscholastic lacrosse in the history of the Philadelphia Public League.
The FitzSimons team, coached by Evan Scott, is an offshoot of a Public League middle school program that is now in its fourth year of operation. It is hoped that this program will continue to grow and spawn more high school teams in the city.
Today, inPhillylacrosse.com’s second part of a series analyzing the push for city lacrosse, we look at recent efforts made by leaders in the sport to help build programs in Philadelphia.
In Phillylacrosse.com’s first installment of this series, we detailed the beginnings of the city lacrosse programs and noted the significant contributions from Ray Jones and the Philadelphia Lacrosse Association (PLA), the governing board of lacrosse in the region; and Black Women in Sport Foundation (BWSF) PresidentTina Sloan Green.
In the past few years, several significant programs have been started that have fueled the current push for the Public League to field high schools teams.
This year will be the fourth year of the Philadelphia Middle Years Lacrosse program, a league that has fielded between four to 12 boys’ and girls’ middle school teams each year. One of the boys’ teams, FitzSimons, has moved up to the high school level and will play a JV schedule of 11 games, beginning March 24 at Malvern Prep.
For the first three years, Grover Washington teacher Henry Hunt oversaw the entire Middle Years program, while also coaching his school’s boys’ team. This year more staff has been added to run the girls’ program and Hunt said he expects there to be 10 boys’ teams competing in the league. He said several more boys’ teams will compete in a less competitive developmental league and that there also will be four or five girls’ teams.
The Middle Years program has received much support from the Public League, according to middle school athletic director Rick Howard. Financially, the PLA, a non-profit organization and the local chapter of US Lacrosse, has been a significant supporter by donating over $34,000 in funds to get the program going. These funds were raised through a yearly PLA Golf Outing, which has raised over $200,000 in 10 years to fund new programs in the eastern region of the state.
Last year Hunt said that nearly 500 people attended the championship playoff games. He has seen several hundred Public League students have already benefited from the opportunity to participate in the sport.
“I was blown away by the number that came out last year,” said Hunt, who played scholastically at Archbishop Ryan and club lacrosse at West Chester University.
“It’s like an addiction, when the kids start to play the sport,” he added. “As long as they are challenged with different things every day, they enjoy it.
“We have a lot of kids with raw, athletic ability, but it’s not so hard to learn the basics of passing and catching.”
Public League has goal of adding lacrosse as PIAA sport
Howard said the goal of the Middle Years program is to build a foundation for the development of a high school league for the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA). The PIAA began sanctioning boys’ lacrosse this year.
“That was the whole notion when we joined the PIAA,” Howard said. “We wanted to add sports that had the potential for students to become more involved in. Lacrosse was an easy pick.”
Howard noted that Sloan Green and Drexel men’s coach Chris Bates have headed a program to train coaches and provide workshops for physical education teachers so lacrosse can better be integrated into the curriculum and introduced in physical education classes.
Howard also said that a key will be to involve the new LEAPS program into the lacrosse program.LEAPS (Leadership, Education, Attitude, Perseverance & Success)is being run by city pro players John Christmasand Eric Gregg, who started the non-profit organization in December to further build city lacrosse programs already initiated by Sloan Green and others.
“John and Eric are interested in going into the physical education classes and serving as instructional resources for physical education teachers,” Howard said. “That, in turn, will get the kids excited. Unless they actually see it, they won’t understand the sport and what it’s about.”
Howard noted the roadblocks that have slowed the progress of building lacrosse in the past.
“The main roadblock we’ve faced is the unfamiliarity with the sport,” he said. “Coaches and players say that basketball, football and track and field are more straight forward than lacrosse.
“Facilities and equipment have not been that big of a problem. The PLA has stepped up and provided enough equipment. Without them we’d really be struggling. We also have a problem getting enough referees. The coaches end up refereeing, and then they can’t coach.”
The push for lacrosse is being accomplished in many areas of the city and by some of the teachers themselves. At Logan Elementary School in Olney, gym teacher Mark Gilinger adopted a program three years ago to teach students various sports.
Last year Gilinger started teaching lacrosse and developed a working relatyionship with La Salle University women’s team, which sends its players to give clinics and to teach basic skills.
“When I saw the Public League was in the PIAA I felt that sooner or later we’d get into lacrosse,” he said. “I introcued it to fifth and sixth graders to see how it would go and the kids really enjoyed it.”
Gilinger has developed a lacrosse club because of the interest sparked in gym class and from the clinics held by La Salle players. he believes that the sport can appeal to all youths if it’s presented in a fun and positive way.
“The kids wanted a club and I am thrilled to see how they responded to the girls from La Salle,” he said. “A lot of times in gym class when you work with children half get excited and the other half finds excuses.
“I’ll tell you this, even the non-athletic players are excited about lacrosse. And the women from La Salle are really enjoying themselves. They’ve been teaching us the fundamentals It’s been a really positive experience for all.”
Lacrosse officials try to build the sport through funding, training and other types of support
In recent months, Sloan Green, Temple women’s coach Bonnie Rosen and long-time lacrosse leaderCathy D’Ignazio have run coaching clinics for women’s PE teachers. Also, PLA members Tim Udinski (director of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Youth Lacrosse and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Youth Lacrosse Association) and David Martin (Germantown Academy coach) as well as others have organized clinics and provided opportunities for city coaches to get free training and for players from the city to participate for free in youth programs.
“We have been hitting on every front from the moment I came toTemple,” said Rosen, a third-year coach who graduated from Harriton High and has a long and respected resume as a player and a coach. “Clearly, our mission is to help grow the sport of lacrosse.
“We have worked to supportTina Sloan Green and hooked up with her and her mission. The main thing is for us to focus on educating coaches and at the same time to teach girls to play lacrosse.”
Through a grass-roots funding program called New Start, the PLA has continued to provide funding for inner-city lacrosse and other new programs.
Many others have also donated time or resources to help the push for city lacrosse in the recent years. Some have run free clinics for players and coaches in the Public League schools and some teachers and physical education teachers have taught the sport on their own.
Howard said the Public League will fully support the growth of lacrosse at the middle school and high school levels if the interest is there. He noted that more training is panned and that in the recent years more and more personnel within the Public school system have embraced the sport of lacrosse.
“I think we are on the right track,” Howard said. “We have to keep the forward momentum going and we’ll be OK. More and more people in the city are starting to learn about lacrosse.
“The lacrosse community is unlike others. They are always trying to build the sport all around, not just with their own niche of kids.”
Tomorrow: We look at the future and the potential for growth of lacrosse in the city of Philadelphia.