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April 7, 2009

This "Her Space" by Clare Lochary column appears in the April issue of Lacrosse Magazine. For a more in-depth look inside this issue, click here. LM is US Lacrosse publication available exclusively to members. Join today to start your subscription.

Lochary: Change is in the Air

by Clare Lochary | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

"I was worried for one period there," says Hall of Fame coach Tina Sloan-Green, "because it didn't seem like I was going to be replaced."

March 12, 2009 was a historic date. When Bryant, coached by Karen Healy, played at Howard, coached by Jessica Morgan, it was it was the first time two African-American head coaches ever met in Division I women’s lacrosse.

“I feel like this university doesn’t realize the potential this lacrosse team could have in advancing the sport,” says Morgan. “So many eyes are watching. If done correctly, it could really take off.”

Morgan’s February 2009 hire made her just the third active African-American women’s lacrosse head coach in Division I, after Healy and Elaine Jones, who has been at UC Davis since 2002. That’s an all-time high, much to the relief of coaching great Tina Sloan Green.

“I was kind of worried for one period there, because it didn’t seem like I was going to be replaced,” jokes Sloan-Green, the National Hall of Famer who led Temple to three national championships before retiring from coaching in 1992.

The Bryant-Howard game wasn’t quite at the Super Bowl XLI level. When Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy faced off in the NFL’s most prestigious game before an audience of millions, it was a watershed moment for a league with a lopsided ratio of black players and white coaches. Women’s lacrosse has a different problem: the relative invisibility of minority participants.

“You don’t see black refs, you don’t see black coaches, you don’t see black players. I was the only black girl on 90 percent of the teams I’ve played on, I would guess,” says Morgan.

Exclusivity, both real and perceived, had dogged the game of lacrosse and stifled its growth. Some of the barriers exist well beyond the scope of the lacrosse community — namely, that cities with dense minority populations often have too little green space to devote to field sports like lacrosse.

But some things can be done. Morgan founded Coast to Coast Lacrosse, a nonprofit to mentor minority girls through lacrosse and encourage academic excellence. Before joining the NCAA ranks, Healy worked for Metro Lacrosse in Boston, one of the country’s largest and most successful urban lacrosse organizations. US Lacrosse has its BRIDGE program and a dedicated diversity committee working to break down more barriers.

Most recently, the IWCLA recognized the color gap at the coaching level and initiated Project IRM (Identify, Recruit, Mentor). The program, funded by a grant from the NCAA and support from US Lacrosse, pairs 10 minority college students and assistant coaches with head coaches to shepherd them through their careers. (The original idea was to match the participants with minority mentors, but it’s easy to do the math on why that didn’t happen.)

Project IRM’s inaugural 2009 class includes Eboni Preston, an assistant coach at Division III Endicott (Mass.) College. Preston, a 2008 St. Bonaventure grad and former Bonnies goalkeeper, got the chance to travel to the 2009 US Lacrosse National Convention on Project IRM’s dime. The trip was a priceless opportunity for a young coach looking to network. The small-town feel of the lacrosse community is what many people love best about the game, but what feels cozy to insiders can seem daunting to newcomers.

“Lacrosse is a very tight-knit world. A lot of people know each other, and a lot of connections are going around, and it’s hard to get into that circle,” says Preston, who is African-American.

Now Preston has a powerful ally with her Project IRM mentor, Quinnipiac head coach Danie Caro. Caro, past president of the IWCLA, is about as well-connected a person as you’ll find, and she has connected Preston up with some summer camp jobs. It’s a promising step towards a more diverse lacrosse world, the one that Sloan-Green was worried she’d never see.

“Once people see the President of the United States can be an African-American, you don’t know what that does for young African-American men and women in this country. It’s the same thing in different roles. It makes it realistic. It makes you say, ‘If she can do that, I can do that,’” says Sloan-Green.

You have to believe it can happen. You have to say it out loud. And then you need it to be reinforced by the people around you. That’s what Morgan did when she was a college student dreaming about her future. As the granddaughter of Howard alums, she mentioned to someone that she thought the Bison program would be a cool job.

Five years later she heard through the lacrosse grapevine that the position was actually open, and jumped on the opportunity. Now Morgan takes her team on conditioning runs past the White House. Change is in the air in Washington, D.C., in more ways than one.

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