Ellenville's First Sticks: Espinosa Introducing Lacrosse to Hudson Valley Town

Eli Espinosa never played lacrosse, but was introduced to the game while teaching in New Paltz and decided to bring it to Ellenville.

Hey Thomas Wolfe, yes, you can go home again. And you can bring lacrosse with you.

Just ask Eli Espinosa of Ellenville, N.Y., a small town located in the Hudson Valley Region, about 90 miles north of New York City.

Espinosa is a native son of Ellenville, but had moved away for many years before returning in 2017 to serve as the Spanish teacher and girls’ soccer coach at his alma mater, Ellenville High School.

It was upon his return that he decided it was time to introduce something new in his hometown. Espinosa never played lacrosse, but he had migrated to the sport during his prior tenure as a teacher in the nearby community of New Paltz. Out of need, he became a girls’ lacrosse assistant coach, and over nine years, the game captured him.

Now Espinosa was ready to spread the gospel.

“When I first started coaching in New Paltz, I immersed myself in it and fell in love with it,” he said. 

Espinosa brought that same passion to starting a new girls’ club team in Ellenville and began looking for resources. With more than 60 percent of the students at EHS qualifying for the free and reduced lunch program, Espinosa knew he needed funding support. More than 20 percent of families in Ellenville live below the poverty line, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, and the cost of lacrosse equipment often represents a barrier of entry to the sport in such areas.

Espinosa submitted an application to the US Lacrosse First Stick Program. Ellenville was approved for a grant in late 2017.

“There’s little doubt that the girls wouldn’t have come out had we not been able to provide them with sticks and goggles,” he said. “The First Stick grant provided an opportunity to play.”

Espinosa started last winter with indoor clinics and practices, and had 37 girls come out on the first day. By the time the spring season began, Espinosa had a team of 26 girls ranging from grades 7 to 11. Virtually all the girls were completely new to the game.

“It has actually helped us to have all the players at the same skill level,” Espinosa said. “We try to focus on all the basics like throwing, catching, cradling.”

Last year, the team played a six-game schedule against other nearby club programs. Espinosa hopes to have a 10-game schedule this spring.

“There’s a lot of excitement building in our community,” he said. 

Donors have started to emerge to help offset additional operating expenses. This past winter’s indoor league registration fees were subsidized with donations.

Ellenville’s diverse population of 4,000 features a mix of Hispanic, African-American, Russian and Bangladeshi people, among other origins. The community includes many ethnicities that aren’t traditionally associated with lacrosse. But the game has united girls from all of those backgrounds into one club.

“This is so great to see,” Espinosa said. “Our players are all very supportive of each other.” 

Espinosa is also excited to see many of the parents jumping on board. A club outing last spring to watch a Marist College women’s game served as a catalyst in getting many of the parents hooked on the game.

“They are thankful that their kids have something to keep them focused,” Espinosa said, whose own daughter, Mya, is an eighth-grader and a member of the team.

Espinosa envisions growing the club to the extent that it will feature teams at different age levels. A varsity team at the high school would be the ultimate prize.

But for now, the goal is much simpler.

“Our objective is to grow and to help the players sharpen their skills,” he said. “There’s no pressure. We let everybody play in every game. We’re not defining success by wins.”

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