June 12, 2013

Bridging the Gap: US Lacrosse First Stick Program

by Paul Ohanian | LaxMagazine.com

This story originally appeared in the June issue of Lacrosse Magazine. Join the more than 400,000 members of US Lacrosse and have the magazine delivered right to your mailbox while helping support the positive development of the sport.

As the coach of a startup high school boys’ lacrosse program in urban Baltimore, Matt Hanna understands victories are not always measured by the scoreboard. Fueled by less-tangible triumphs, Hanna could look past the fact that, as this issue of Lacrosse Magazine went to press, Cristo Rey Jesuit had yet to win a game.

In 2012, the Hornets finished 0-13. They scored just 16 goals all season heading into their finale. So when they erupted for five goals in a season-ending loss, they celebrated like they won a championship.

Hanna had to convince his players that an eight-goal loss did not warrant a Gatorade bath for the coach.

“At times, we’re taking baby steps,” said Hanna, who played collegiately at Johns Hopkins and three seasons professionally for the Denver Outlaws. “In some games, our goal is to just score once.”

Cristo Rey’s growing pains are not unique. Many startups experience similar hardships in their formative years. But what makes the process sustainable, at least for Hanna, is the realization that the program has already made significant progress.

As a history teacher at the school, students approached Hanna about starting a team in 2009. He agreed and they initiated an after-school club where players learned some basic passing, catching and shooting skills. There were no uniforms, and players used donated equipment. One kid wore hockey equipment.

But their commitment to lacrosse grew stronger. Hanna recognized it, and so did Cristo Rey. At his urging, the school committed to fielding a team in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association’s (MIAA) “C” Conference and to playing a full schedule.

“If we didn’t have the level of interest, we might not have moved forward,” he said. “We knew that funding would be a rocky road for us, but we tried to facilitate the need for the students.”

Hanna tapped into his extended lacrosse network to help with initial funding needs. He also approached US Lacrosse, the sport’s Baltimore-based national governing body. That’s when he learned about the First Stick Program, which provides comprehensive resources to support developing programs.

“We needed real equipment to make our program legit,” Hanna said. “First Stick bridged the gap for us.”

In 2011, Cristo Rey became one of the pilot teams in US Lacrosse’s redesigned First Stick Program. In addition to receiving full equipment for 25 players, the First Stick Program provided USL membership for coaches and players, Level 1 Coaching Education Program training and certification and scholarships for coaches to attend the annual US Lacrosse National Convention.

Hanna still measures success in small victories — even those that come in defeat.

On April 9, Cristo Rey played its first-ever overtime game. Trailing Mount Carmel by three goals with 90 seconds remaining, the Hornets rallied, tying the game with six seconds left before falling 10-9 in overtime. The sudden-death defeat left many Cristo Rey players in tears.

“That was the first time they cried after a loss,” Hanna said. “It showed that they take this seriously.”

So does the coach.

Hanna teaches at Cristo Rey because he buys into the school’s philosophy of “transforming lives.” Many of the school’s students come from Baltimore’s disadvantaged neighborhoods and make significant sacrifices to attend the college preparatory school. Some have 90-minute bus rides to get home after practice at Patterson Park in southeast Baltimore.

All lacrosse players are Baltimore City students, almost all new to lacrosse while also working five days per month in a corporate internship to help pay for their education.

“I have to remember these guys come from varied family backgrounds and have a lot of challenges just to get to school every day,” Hanna said. “Their day-to-day challenges go beyond just running our plays correctly.”

The small victories are piling up.

Players are learning the rules and how to compete. They show up on time. They have taken ownership of the program.

“Nobody likes losing, but we stay motivated and learn from our mistakes,” said senior attackman Kent Davis, a former baseball and basketball player who switched to lacrosse in 2012. “At first, I didn’t even know what lacrosse was. But now I’m connected. This is the sport for me.”

Senior midfielder Elijah Miles doesn’t mind that he’s the only lacrosse player in his neighborhood. “My friends joke about lacrosse, but I don’t care. This is my sport. I’ll own this,” he said.

A film crew followed the Cristo Rey team this season in pursuit of its first victory. But really, who needs a scoreboard?

“We’ve come a long way already,” Hanna said. “It doesn’t matter that my career coaching record is 0 and forever. We’ll keep taking the little victories.”

The US Lacrosse First Stick Program is a membership-driven program made possible in part by donations to the US Lacrosse Foundation, the philanthropic arm of US Lacrosse. To support the responsible growth of the sport, please consider making a donation at uslacrosse.org/donate

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