Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 1/11/16
From Press Release
The HEADstrong Foundation and HEADstrong Lacrosse Club are proud to formally announce the alignment of Stars & Stripes Lacrosse and Lehigh Valley Outlaws Lacrosse to form HEADstrong Lehigh Valley. The new club plans to officially take the field for summer 2016 and will encompass U9 to High School boys and girls competitive teams. Spyro Karetsos, Kevin O’Neill and Michael Bender have been instrumental in bringing the newly formed program to life and the organization is thrilled for the teams to take the field for a higher purpose.
For more than a decade, Stars & Stripes Director Spyro Karetsos and Lehigh Valley Outlaws Director Kevin O’Neill have been pioneering the game in the region, growing their respective programs organically to record numbers. From organizing to coaching to orchestrating events both men have been leaders helping to put Lehigh Valley on the lacrosse map.
While Karetsos and O’Neill are both fierce competitors on the playing field, both men realized a common interest in creating ways to leverage their programs to better serve the community; focusing on creating the complete student-athlete, emphasizing character and skill development, while elevating the level of available instruction and competition to players in the region.
They found what they were looking for in the mission of the HEADstrong Foundation, a 501(c)3 committed to improving the quality of life for cancer patients and their families through providing essential programs and services. O’Neill’s family experienced the organization’s generosity in wake of his father’s own cancer diagnosis and his son has been involved with the HEADstrong Lacrosse Club, a sport specific awareness arm of the charity in the past.
O’Neill understood that HEADstrong’s involvement in the Lehigh Valley would solve a dilemma for families who have been forced to travel away from the region for training, competition and exposure while providing a backdrop allowing the organization to strengthen their commitment to families in the region affected by cancer.
“I am extremely honored in working with the HEADstrong Foundation and having our club play lacrosse for a greater purpose,” said O’Neill. “In addition to the high level of coaching our players receive while also further expanding their lacrosse IQ; they will be involved in community outreach programs that teach more about life and giving rather than receiving.
“My father passed away almost a year ago this Christmas and I got to see firsthand this foundation at work at the University of Pennsylvania and knew that we could do the same and play a greater part here in the Lehigh Valley. This also brings a great tradition of lacrosse expanding outside of Southeastern PA into our area and will give these young men a greater opportunity to play at a higher level after high school.”
Given the every changing dynamics of the game, both Karetsos and O’Neill recognized another amazing opportunity in appointing Michael Bender to spearhead the newly formed program. Bender is a homegrown talent from Emmaus High School where he earned Adidas All-American honors and was recognized as a 4-time All-Conference Selection.
Bender played collegiately at the University of Maryland where he earned both athletic and academic honors, making 2 Final Four appearances including a 2015 National Championship. While in college, Bender spent his summers instructing and coaching for several programs in the Lehigh Valley and upon graduating he returned to his hometown with interest in sharing his experience and knowledge in hope of providing opportunities for future generations of Lehigh Valley lacrosse players.
As a youth lacrosse player, Bender was one of many who were forced to leave the region to gain exposure because of the lack of available local resources. In high school Bender traveled to the Philadelphia suburbs, more than 1 hour away from his home, multiple times per week for practices, scrimmages and games. Understanding the sacrifices and strain that playing away from the region put on his family, Bender was determined to change this pattern, focusing his attention on the development of local talent.
Additionally, Bender wanted to give the program a higher purpose and after meeting the Colleluori family, visiting Nick’s House, a facility operated by the HEADstrong Foundation that provides complimentary lodging to patients and families traveling to the Greater Philadelphia region seeking comprehensive cancer care and organizing a post collegiate team to compete in a tournament last summer, Bender knew that he wanted to lead HEADstrong’s efforts in the Lehigh Valley.
“The arrival of HEADstrong Lehigh Valley under the direction of Mike Bender validates the growth of lacrosse in the area,” said Karetsos. “HEADstrong’s national presence and mission to improve lives affected by cancer provides an opportunity for players to develop while also contributing to a very worthy cause. Mike Bender’s DI national championship pedigree, integrity, and genuine interest in the players will set HEADstrong apart from anything the Lehigh Valley has ever seen. I am proud to be involved in this endeavor and look forward to future success.”
Said Bender: “Being from the Lehigh Valley and competing at the highest level, I am very excited to bring such a well-respected national organization that can represent the quality of talent we have here. Being able to finally provide something we can call our own, focused on giving the best competition that the game has to offer outside of the Philadelphia market.
“Upholding all that HEADstrong Foundation represents on and off the playing will make this an incredibly special experience for our players and families helping to create prepared and well-rounded student athletes who have a full appreciation for the opportunities that are provided to them. We will be heavily committed to supporting the essential programs and services provided by HEADstrong to support patients and families from the region who have been devastated by the realities of cancer.”
Being nationally based on the outskirts of Philadelphia, HEADstrong has had the privilege of serving countless families from the Lehigh Valley, helping them to navigate their cancer journey with a greater quality of life. For years, their Southeastern Pennsylvania based lacrosse program has attracted players from the Lehigh Valley region and the creation of the newly formed teams will serve as a platform for developing and showcasing prospective talent from the region while engaging players in community service and outreach locally.
“On behalf of the HEADstrong Foundation and those we proudly serve, we wish to welcome our newest addition to the HEADstrong Lacrosse Club, HEADstrong Lehigh Valley. The Lehigh Valley lacrosse community has grown by leaps and bounds and is made up of some of the most genuine, supportive and motivated families that we have had the privilege of knowing. We are so thrilled to now be part of it. Our hope is that the newly formed club will not only be a platform for athletes from the region to learn the game and gain exposure but that it will serve as a vehicle for promoting awareness and most importantly impact on behalf of patients and families needing our services in the Lehigh Valley. We wish to thank Spyro Karetsos, Kevin O’Neill and Michael Bender for their relentless commitment to our cause and we look forward to welcoming the players and families with open arms.” Cheryl Colleluori, HEADstrong President & Nick’s Mom