M

onths of planning went into the US Lacrosse North Coast Ohio Chapter’s initial push for a clinic in the Ohio City neighborhood on Cleveland’s West Side. It secured access to fields. It solicited corporate donations. It attracted the coaching staff of Cleveland State’s nascent Division I program to speak.

"> Cleveland State and Ohio's Urban Awakening | USA Lacrosse Magazine

PHOTO BY BRIAN HART

Clevland State defenseman Zach Whitenack, midfielder Gideon Brockenbough, coach Dylan Sheridan, attackman Stephen Masi and midfielder Nick Wendel debut Feb. 4.

Cleveland State and Ohio's Urban Awakening


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onths of planning went into the US Lacrosse North Coast Ohio Chapter’s initial push for a clinic in the Ohio City neighborhood on Cleveland’s West Side. It secured access to fields. It solicited corporate donations. It attracted the coaching staff of Cleveland State’s nascent Division I program to speak.

Dave Cerny, the president of the chapter, figured the event last summer might attract 50 participants. Instead, the July 6 clinic at St. Ignatius High School drew about 120 boys and girls, a promising sign for the interest in the sport in a nontraditional area.

Perhaps most importantly, though, every participant walked away with a free lacrosse stick.

“If you see one kid bouncing it off the wall, another kid is going to say, ‘What’s that?” Cerny said. “It can grow from there.”

That is the long-term hope of the Lacrosse Communities Project, a US Lacrosse venture aimed at working with local partners to bring together athletes of all backgrounds in urban centers and continue to grow the sport.


"We had 1,500 people show up for a Sunday scrimmage against Bellarmine." — Dylan Sheridan


Investing in Players

It’s possible to foster growth in an area without a nearby tie to a major college or pro team. But having easy access to a Division I program certainly can’t hurt.

US Lacrosse’s investment in Cleveland’s West Side coincides with the start-up program at Cleveland State, which begins its first season in February and becomes the 71st men’s Division I team. The school hired Dylan Sheridan, a former assistant at Denver and Princeton, and it has former Villanova assistant Andy German and recently graduated Maryland goalie Kyle Bernlohr (an Akron native) on staff.

It also has an athletic director in John Parry who is an extensive advocate of the sport. He played at Brown, shepherded the addition of lacrosse at Butler in the early 1990s and has now done the same in northeast Ohio.

Nonetheless, Cleveland is a different market, an area where lacrosse is mostly a first-generation sport. The addition of the Vikings doubles the number of Division I schools in the state (they join Ohio State).

It’s understandable, then, when Sheridan describes a “kind of a wait-and-see mentality” from the community. But an October scrimmage demonstrated there is already community interest in a team that has yet to play a contest that counted.

“There’s been strong interest from those that have connectivity with lacrosse,” Sheridan said. “We probably had 1,500 people for a Sunday scrimmage against Bellarmine. Hopefully, we’ll continue to get that kind of buzz. With the name programs we’re playing, that’ll help quite a bit as well.”

Sheridan reached out to just about everyone in Division I and constructed a challenging schedule that features Denver, Duke, Ohio State, Penn State and Virginia. Michigan visits for the program’s Feb. 4 debut game.

Of the Vikings’ 33 players, 31 are freshmen. That group comes from 16 states in addition to British Columbia, an early indication of how Sheridan will recruit. Sheridan is clearly following the blueprint of his previous west-of-the-Appalachians experience, though the financial advantages of in-state tuition ensure the Vikings will attract solid talent from Ohio.

The Vikings could provide both an on-field model for younger players and something for them to aspire to as the sport takes stronger root in Cleveland. The most significant thing to do, though, is investing in those players as soon as possible.

“I think Cleveland State is going to help spread the word even more in Northeast Ohio,” said Steve Byrne, a former All-America defenseman at Virginia who played for the U.S. national team in the 1986 world championships and has lived in the Cleveland area for 15 years. “Northeast Ohio has big-time football. Football is king, and all the other sports are trying to get people to be one-sport athletes. Even with all that stuff and all those headwinds, the sport continues to grow in the Cleveland area.”








Urban Immersion

US Lacrosse already invests resources in the mission of uniting everyone involved in the sport, including the First Stick Program that provides assistance for securing equipment for players and coaching and officials education programs to ensure the game is taught and administered correctly.

It also has an athletic director in John Parry who is an extensive advocate of the sport.

But this takes things a step further, approaching schools and recreation programs in diverse communities with the hope of creating a collaborative approach that can help everyone involved. With the support of corporations, philanthropic groups and local partners such as Urban Community School and St. Ignatius High School, US Lacrosse plans to make a historic investment in lacrosse in Ohio City and greater Cleveland in 2017.

Cleveland is a sensible place to start. In the Cleveland Muny Football League, there is already a strong youth athletics organization with more than 2,000 participants. Cerny said there is strong interest from Muny coaches — some of whom are just starting to learn the ins and outs of lacrosse themselves — in finding a fast-paced spring sport for their players to learn.

It could be a fun, productive outlet outside of football season. It could also lead to greater things down the road.

“Probably over a dozen of their players have made the NFL, such as Ted Ginn Jr.,” Cerny said. “They’ve got a good history in football, but not all of their guys are going to make it to the NFL. This might be an opportunity to expand their horizons and create opportunities for them.”




PHOTO BY BRIAN HART

Brockenbrough, Masi, Wendel and Whitenack walk the cobblestone streets of downtown Cleveland.


Tipping Point

So what else is working in Cleveland’s favor?

For starters, lacrosse reached a tipping point in Ohio in recent years. After decades of striving to become a sport sponsored by the Ohio High School Athletic Association, the state’s governing body for high school athletics, it finally was achieved for this upcoming spring for both boys and girls.

“That’s a big deal,” said Byrne, who coached at Gilmour Academy and later Shaker Heights High School in the Cleveland area. “A lot of it was really driven in Northeast Ohio.”

That, coupled with the presence of Cleveland State’s program, offers tangible progress and provides optimism the grassroots initiative inside the city can be effective.

Cerny is hopeful for a spring 2018 launch of a city program of about 8-10 teams centered around Muny Football. In the interim, his organization will continue to lay the foundation for what has the look of a successful project.

There is talk of getting young players to attend a Cleveland State game or two this spring and have hands-on clinics afterward. Training of coaches and officials — many of which are likely to be drawn from the pool already working in area youth football — is also pivotal.

“The biggest hurdle is going to be equipment and helmets,” Cerny said. “It’s going to cost $300 a kid. We’ll look to do fundraisers and seek foundation grants. I’m confident we can grow the base.”

A major part of US Lacrosse’s investment will come in the form of a new turf field, a green space initiative that should make a positive impact in the community almost immediately.

“It just fits right into the Ohio City area,” Cerny said.

So, too, does the prospect of lacrosse’s growth in the years to come.

PHOTO BY BRIAN HART

All In

The Lacrosse Communities Project is a US Lacrosse initiative to grow the sport in culturally segregated neighborhoods — starting this spring with a pilot program on Cleveland's West Side.

US Lacrosse will provide equipment assistance for players, train coaches and officials, deploy its PE curriculum and soft-stick grants at schools and recreational centers, help underwrite a local coordinator and install a first-of-its-kind small-sided lacrosse field based on the Lacrosse Athlete Development Model (LADM) of teaching the sport.

"The Lacrosse Communities Project will bring together athletes of different races, ethnicities and income levels who might otherwise not have much contact with each other," said Joshua Christian, managing director of sport development and hall of fame at US Lacrosse. "Our goal is to develop pathways for young people to grow in the sport."

Help US Lacrosse grow the game at uslacrosse.org/donate.