Youth served: Lacrosse events targeting kids

NCAA championship organizers look to build attendance, grow sport

May 28, 2010|By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

Like a lot of kids whose families came to New York City from the Dominican Republic, Saul Gonzales dreamed about pitching in the big leagues. But as a middle schooler in Harlem, Gonzales discovered a new passion: Lacrosse.

"I had no idea about the sport," Gonzales, 15, said this week. "When I first grabbed a stick, by the end of the day I could catch and throw and I just kept playing."

Gonzales, who has come to Baltimore with his Frederick Douglass Academy team for the NCAA Championships, is precisely the kind of fan that event organizers want to attract: Young players who have taken up the game and now are spreading the gospel of lacrosse from its mid-Atlantic stronghold to new communities and regions.

He and his teammates plan to take part Saturday in the NCAA's "Youth Lax Day," which includes a clinic at Swann Park in South Baltimore and the Division I Men's Semifinals at M&T Bank Stadium, before heading to Bel Air on Sunday to play in a 36-team youth tournament.

While the NCAA has invited youth organizations to participate in both the College World Series and the Frozen Four hockey tournament, this is the first time intercollegiate sports governing body has designated a day to focus on young players.

"It is to expose the younger population that is moving into the game," NCAA spokesman Cameron Schuch said. "to say, 'Here's your goal, here's where you can get to if you continue with the sport.' "

Bel Air Boys Lacrosse League Chairman John Horner, whose association is hosting the "Future Champions" tournament Sunday at Cedar Lane Park, predicts that the focus on youth will push attendance at the championships beyond the records set when the event was held in Baltimore three years ago.

Angelo Rossi, a former fixture in the Baltimore lacrosse community who has brought a team from Palm Beach County, Fla., where he now lives, likens the event to a three-day Super Bowl.

"Back when I was a youngster, we'd be happy to get 10,000 to the University of Maryland for the NCAAs," he said.

Baltimore is hosting the men's Division I, II and III championships at M&T Bank Stadium and the women's Division I championship at Towson University's Johnny Unitas Stadium. While local organizers hope the focus on youth will help grow the popularity of the sport, they're also counting on the youngsters to fill seats at the games. Attendance is expected to be a key factor in whether the NCAA returns to Baltimore after the current two-year contract expries after 2011.

"We now have to compete to host the game when usually we were the only game in town," Rossi said. "It's really become a money-making proposition for the city that hosts it."

Meghan Bartlett, youth lacrosse coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens, says the failure of any area men's Division I teams to reach the Final Four this year will make it difficult to exceed the announced attendance from the 2007 championship.

With Johns Hopkins meeting Delaware in a semifinal and Duke returning to the tournament after the program had been suspended, a record 146,258 attended the two-day event, including a single-day high of 51,721 for the men's semifinals and a cha mpionship game record of 48,302.

This year, Bartlett said, "the lacrosse gods have not been smiling on us." Hopkins, Loyola and Mount St. Mary's lost in the first round, and Maryland was upset by Notre Dame in the second.

Still, she said, organizers are hopeful for "at least 50,000" for the men's semifinals on Saturday — and they are banking on a good number of the fans being youth lacrosse players.

She said around 3,000 tickets have been sold to kids, most of whom will take part in the activities that will also include a parade into the stadium on Saturday, local clinics and autograph sessions involving players from Major League Lacrosse.

Many of the youth teams coming to Baltimore have held fundraisers and solicited sponsorships to pay for the trip. Gonzales and his teammates at the Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem sold candy and received financial help from a local supermarket chain and a program called City Lax.

"Half of them have never been off the island of Manhattan before," said special education math teacher Simon Cataldo, a former high school lacrosse player who started the program at Frederick Douglass last spring.

According to Cataldo, most of his players grew up in Harlem and never held a lacrosse stick until a couple of years ago. Now, he says, they look at the sport as a springboard for a college scholarship.

Their model is 2009 graduate Khalif Yisrael, who is headed for Navy after a year in prep school.

"Half of them want to go to Syracuse and half of them want to go to Princeton," said Cataldo.

Adrian Franzone is a member of Rossi's Florida Sun team. The 15-year-old played mostly soccer in Boca Raton, Fla., until the day five years ago a friend brought over a lacrosse stick. Now he is thinking about playing in college.

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