PHOTO COURTESY OF DELAWARE STATE ATHLETICS

The Rising Tide of HBCU Lacrosse


As the sunset engulfed Alumni Stadium on a chilly Tuesday afternoon in early February, members of the Delaware State women’s lacrosse team filtered out of the locker rooms and toward their cars, reflecting on one of a handful of preseason scrimmages.

The Hornets had just wrapped up an exhibition in which they won 19-1 — but the score didn’t much matter. Sure, coach Pamella Jenkins and her team had plenty to review before their season opener just four days later, but the game served as much as a celebration of culture as it did a lacrosse scrimmage.

As cars whizzed by on DuPont Highway, Delaware State and the University of the District of Columbia, two schools among Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), played lacrosse against one another. The majority of the 24 players on the field at Alumni Stadium were Black — a sight seldom witnessed in the sport of lacrosse.

Aniya Aiken took a moment on the way out of the locker room to reflect on a special day. The senior from Decatur, Ga., came to Delaware State for experiences like that one, and she couldn’t help but be encouraged for the future of her program and others around the country.

“I want to be No. 1 in the nation,” she exclaimed as her teammates nodded beside her. “I want us to be up there in the next 5-10 years. Even if I’m not here, I’ll be cheering them on from wherever I am. We’re going to be up there.”

“We’re going to be up there with Syracuse and UNC and all the big schools,” said her teammate, Mica Lambert.

The optimism was palpable among players and coaches for Delaware State, which seldom gets the chance to play against another HBCU. Just years ago, the idea of two HBCU programs facing off was an afterthought. Still today, there are only five active varsity teams at HBCUs — Delaware State women, Howard women, UDC men and women and Hampton men.

In a sport that still has a predominantly white playing population, HBCU lacrosse programs are starting to pick up steam once again. Existing HBCU lacrosse programs like Delaware State, Howard and Hampton, are attracting Black players from across the country.

The future is getting brighter for HBCU lacrosse with each passing season, but on that frigid day in Dover, Jenkins was just grateful to have an opportunity to celebrate progress already made.

“When I was playing, I never saw two teams on the same sideline that looked like me,” said Jenkins, a former lacrosse player at Hartwick College and American. “It’s a special feeling to see them out there competing and giving 100 percent, because that’s something that doesn’t happen very often.”

In Jenkins’ 13 years of college lacrosse coaching, she rarely saw players or coaches that looked like her, but that’s starting to change. On the opposing sideline was Zhané Ruffin, a former Methodist women’s player turned head coach of the Firebirds.

The Hornets roster has grown from 17 players to 32 in the almost three years Jenkins has been at the helm. She said she now has potential recruits reaching out to her wanting to play at an HBCU — a place where they can be themselves and compete at the highest level.

“I don’t have to wear two hats. I don’t have to have two separate pools of friends. I can just be myself, whether I’m on the field, in the classroom or the cafeteria,” Jenkins said of life at an HBCU.

It’s an experience that is attracting more diverse men and women every year — ones who have picked up a stick and want to continue playing the game they love. Efforts by USA Lacrosse and other organizations are reaching more diverse communities, and in the next few years, more opportunities could be ahead for HBCUs to grow and expand.

Adjacent to the scoreboard that still showed the logos of the two programs (the red hornet for Delaware State and yellow and orange Firebird for UDC), Lambert shared her excitement for the growth of HBCU lacrosse around the country. Progress may not always be linear, but she’s excited about the future, even after she graduates.

“It shows how much this sport is expanding, going into different communities and how big it is growing,” she said. “We’re breaking down the stereotypes of, ‘We only play basketball and football.’ We can play other sports, too. I love seeing other teams with Black faces playing this sport.”


“I love seeing other teams with Black faces playing this sport.”

— Mica Lambert


HAMPTON

 JT Giles-Harris was not all that familiar with the greater Hampton population when he started at the school, but as one of the most recognizable players in college lacrosse in 2021, he was plenty familiar to everyone else. A stalwart on John Danowski’s Blue Devils defense, Giles-Harris spent the summer and fall contemplating his future in lacrosse.

At the same time, Hampton coach and former professional lacrosse star Chazz Woodson was looking to make a splash hire. Woodson, who joined Hampton in the summer of 2020, wanted to give an up-and-coming coach a chance to start his career with the Pirates.

Giles-Harris met with Woodson in the fall and the latter offered the former a chance to join his program as an assistant. The former Duke star had other coaching options, but he chose Hampton as his destination — the only Division I HBCU men’s lacrosse program. He now lives in an apartment 10 minutes away from campus.

“I would love it, 20-30 years from now, to be able to look back and say, ‘He started at Hampton,’” Woodson said. “I think this is a place where you can come and prove yourself and then go on and keep coaching.”

Bringing Giles-Harris in is just a small part of a master plan that Woodson had worked on for the better part of two years. In the more than six seasons since Hampton elevated from the club level to a Division I program, Hampton has seen multiple coaching changes and instability brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Woodson, a native of the Hampton Roads area, returned home looking to bring the program consistency, and eventually lift it to new heights. He speaks of future top recruits considering Hampton. He hopes for a world in which the Pirates can compete with Maryland and Syracuse.

“We need to have more candid conversations with top-level guys that are really willing to consider it,” Woodson said. “In order for us to get to where we need to be, we need to be in every Black player's list of considerations, unless Hampton's just not for them. We need to get to a point where they are genuinely considering us as an option.”

However lofty his goals are, Woodson said he knows the process of becoming a legitimate Division I contender will take time. His program needs to win and attract recruits that believe they can win with Woodson’s program. Hampton has yet to beat a Division I opponent but has found success against Division II and III teams.

Hampton’s recent announcement that it will join the Colonial Athletic Association, just a year after joining the Southern Conference, serves as a step forward for a program that has competitive aspirations. The Pirates won’t compete for a CAA title immediately, but they can now envision a future in which they can. That vision can be translated to recruits across the country.

“It’s a chicken or the egg thing,” he said. “Do we get to a place where we are successful and the recruits come? Or do the recruits build it? That’s where we are right now. We have plenty of interest, and moving to the CAA level helps. If we can get guys at the CAA level, then all of the sudden, the picture changes.”

In the meantime, the Hampton men’s lacrosse program, and in the same vein UDC men’s lacrosse, continues to serve as an inspiration to Black lacrosse players across the country. No matter the skill level, many Black children have watched the these programs and been inspired.

Woodson doesn’t need to look far to find a product of that inspiration. Current Hampton assistant and 2020 graduate Kevin Mondy Jr., a Dallas native who stood in the cage for four seasons for the Pirates, credits a trip to Howard University in the fall of 2014 for the inspiration to join the Hampton men’s lacrosse team.

Mundy Jr. and members of his Hillcrest High School team were granted the opportunity to attend an “HBCU Gameday” featuring club teams from Hampton, Howard, Morehouse College and Morgan State. There he saw players that looked like him. He also connected with Lloyd Carter, who led the Hampton club team at the time.

“Going to that gameday gave me a sense of comfort,” Mondy Jr. said. “It was the first time I've seen a lot of minority players playing at the same time, on the same team. When I was around them, they welcomed me automatically like family. I got a lot of phone numbers with guys saying, ‘If you ever need anything, no matter what school you're going to, I'm always here.’”

Among those staying in touch was Carter, who offered Mondy Jr. a chance to join the Hampton program as it transitioned to Division I. Four years later, he finished his career as a three-year starter for the Pirates, setting the program record with 18 saves in one game.

His senior season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but he had already made a lifetime's worth of connections and memories. He played the sport he loved as a Division I athlete, and he did so in an environment that made him feel at home, even if it was thousands of miles from Dallas. His teammates helped him with classes, internships and simply navigating life at an HBCU.

When it came time to make a decision about his future, Mondy Jr. was interested in giving back at a place that gave him so much. Woodson approached him about transitioning to a graduate assistant position, and Mondy Jr. spent little time contemplating his next move.

“The game has done a lot for me, so I wanted to give back how it has given to me,” he said. “It was my duty.”

Mondy Jr. hasn’t just bought into the team culture at Hampton. Just like his head coach, he aspires to elevate the program to greater heights.

“The dream is playing on Memorial Day Weekend,” he said. “For us short term, it’s getting a couple Division I wins under our belt this season and showing younger guys that they can come to Hampton and they can help build the foundation.”

The first step is introducing Hampton to lacrosse played at best. Giles-Harris is in the prime of his lacrosse career and is helping mentor those within the Hampton program who’ve never experienced the level of lacrosse he’s played both at Duke and in the U.S. men’s national team player pool.

With Giles-Harris and Woodson, Hampton boasts one of the more star-studded staffs in the nation.

“These guys want to win and improve, but they weren’t exposed to how to do that the best way,” Giles-Harris said. “At a bigger program, they know how to win within the game, because we all grew up playing in different hotbeds against top talent. Once they get exposed, the sky is the limit.”








HOWARD

The rise of HBCU lacrosse does not come without its valleys. Progress as it pertains to HBCU lacrosse programs, and inclusion of Black lacrosse players across the country, is not always linear.

Karen Healy-Silcott and the Howard women’s lacrosse program experienced firsthand how one incident can bring to light the work that still needs to be done.  

A tweet from Healy-Silcott’s husband, Brian, the PLL’s head of player experience and a USA Lacrosse board member, shed light on racially insensitive and misogynistic comments directed at Howard players as they made their way into Presbyterian’s Bailey Memorial Stadium on February 11.

“Our first steps onto the field, we were greeted with, ‘F--- Howard! You’re not welcome here!’” Healy Silcott told Inside Lacrosse publisher Terry Foy. “’They said, ‘We don’t want you here!’ They told us to go home. They shouted, ‘If it ain’t white, it ain’t right!’”

The women of Howard lacrosse took the field despite the hateful comments, not letting the incident detract from the game, which was used as a healing tool for the Bison.

The incident at Presbyterian brought about both support from across the lacrosse community and condemnation of those who were hateful. USA Lacrosse CEO Marc Riccio called the incident “infuriating” and pledged his support. The story was picked up by national news outlets. Presbyterian launched an investigation into the matter and pledged to hold those involved accountable.

The response since the incident on February 11 has been overwhelmingly positive, but it comes as little surprise to those who experience life as HBCU lacrosse players and coaches every single day. Kealy-Silcott could not be reached for this story, but members of Delaware State’s women’s lacrosse reflected on the incident just days after it took place.

“I’ve seen it and heard it so many times,” Jenkins said. “I’m grateful that the coach at Howard and her husband were so well known that they were able to bring attention to it, but honestly, that happens to us all the time. That’s something we deal with in silence, but we just go out and try to show them good HBCU lacrosse.”

The way in which Howard players handled the incident, and the reaction thereafter, left their HBCU counterparts sympathetic and inspired. It’s an experience they wish they didn’t share, but one that ultimately brings them together.

“It’s a matter of how you react to it,” Lambert said. “Howard’s team did a great job of keeping their composure. It’s nothing new. It’s not going to stop our progress. It’s not going to stop us trying to prove that we belong here.”




PHOTO BY PEYTON WILLIAMS

JT Giles-Harris is an assistant coach at Hampton at an All-American career at Duke.


THE FUTURE

Woodson and Jenkins, both veterans of lacrosse who have made their presences felt across the country, can feel the tide rising for HBCUs.

Whether through phone calls from high school lacrosse players — ones who reach out specifically to share their interest in playing at an HBCU — or conversations with various HBCUs looking to make the same leap that Hampton and Delaware State once did, both coaches are confident in a bright future for their programs and others like them.

“It means a lot,” Jenkins said of the rising interest in HBCUs. “In the sport, I wish there were still more. There’s such a small pool, even for the HBCUs, to pull from. We still have to get out there and get the best talent to compete the best we can.”

It’s difficult for these coaches not to envision a world in which HBCU programs are competing with the best institutions in the nation. However, with just five HBCU teams at the varsity level, growth needs to come from within — even if it means losing out on recruits to other HBCUs.

Simply put, both Woodson and Jenkins want to see more HBCU schools participate at the varsity level. They hope for a future in which Morgan State’s “Ten Bears” is one of many programs to knock off a No. 1 team.

Although Hampton remains the most recent HBCU to sponsor lacrosse, Woodson feels confident that will change soon.

“It’s one of those things where it’s, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” Woodson said. “If we are successful, other programs will come along behind us. The eyes are already there. Schools are already considering it.”

Woodson said he has spoken with lacrosse players at different HBCU schools, answering questions about how they can take steps to add to the list of five varsity programs. Although many schools may be years away from making the jump, fans will get a chance to witness HBCU lacrosse as it has never been presented.

Andre Gudger, the former owner of Major League Lacrosse’s Atlanta Blaze, announced a new venture involving HBCU lacrosse programs and his company, Next Level Sports. On January 17, Next Level Sports launched the Next Collegiate League (NCL), which features six HBCU programs going head-to-head in an “Olympic style” 6-v-6 format.

The 10-week season, which kicks off at the Crown Classic in April, will feature teams from Bowie State, Maryland-Eastern Shore, Lincoln University, Coppin State, Delaware State and Morgan State. The goal, according to Gudger, is to make lacrosse more “accessible” to a wider audience and position the game for Olympic inclusion in 2028.

“The [NCL] is our way to establish a global audience, innovate and elevate the sport of lacrosse to make it more prominent on college campuses and throughout the country,” Gudger said in the press release.

The NCL is another positive development for HBCU lacrosse and a glimpse at what this sport could look like in just a few years. That’s what is giving figures like Woodson, Jenkins and many others the energy to keep pushing forward.

The same vision danced in the minds of the Delaware State players on that chilly afternoon. Yes, each player is focused on putting together a strong 2021 season. But seeing two HBCU programs on the same field is a glimpse of a bright future.

“We’re all in this together,” Aike said, smiling. “We want to prove that programs like these can be at the top. When we see them, we cheer for them, too. We’re all trying to get to the same place. We want to do it together.”