Spreading the lacrosse gospel

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How minority youth in city public schools are becoming part of the sport’s community


  • CityLax Founder Mat Levine leading instruction at a recent CityLax clinic with Notre Dame’s Men’s Lacrosse Team. Photo: Renzo Spirit Buffalo

  • The Frederick Douglass Academy Lions. Photo: Stephan Russo

  • Harlem Lacrosse and FDA coach Owen Van Arsdale on the sidelines in the showdown with Monsignor Farrell High School. Photo: Stephan Russo


The onset of spring has a special meaning for me. No, I am not referring to the blooming of the April tulips. Rather, I pine for the smell of cut grass on a 110 yard playing field, the clanging of sticks and helmets, and the sensation of pinging the “back of the net.” I am talking about the advent of another season of lacrosse, a sport that had its origins in the tribal games played by Native Americans in the United States and Canada. European immigrants to North America modified the game to its current form. Today, there are over 800,000 young people playing the sport that carries the mantra as “the fastest game on two feet.”

Full disclosure: I grew up playing lacrosse and was accepted into a top college primarily because of my stick skills — not my SAT scores. My friends and family know that I am wont to remind them (ad nauseum) that I was an All-American player and the 1973 national leader in total goals and assists. I now play in the over-60 division in what is called past-masters tournaments hoping that I make it though the weekend in one piece. (In January, I came back from Florida with a cracked rib harkening to the old maxim that “Old Soldiers Never Die.”)

The sport also has a reputation for being the exclusive domain of well-off prep school and suburban white kids who have access to fields, the latest equipment and top-tier coaching. However, there is now a movement to spread the sport to the hardtop playgrounds and streets of New York and other cities. Twelve years ago, only six high schools in the New York City Public Athletic League (PSAL) had varsity lacrosse teams — four in Staten Island. This was when Matty Levine, former All-American goalie at Williams College and passionate promoter of the game, started on his mission to spread the lacrosse gospel among public school and primarily minority youth.

With donated equipment and ex-college player volunteers, Levine created CityLax in 2005. He had begun a youth lacrosse program called Doc’s NYC in 1996 (in memory of Bernard Doc Schoenbaum, a NYC club lacrosse teammate) but was determined to reach a far different group of young people. Levine merged his business and dedicated his efforts full-time to develop school teams in all five boroughs. But he faced significant bureaucratic challenges dealing with the PSAL. By sheer will and determination, he has helped create fifty-two boys’ and girls’ varsity PSAL teams in throughout NYC. There is now a vibrant avenue for public school kids to reap the benefits of the sport and become part of the growing lacrosse community.

But CityLax was not the only lacrosse effort in New York City. In 2008, a young man by the name of Simon Cataldo, a Teach for America special education math teacher at Frederick Douglass Academy (FDA) in Harlem, watched a CityLax clinic at FDA and had an idea. Simon began a middle school lacrosse program as a way to provide a positive athletic experience for his students. Harlem Lacrosse was born. Today, building on CityLax’s success, Harlem Lacrosse works with over 300 boys and girls in seven different Harlem schools, teaching the skills of lacrosse and providing academic support. The results speak for themselves. The CityLax and Harlem programs boast that over 90 percent of their participants graduate from high school and are accepted into college.

Owen Van Arsdale was an attackman on the University of Virginia’s (UVA) 2014 nationally-ranked lacrosse team when the Harlem group visited Charlottesville that year. Having grown up as the son of a lacrosse coach, he recognized the influence the sport had on his life and was struck by the enthusiasm of the middle-schoolers from NYC. Van Arsdale spent an extra year at UVA getting his masters in education but knew that what he really wanted to do was work with the kids from Harlem who had visited. Unlike many of his teammates who came to New York to join the Wall Street crowd, Van Arsdale set his sights much further uptown. “I came from a small community that took care of its own,” said Van Arsdale, “and the life values (hard work, discipline and teamwork) I learned being around the sport of lacrosse are so much a part of who I am today.”

Van Arsdale is as much a social worker and educator as he is a lacrosse coach. At FDA, he walks the halls and knows all the administrators, teachers and students. He shares a small office on the second floor with his co-workers, Natasha Blackburn who runs the girl’s team, Matt Mason who is charge of the middle school team, and Sheree Trotman who helps keep them organized. The room is filled with sticks, gloves, pads and helmets and a steady stream of kids who look to Owen for approval and guidance.

The FDA Lions, last season’s PSAL champs, traveled to Staten Island recently to take on the parochial school powerhouse Monsignor Farrell High School. It was a rainy, dreary day but you could feel the excitement on the bus. “This is what they have practiced so diligently for,” Van Arsdale said. He had his coaching game face on. His players listened intently when he barked out instructions. FDA upended Monsignor Farrell, 10-9, in a thrilling overtime victory. Van Arsdale beamed and finally broke a smile at the end of the game. He told the students to enjoy the win but admonished them to focus on “what’s next.” He knew it was only the beginning of the season and there was still much work to be done.

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