Inner-city programs starting to stick

Complexion of lacrosse could change, some say

May 28, 2007|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun reporter

The stunning rise of lacrosse on the national landscape is evident on weekday mornings in inner-city Baltimore during the spring.

"Every morning, on my way to work, there's a kid on every corner or bus stop with a lacrosse stick in his hand," said Donnie Brown, a member of Morgan State's first all-black lacrosse team in 1971.

"This stuff has been going on awhile. The numbers are growing."

Skyrocketing might be a more apt description. According to US Lacrosse, the governing body for the sport, there was an 11.7 percent increase in the number of players participating in 2006 over 2005. Since 2001, that growth rate has been nearly 68 percent.

And an annual survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations suggests lacrosse is the fastest-growing sport at the high school level in the past 10 years.

Lacrosse is, indeed, burgeoning in the elite suburban pockets around the country. Inner-city growth is another issue, however. Even though Brown sees a boom in the streets of Baltimore, those opportunities extend only so far.

Pre-high school boys have a number of programs from which to choose. But inner-city girls have few opportunities beyond Leigh McDonald Hall's Pacas youth program for fourth- through eighth-graders in East Baltimore.

In fact, girls youth teams are so rare that girls are forced to play on boys teams in middle school. Brown said he has four girls on his Stadium School team. "A lot of females are the best athletes in middle school," he said. "They're more mature. They command more respect than the boys."

The trick is to catch them early, said Kendra Ausby, girls coach at City.

"If you don't get them in the sport by middle school age, it's very difficult to get them in," she said. "If they're not used to dirt by ninth grade, they're not going to like it."

Lacrosse's popularity has trickled down to, but not flooded, the inner city. There are 16 public high schools with boys teams in the city, compared with five girls teams. There are 10 middle schools with boys teams, none with a girls team.

"I think Baltimore has gone crazy over lacrosse," Hall said. "There are so many opportunities in the county and private schools to participate. But it's really sad how many great athletes are in the inner city that aren't exposed to this."

With a two-year financial boost from Ravens coach Brian Billick, Hall launched her program in 2002. Now in her sixth year as coach of her Little and Big Pacas, Hall said she is disheartened at the inability to involve inner-city parents, as well as the tendency to lose promising kids because of lack of interest.

"The only solution I see is if the people who are so invested in lacrosse in Baltimore County and in the private school system get involved in the inner city," she said. "It's a big commitment, and it's time-consuming. And you don't [always] get the results you'd like."

It's an issue being addressed on a larger scale by people such as Brown and Dr. Miles Harrison, and by the Trilogy Foundation, a nationwide nonprofit organization that helped put on a clinic for about 200 middle school children in March at Patterson Park.

Brown and Harrison were teammates on the famous Morgan State team in the early 1970s and now are trying to resuscitate inner-city lacrosse.

"It can grow just like every other sport now that diversity is touted as an issue," said Harrison, who is head of the division of general surgery at Maryland General Hospital and whose son, Kyle, was winner of the 2005 Tewaaraton Trophy as lacrosse's top college player while at Johns Hopkins.

"It wasn't going to naturally occur."

In addition to Trilogy, inner-city youth programs are sponsored by Blax Lax Inc., the Parks & People Foundation and McKim Center. Those programs include Cameron Battle's Maryland Youth Lacrosse Association, the Northwest Bulldogs and Woodlawn Rec.

Battle is a policeman in the Southern District who grew up in East Baltimore. He started his program at Herring Run Park in 2004 with one team and 15 players. Today, his league features seven teams and 85 players, ranging from 5- and 6-year-olds to 11- and 12-year-olds.

Although Battle describes the state of inner-city lacrosse as fragile, he sees a huge upside.

"The gyms are packed with tremendous athletes and smart students," he said. "I think personally those kids need to open up to a sport [lacrosse] that will serve them better."

Battle's board of advisers is working on an initiative to help his players in the classroom, as well as on the field.

"We're trying to work with The Sylvan Center, UMBC and McKim Center to have students in the offseason get on a level where they'll be able to go to private schools," Battle said. "I think already they can compete physically on the field. We've got to get their academic standards up."

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