April 11, 2006

April 11, 2006

In lacrosse, we know acronyms like EMO (extra man offense) and LSM (long stick midfielder) and FOGO (face off, get off) and GB (ground ball). But it has been 25 years since the term "HBCU" could be considered applicable to the sport.


Howard University and Morgan State University, longtime local rivals in the realm of historically black colleges and universities, played a lacrosse game Sunday. That it was a National College Lacrosse League (NCLL) game and not an NCAA game did not undermine its significance to those involved, nor to those in attendance.


By now, the story of the "Ten Bears" - a group of African-American players who forged a lacrosse team at Morgan State in 1971 and played the predominantly white sport at high stakes throughout a racially-charged decade - has made its way from insightful book to movie-in-the-making. But since the Bears disbanded in 1981, a development which former players blame on lack of university support, no historically black school has sponsored a varsity men's lacrosse program.


That remains the case today.


There were 311 people accounted for Sunday at Howard's Greene Stadium, however, who are pretty adamant about changing that. There, supporters looked on as Howard defeated Morgan State in overtime, 9-8, in the first-ever league-sanctioned intercollegiate men's lacrosse game between two historically black institutions. The game was taped by Comcast Sports Network and drew local media from their coves.


With the investigation of an alleged rape involving members of the Duke University men's lacrosse team stirring racial sentiments in Durham, N.C. (the alleged victim is a black student at North Carolina Central, an historically black university), the timeliness and significance of the event was not lost on its participants.


"It's so timely. What happened at Duke is very unfortunate, but with a lot of things in America, race always finds its way into the negative. Everybody takes the race angle. But from the positive aspect of lacrosse, and its diversity, this thing is happening right in front of us. We just need to put our arms around it, embrace it and really bring it to fruition - that answers all those questions," said Morgan State head coach Lloyd Carter, who played for the Bears during the `70s. "Two HBCs have programs competing in the NCAAs, that's the next step. Everybody who's in an uproar about the Duke situation, if they really want to take action toward diversity, the product is here. Take hold of it and do the right thing."


With diversity and some controversy as a backdrop, a rather remarkable display of lacrosse showmanship ensued Sunday.


It was 4-4 at the half. Howard jutted ahead, 8-6, in the fourth quarter. With less than two minutes remaining, Morgan State's Simon Benjamin - an NCLL All-Star - scored back-to-back goals to tie it. Overtime commenced, with the Bears a man down as a result of a penalty administered at the end of regulation. Less than two minutes in, shortly after the penalty released, Howard's Najiel McKulvey stuck the finisher on a right-side, one-on-one dodge from behind the cage.


Bison 9, Bears 8.


Andrew Watts led Howard with four goals for the Bison, while Benjamin had four goals and two assists for the Bears. Watts even managed an impromptu Mike Powell impression, performing a mid-game flip that was actually a result of him getting upended by two defenders at midfield. He somersaulted forward and landed on his own feet before scoring.


"He got hit high and low, and flipped," Howard head coach Duane Milton said of Watts, a member of the university drum corps. "He said he felt like his drum fell off his stomach."


"It was, like, the funniest and the most astonishing thing I have ever seen," said Howard player-president Brent Robinson.


Watts, too, will be an NCLL All-Star when the annual event reconvenes April 30.


Among other highlights Sunday:


·          At halftime, Blax Lax, Inc., and Winners Lacrosse - two affiliates of the US Lacrosse BRIDGE (Building Relationships to Initiate Diversity, Growth and Enrichment) Initiative - added their own flavor of showmanship in an exhibition game. "The fans, they got a kick out of that one," said Donnie Brown, founder of Blax Lax, which helps fund the Morgan State team. "Our kids need heroes, somebody they can emulate."


·          Miles Harrison, co-author of Ten Bears, was on hand to give away signed posters, courtesy of his son, former Johns Hopkins and current MLL and Team USA standout Kyle Harrison.


·          Howard's team officials afterward invited players from the Morgan State team to join them Saturday for an exhibition game against the Iroquois Nationals in Syracuse, N.Y., which Carter said he is "95 percent certain" he will do.


There are still those shunning the idea of an all-black lacrosse team, Robinson said, citing comments made by members of an opposing club team earlier this season that he called "uncouth."


"My men didn't return any favors in verbal language, only on the field," he said, always very measured in his words.


Three days ago, however, Robinson received an e-mail from an opposing team member's parent that was supportive of Howard's efforts.


"This is something that the lacrosse community wants," Robinson said.


Neither Howard nor Morgan State receives funding from their respective universities.


Howard, a charter member of the NCLL when it was founded in 1991, lost its lacrosse club after the 1996 season. Milton cited Title IX, while others alluded to lost interest. Milton came on board when interest regenerated in 2004, and last year the Bison renewed their charter with the NCLL. Morgan State started its club program last year (the Bears beat Howard 14-9 in an unsanctioned game May 7, 2005). Both teams rely on partial sponsorships and student-paid fees to cover equipment and league costs, respectively.


Carter said he has been approached by Norfolk State University, also an HBC that on the Division I varsity level competes with Howard and Morgan State in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, for advice about chartering a club lacrosse team there. His nugget?


"You've got to put bodies on the field," Carter said.


There were bodies there Sunday - flipping and scoring and checking and everything else. The bodies in the stands were certainly appreciative. And there are bodies in the surrounding inner-city schools. With Dunbar High adding a program this year, Brown and Milton said, every high school in Baltimore City boasts a varsity lacrosse team.


Brown's middle school team, comprised of sixth through eighth graders at the charter Stadium School, was at Sunday's game. Many of them also play for Blax Lax. They play May 10 at West Baltimore Middle School, a team coached by Simon Benjamin, whom they sought after watching him score at will on Sunday.


Finally, it appears to Brown, the movement toward lacrosse diversity - in the Baltimore-D.C. area, at least - is starting to come full circle.


"They played like it was the national championship. They went alllll out," said Brown, a former Morgan State player who also coached Howard in 1996. "Every obstacle put up, it's not a problem, because we move forward, meet it, exceed it, move on and wait for the next one. You've got to wade through the mess to get to the other end."


The message Sunday was that the end is near.

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