By Chris Goldberg
Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 4/3/15
Ebe Helm likes to say the Duke’s Lacrosse Club has been labeled as the “Gold Standard” for travel lacrosse teams.
Agree or disagree, the Dukes L.C. has long enjoyed great success in major tournaments and in sending its players to top college teams at all divisions. In recent months the Dukes have made a major expansion by adding developmental programs at the youth and middle schools levels and by expanding its high school aged program while serving more than 400 boys in its home base of Eastern Pennsylvania and well beyond.
As a non-fee based organization, Dukes Founder and President Helm says the Duke’s Lacrosse Club has added to its mission of using lacrosse as a vehicle to a college education by giving every interested boy a chance to be a part of the Duke’s programs at every level.
“The idea we have adopted is, ‘No boy be left behind,'” said Helm. “We want Every single boy to know that there is a place for him in our Duke’s programs. That if a boy does not make the Duke’s High School Team then he has alternatives available to him within our organization that offer him opportunities to be a part of our club, our programs and our culture that that we feel has helped us become so successful as compared to other club options.”
The Dukes have added a youth program for boys in grades 2 through 6 (Little Dukes) and a new middle school program (Young Guns) for 7th and 8th graders. For each group the Dukes are providing clinics, exhibitions and individual training. Middle school players also will compete in elite tournaments.
At the high school level, the “Dukes Lite Elite” program, which includes players not chosen to compete for the Dukes High School program, has expanded to include several teams. Players for all these levels are coming from Philly and the immediate suburbs, and also from surrounding areas of Lehigh County, the Pocono region, South and Central New Jersey, Lancaster County and Delaware. Others come from well beyond the region.
Even though players often have come from beyond the Philly region to try out for the Dukes, the expansion plan calls for program to absorb several other club programs, including Team Philly (from Downingtown, run by Tom Slate), the Skyhawks (from the Lehigh Valley, run by Lou Gonzalez), and Team Explosion (from Jenkintown, run by Rob Forster).
Helm gave this explanation of the expansion:
“The Duke’s Lacrosse Club, since its inception in 1998, had done very little expansion,” said Helm. “After we worked hard carving out who we were and establishing ourselves, we never really felt like we needed any major expansion. We had established a formula that was very successful; some say the Gold Standard for High School Lacrosse Club Programs, so staying the course with the status quo served us well.
“However, our vision of who we were and the idea of expansion became a more real idea as we took stock in the changing lacrosse landscape from recruiting to alliances to for profit club entities to networking and to our own in-house coaching dynamics – especially middle school. So we felt it was time to expand and both share and tell the lacrosse community WHO we were, WHAT we stood for and WHY; WHAT we offered and to make sure that we communicated that bigger vision to the lacrosse community as a whole.
“To do that, we wanted to expand our thinking and reach out in some form locally, regionally and nationally as well as expand our age groups, but still do so within a framework suited to maintaining the autonomy of Dukes through not only our model and blueprint but also through our core beliefs and culture. Those core beliefs and culture include: Have our Players use Lacrosse as a Vehicle to a College Education; Being a Talent Based Program NOT Age Based; Making our Players Always Compete and Utilize a Depth Chart to measure that Competition; Asking Players to Represent Duke’s and Be Philly Tough but still be Spiritual and Giving with Initiatives to Support those dynamics; Offering Ricky Whelan Clinics to the Community and always; Making sure that we held our Boys and Families to a Higher Accountability that asked an All American Player to always be an All American Person.”
“When we have 200 to 300 boys trying out at the different levels of our Duke’s programs, where do they go when they don’t make our teams? We think that we can vastly improve a player and family’s lacrosse experience by making a home for them with us,” said Helm.
The Duke’s model and philosophy for coaching at the club Level is both specific and successful. They believe the teams should be chosen based on talent, not age. They also make it very clear that depth charts will be created and shown to players so everyone knows where they stand at all times. Helm said, “Transparency is key to everything we do.”
This style has drawn criticism from some that say club lacrosse players should not be treated like college players. But Helm claims the opposite. Not only do college coaches like the approach but players and families do as well, Helm said. He noted that college coaches know that they are getting Battle tested players who have learned how to compete and know what it means to work for a depth chart position as opposed to “being pigeon holed into an age bracket that limits good players from advancing and carries lesser players along no matter how they perform.”
“Players and families know where they stand and they enjoy the honesty and transparency of competition, which is the same thing they will see entering high school; entering college; and entering the real world,” Helm said.
Helm notes many examples, one being Matt Rambo, currently starring as a sophomore at Maryland. Rambo, who graduated from La Salle after starting at Abington, was a member of the Dukes 2 squad as an 8th grader because he was that advanced. Helm said that since elite players are being recruited at such a young age and are frequently committing to Division I programs as freshmen, this is now even more of a benefit to the top players since college coaches are interested to see them play up.
“Matt was such a dynamic player,” said Helm. “Why should he not be able to play with older kids if he is that good? We don’t pick players based on whether their daddy is the coach, we base it on who is the best.”
Helm said that all of the teams in the Duke’s Programs will adopt the same formula – with an open system of transparency and communication where players are chosen solely on the merits of their performance in training, practice and tournament games. Players that do not make it to the Dukes high school teams (Dukes 1 and 2) will play on Dukes Lite Elite teams, which will be tiered by ability.
“Like I said, no boy is left behind and we will create depth charts on Duke’s Lite Elite at every position and then decide whether the boy is moved or moves to Dukes Gold or Platinum or Silver based on the way that boy competes,” said Helm. “We’ll use the same model that we use for the Dukes high school teams.
“The real payoff will come as players receive the same opportunities to compete on Duke’s Lite Elite as they do on Duke’s High School participating in big time tournaments and getting recruited. When the first Duke’s Lite Elite player and his family give a verbal, it will be a special day and incredibly gratifying for our entire organization. .”
Helm noted that he fully expects players to advance up the levels of Duke’s Lite Elite Program to Duke’s High School as they mature and progress as players based on competition and training.
Helm is also excited about developing the younger programs with a strong group of well-regarded coaches such as Tom Slate, Lou Gonzalez, Dan Deckelbaum, JP Bennett, Jeff Ratcliffe, Jake Bergey, Desi Gonzalez, Stephen Evans, Rob Forster, Jack Forster, Pete Schwartz, Niko Amato, Mike Noone, Mike Pompelton, Tucker Durkin, and Jordan Wolf.
Helm Estimates that the Duke’s program’s expansion has doubled in its first 3 months and he expects that number to triple over the next year. Helm said having younger players – the “Little Duke’s” – in the program will allow the players to make smooth transitions from 2nd grade to 12th grade.
Helm said there are Multiple other initiatives/programs in the works including a Duke’s Alumni Team, a Lady Duke’s program; an Initiative for inner-city coaching, A more comprehensive cancer initiative led by Pat Cullinan and Patrick Kolb; and a Duke’s Documentary being filmed by Red Velocity Studios in Roanoke, Va. under Producer/Director Steve Mason which is expected to debut next year.
In conclusion, Helm said the new Dukes program provides a much greater overall product for the lacrosse community.
“I think it makes us well rounded and it caters to another whole part of the population,” he said.