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Special report on the push for city lacrosse, Part 1: Past efforts paved the way for current successes

Wednesday, 18th March 2009

Categories Boy's/Men's, Girl's/Women's  

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series analyzing the current push to expand lacrosse programs in the city of Philadelphia. Today’s story focuses on efforts done in the past.

By Chris Goldberg, Posted 3/18/09

This week, as lacrosse teams all throughout the Philadelphia region prepare for their season openers, at least one squad in the Public League feels a part of the excitement.

In the past few weeks, FitzSimons became the first team from the Public League to field a high school lacrosse squad when it began JV practices. It is hoped one day soon many Public League schools will have boys’ and girls’ teams and get to compete with the rest of the state in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA).

In recent months, Philadelphia lacrosse leaders have turned up the push to develop new scholastic and youth programs in hopes of bringingAmerica’s fastest growing sport into the inner city.

It was just over three months ago that Philly pro players John Christmas andEric Gregg – both African Americans with big-name appeal – announced they were starting a non-profit program called LEAPS (Lacrosse, Education, Attitude, Perseverance & Success) to work full-time on helping build lacrosse in the city.

The LEAPS program brought added attention to a drive that has gone on for more than 20 years to help provide opportunities for city youths to play a sport some would consider non-traditional or too costly for city youths.

Christmas and Gregg already have run several events and have launched several major initiatives to build new lacrosse programs at the community and youth levels for both city youths and other African American youths in the region. But many others have spent years starting programs that have helped plant the seeds for the current push to build lacrosse in the city.

Why had there never been a Public League lacrosse team before now? The biggest reasons are the cost involved in running quality lacrosse programs, the lack of facilities in the city and the fact that lacrosse is not played on the streets of the inner city.

But there have been some successful after-school and community programs run in the city for many years, and Christmas and Gregg are hoping to build upon these programs along with other city leaders and the Public League. Today, will analyze some city lacrosse programs developed in the past that have helped pave the way for current efforts.

The major seeds for city lacrosse were first planted as far back as several decades ago by the Philadelphia Lacrosse Association (PLA) and Tina Sloan Green, President and co-founder of the Black Women in Sport Foundation.

The PLA is a non-profit organization and the local chapter of US Lacrosse, which serves as the national governing body for the sport. The PLA supports and promotes the game of lacrosse at all levels in its chapter area, which includes Greater Philadelphia, Eastern Pennsylvania and portions of Northern Pennsylvania.

About seventeen years ago, Ray Jones, a former board member of the PLA as well as a member of United States Lacrosse, was asked to begin pushing to get lacrosse in the Public League schools. Jones, who served as an executive director of an arm of social services agencies that worked in Philadelphia, had played college lacrosse and formed a club team in a black lacrosse league.

Jones was able to generate some funding to start a program where high school students came in and worked with middle school students – boys and girls – on academics for one day after school, and where teachers would work with the students on lacrosse the next day.

Four middle schools participated in the program and Jones said the program was held year-round in its second season. But then funding dried up and soon the program suffered.

“We lost funding after the third year,” he said. “Some of the teachers held onto equipment and did classes, but there no more after-school program.”

Although the after-school program did not stay in place, Jones saw how much the kids enjoyed lacrosse.

“There’s no question, once they started to play, they really loved it,” he said. “It was very successful while it was active, and during that third year we also started gaining interest from the Catholic League. We did a couple workshops with North Catholic and Little Flowers and they started getting engaged in playing the sport.

“At that point, the equipment was still in the schools and it went with the physical education teachers and became part of their programs.”

In the late 1990s, Jones helped recruit Drexel men’s lacrosse coach Chris Bates, who also is a PLA board member, to continue the push. Since then, Bates has run programs where his players have gone into city elementary and middle schools and helped teach lacrosse in physical education classes.

Drexel players also have taught lacrosse clinics in the Lee Recreational facility after school for many years

“When you see a kid pick up a stick and the light bulb goes on, and they smile and you see they love the game, it’s just great,” Bates said. “What we need is greater continuity and development at a city-wide level.”

Bates said Drexel has invested over $1,000 over the years in sticks through alumni fundraising to donate to its city lacrosse programs.

“It’s been a slow process, but I feel there is a lot of interest and it’s exciting to see it continue,” Bates said. “Probably half our team has had some type of exposure either in PE class or at clinics. It’s a benefit for the kids to see a new sport with college athletes and it’s exciting for my guys to experience it from the other end. We get as much out of it as they do.”

Back even before Jones got started, Sloan Green – a long-time professor of Sport and Culture at Temple – brought lacrosse into the city for female student-athletes.

Sloan Green builds Black Women in Sport Foundation to bring lacrosse to Philadelphia

Sloan Green graduated from Girls’ High as a field hockey player, but became a lacrosse standout – rare for an African American – in college at West Chester State College under the legendary Vonnie Gros. Sloan Green was an All-American and one of the top players in the country.

After spending four years playing on the U.S. World Team, Sloan Green started the lacrosse program atLincoln University, a predominantly African American institution, in 1970.

Then she left for Temple University to become the college’s first full-time women’s coach. She coached field hockey and badminton as well as lacrosse and built Temple’s lacrosse program into a three-time national champion before stepping down in 1992.

The Black Women in Sport Foundation had been running unofficially since 1974, but Sloan Green was credited for being one of its founders as a non-profit organization in 1992. And since then she has supervised many athletic programs for inner-city youths for non-traditional sports such as lacrosse, badminton, golf, fencing and tennis.

Sloan Green’s programs, held after school and on Saturday, have always preached academics first. Typically, the student gets an equal amount of help with their school work as they receive in instruction with a ball and a stick.

“We exposed thousands of young girls to lacrosse and other sports,” said Sloan Green, a member of the U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame. “If you put in a planned program, and expose good athletes to good coaching and good competition, they can compete.

“Our girls always had the passion, just not always the resources.”

Despite Sloan Green’s programs, scholastic lacrosse programs in the city were never developed. Why?

“I think it’s because field hockey is the big sport and lacrosse has been on the back-burner,” she said.  “It wasn’t a big sport, then as lacrosse grew in the suburbs it never really made it into the city because men didn’t have it.

“If men have lacrosse, then the women will, too.”

The need for added awareness to bring the sport to minority players

Sloan Green has received much support from various lacrosse leaders over the years. One, in particular is PLA board member Cathy D’Ignazio, a 1980 Penncrest graduate who became interested in inner-city lacrosse when she taught for several years in South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s.

D’Ignazio moved back to the Philadelphia area in 1989 and coached ninth grade lacrosse at Strath Haven.

“When you’re a kid you don’t realize how racially divided things are,” said D’Ignazio. “I was aware that there were no African American girls on the team at Strath Haven.”

At that point, D’Ignazio came to know Sloan Green, who tried to unite church and community leaders to help D’Ignazio attract African American girls to lacrosse in the Swarthmore area.

“The great thing about Tina, is that it doesn’t matter how small the effort it, even if you can possibly change one person’s mind, she’s willing to do it,” D’Ignazio said. “That’s what I’ve learned from her.”

D’Ignazio has helped develop youth lacrosse in the suburbs for more than 10 years, but she also has continued to focus on helping build lacrosse in Philadelphia with Sloan Green.

For seven years D’Ignazio, who is enrolled in Temple’s urban education graduate program, has helped Sloan Green run after-school programs for city youths in lacrosse. D’Ignazio also has run programs out of the city for lacrosse players of many races and ethnic backgrounds

D’Ignazio said that many other female coaches and physical education teachers have run after-school or community programs in city schools. Many have gone unrecognized outside of their school, but have been worthwhile nonetheless.

“Lacrosse is a sport for all girls,” D’Ignazio said. “Physically and psychologically, it’s liberating. You get to break so many boundaries, whether you are in Swarthmore or in West Philadelphia. One of the first things I tell the girls is that they get to do it all, to take the ball without asking and to fake one way and go the other way.”

Tomorrow: What lacrosse officials have done in the past few years to get lacrosse into the city.



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