Lacrosse casting wider net Sport: Once the domain of white suburban youths, lacrosse is being played by more young black Baltimoreans, thanks to a local private program.

May 28, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez and Daniel Diamond High school interns Rebecca Jesada and Lisa Viscidi contributed to this article.

When Greg Matthews was growing up in a black East Baltimore neighborhood in the 1960s, lacrosse was a mystery.

"You knew it was a sport that white kids played," Matthews said. "But you didn't know where or what it was about."

Yesterday, the coach led a stick-wielding squad from Greenspring Middle School onto the hallowed lacrosse grounds of Johns Hopkins University to play the revered Native American game with Lombard Middle School for a city championship.

Greenspring defeated Lombard, 5-3, for its first title in the decade-old Baltimore Middle School Lacrosse Program, a privately financed project that has helped dispel the notion that lacrosse is an inner-city enigma -- and at the same time helped adolescent boys do better in school.

"It's a beautiful sport -- a combination of all the other sports," said Matthews, 44, who had never seen or played the game before agreeing to take over the Greenspring team four years ago when it was without a coach and in danger of being shut down. "These foundations have put lacrosse in the black community."

The 17-school league is the work of the Abell Foundation, which has contributed $400,000 to the effort since 1988, and US Lacrosse, the sport's national governing body with headquarters on University Parkway. The France-Merrick Foundations of Towson have also contributed, most recently providing a $200,000 matching grant challenge to establish an endowment.

It costs about $120,000 a year to keep the 400-player league going, including the costs of referees, bus transportation, insurance, uniforms, trophies and cook-outs -- and paramedics to stand by, just in case.

Abell Foundation president Robert C. Embry Jr. was in the stands yesterday and US Lacrosse director Steven Stenersen was the official scorekeeper as Greenspring attackman Lindwood Harris scored twice for the victors and midfielder Simon Benjamin added a goal and an assist.

Lombard goalkeeper Tavon Adderly kept the game from becoming a rout with 16 saves.

"We're interested in after-school programs, whether it's sports or art, and there are a lot of lacrosse scholarships available to college," said Embry, former president of the city school board. "Then we had the program evaluated [by the University of Maryland] and found that kids who participated in lacrosse for more than a year had higher school attendance and better grades."

To be able to play, a student must be passing in all of his subjects, have 90 percent attendance and behave himself during the school day. Grades and conduct are monitored by coaches -- who get paid $2,000 for a three-month season -- and their assistants, who compile weekly reports.

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"I don't do stuff I used to, because if I get in trouble, I won't be able to play lacrosse," said Steven Hill, Greenspring's defensive captain. "People treat us different because we're on the lacrosse team."

Said Derrick Dalamus, leading scorer on the Lombard squad: "At first, I was scared to play it. I just wanted to play to get out of class. Then I found out it was fun. I wanted to go to Boys' Latin to play, but it didn't work out. I don't even know if Dunbar has a lacrosse team."

Dunbar doesn't, never has. But Carver added a team recently, Southwestern got a program going, and as the middle school lacrosse boys slowly nurture the sport in their families and neighborhoods, it is hoped that one day they'll be competing with the prep school kids who generations ago enshrined the sport as their own.

"These [students] didn't know how good other kids their own age were until the coaches started scheduling scrimmages with private school teams," said Jerome D. Schnydman, assistant to the president of Johns Hopkins University and former commissioner of the middle school league.

"But the improvement has been tremendous. Some of our kids have gone on to private schools to play from this league, but the purpose is to get them to school every day. Lacrosse is secondary to getting these kids to think more positively about education."

Watching from the scorer's table yesterday was Fred Whitridge, the league commissioner and a tireless volunteer who promised coaches that if the city didn't come and cut the playing fields' grass in time for games, he would haul his tractor on the back of a pickup truck and do the mowing himself.

"The biggest thing hurting lacrosse is not a lack of new kids who want to learn, but finding good coaches and referees," said Whitridge, who noted that the program is only $43,000 short of matching the endowment challenge from France-Merrick. "Too often you just go up to another coach, hand him a lacrosse rule book and he becomes your coach."

That was good enough for Gregory Matthews, and four short years after he cracked that book, he is the coach of a championship team.

"These kids are 12, 13, 14 years old; they need rides home, sometimes something to eat. It's more nurturing than coaching in high school," said Matthews. "This sport is bigger than it's ever been in the black community, but you still have to look at everything you're doing with a child, not just winning the lacrosse game."

Pub Date: 5/28/98

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