In a city as athletically cosmopolitan as New York, lacrosse has never had much of a presence, especially compared to more reliable mainstays like soccer, basketball, baseball or tennis. Even normally obscure sporting pursuits like handball flourished in New York before lacrosse did.
But one wouldn’t know that standing on Ward’s Island last weekend. Lacrosse, long limited to suburban enclaves on Long Island or upstate, is finally carving out a profile in the big city.
Ward’s hosted the 2009 Mayor’s Cup Lacrosse Jamboree, and the scene was more than lively: dozens of teams arranged around three of the new artificial turf fields on the southwest corner of the island; hundreds of players, parents, coaches and referees either crowding around fields or lolling in quiet corners between games with playing equipment strewn about; the screech of whistles, the yells of instruction, the sounds of exertion.
“It’s nice to see these fields bustling,” said Ellen O’Malley, the head coach of the Trinity’s girls’ team, as her squad waited for its final game of the day. O’Malley, who grew up in Massachusetts where lacrosse is far more popular, looked around at the event with an almost wide-eyed sense of surprise. “For New York City, it’s very impressive.”
O’Malley has coached Trinity since 2004, but the program there is much older than that. Until five years ago, though, the private schools had the only lacrosse teams in the city for the most part. There was a scattering of public school programs, but not nearly enough to set up much of a league. Field space, always a rare commodity, was mostly reserved for soccer, baseball, softball and football. Lacrosse also was culturally unfamiliar, with a minimal television profile, and required plenty of expensive equipment.
Despite such problems, interest and participation have mushroomed rapidly. In 2004, there were five boys’ teams and three girls’ teams playing lacrosse in the Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL). This year, there are 14 boys’ teams and 10 girls’ teams. The Mayor’s Cup has grown concurrently. Now in its third year, it featured 36 public and private school teams, up from 12 in 2007.
Most of the impetus for lacrosse’s higher profile in the five boroughs comes from CityLax, a nonprofit organization founded in 2005 and designed to spread the sport in the city. The brainchild of Matt Levine, a college player and lifelong enthusiast who first started up a youth organization for lacrosse 14 years ago, it has worked with the PSAL to develop new players and teams. The first time Levine brought lacrosse into a new school, though, the response was hardly enthusiastic.
“The reaction was interesting,” he said. “The first thing I did was go to gym classes and tried to introduce the game. I’d say half the kids were intrigued, the other half asked, ‘What are you doing here? We thought we were playing basketball today.’ Our first clinic, we got only nine boys. But those nine kids went out and got nine more, and pretty soon we had 40 kids showing up to try out lacrosse.”
Unlike Mayor’s Cup events in other sports, the lacrosse edition did not crown a champion. Instead, the “jamboree” format merely provided schools that don’t normally play each other the opportunity to face different competition. The results were instructive: even with the sport’s rapid growth, public school programs still lag qualitatively behind their more established private school peers. Horace Mann came out on top on the boys’ side, finishing the weekend 5-0 with victories over Collegiate, Cardozo, Masters, St. Francis and Xaverian.
“Matt’s organization inspires kids to pick up a lacrosse stick at a young age,” O’Malley said. “I never had that opportunity. I first played in 9th grade. Thanks to Matt’s program, kids can play from an early age now.”
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