The Oakland Lacrosse Dream

The trunk of Monica Branch’s 2008 honeydew Toyota Prius (named Peter) was already packed to the brim before she started her engine for her weekly trek to Castlemont High School.

Stacked in the cargo space were a handful of lacrosse sticks, a pack of Poland Spring water bottles, a tie-dye ball and a Bluetooth speaker.

“I always have hella stuff in my car,” Branch joked. “There’s always turf and grass and leaves in my car. I’ll just have sticks, balls, cones, snacks — but I have a Prius. A lot of people sleep on the Prius.”

The trip from Branch’s home in Montclair to East Oakland included two stops — one in the upper hills at Skyline High School, where she picked up extra goalie equipment due to a COVID-19 scare with her starting keeper, and another at Safeway, where she bought healthy snacks like Boom Chicka Pop(corn) and applesauce both for her team at Castlemont and their opponent, Oakland High.

Branch could make this drive with her eyes closed. She’s made it so frequently over the last 25 years. “I used to live three minutes up that way. Good times,” she said as she pointed down MacArthur Boulevard. “I know which freeways to avoid when, but it can still take 30 minutes to get across town.”

Branch inched past the murals on the walls of Castlemont High School paying homage to civil rights leaders like Dolores Huerta, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. and creative expressions of the word “Oakland.” She settled into her parking spot near the aging turf field.

“Lacrosse has been put on this pedestal of prestige and money. How about we just take that away?”

— Monica Branch

The girls’ program coordinator for the Oakland Lacrosse Club and head coach at Castlemont, Branch has commuted to lacrosse games in the city for the last three years. Castlemont is the fourth school in Oakland to field a varsity girls’ lacrosse team thanks to the Oakland Lacrosse Club, which was founded by former Providence lacrosse player Kevin Kelley in 2012. The nonprofit organization recently has partnered with the Oakland Unified School District and Oakland Athletic League on an ambitious goal — to sponsor girls’ lacrosse at eight Oakland schools by 2024.

With the school district hoping to better align with Title IX, the plan to add girls’ lacrosse made perfect sense. In one of the most diverse cities in America, lacrosse could become an outlet for girls in Oakland to find structure and dreams of a bright future beyond the Bay Area. USA Lacrosse, which supported the Oakland Lacrosse Club in its infancy with equipment grants, made a significant financial contribution to help with this initiative.

Branch, who picked up a stick for the first time at Oakland Tech and played college lacrosse at Goucher and Wofford, returned here in 2018 not knowing she’d help lead a movement. “My day-to-day since when I was in high school through now even then in my adult life is an act of resistance,” she said. “Being a person of color, playing lacrosse is an act of resistance and breaking down all these stereotypes. Lacrosse has been put on this pedestal of prestige and money. How about we just take that away? Just bring it back to a game that brings people together and creates community. That’s what we’re here to do.”

KELLEY WASN’T BORN IN OAKLAND. He picked up his first lacrosse stick more than 3,000 miles away from what he called his “adopted home.” He played at Providence from 1996-2000 and moved to Oakland, where he discovered an urban cultural mecca often overshadowed by its Bay Area neighbor San Francisco. Practical Wanderlust, the popular travel blog, describes Oakland as a place with “a deep, complicated history and culture, its own local slang, absolutely incredible food and plenty to see and do.” It’s also a hub of political and social activism.

“Oakland has a number of amazing qualities,” Kelley said. “One of my favorites is it just allows you to be you. It’s that sense of community that allows that.”

Kelley wanted to find a way to make lacrosse part of the city’s rich tapestry and add to an athletic lineage that includes homegrown stars like Rickey Henderson, Bill Russell, Damian Lillard, Jason Kidd and Marshawn Lynch.

In 2012, he founded Oakland Lacrosse as a vehicle for leadership, academic enrichment and wellness for children. It began in partnership with local middle schools and physical education teachers, eventually getting off the ground with two middle school teams in the spring of 2013, as well as the Oakland Tech High School team, which had been run by parents.

“I was working in education and saw that when young people in education were given the resources and a supportive community, they kicked the crap out of life and excelled,” Kelley said. “Oakland gave me a sense of belonging and connection and I wanted to create a program that gave the same to young people.”

In 2019, Kelley set his sights on expanding the sport’s footprint in the city’s high schools. Officials from the Oakland Unified School District and Oakland Athletic League bought into his vision.

“The dedication that it takes to get good at picking up ground balls over and over again, it’s directly transferable in life, in jobs, in relationships, in family and in school,” said John Sasaki, a former club lacrosse player and communications director for the OUSD. “Everybody in Oakland can be a leader. In some cases, we have to give them a little bit of extra push. That’s what lacrosse does now.”

Kelley’s plan calls for eight high school teams rostering up to 175 girls in Oakland by 2024. Oakland Tech’s team originated in 2011 and competed for a decade as the city’s lone high school girls’ lacrosse program. Oakland High and Skyline came on board last year. Castlemont made its debut this spring. Fremont, McClymonds, Coliseum College Prep Academy and Madison Park Academy will round out the eight-team league.

Since launching the initiative a year ago, Oakland Lacrosse has introduced the sport to more than 400 high school girls through in-school clinics and recruited 13 coaches. It hired additional staff, including former Penn player Allison Ambrozy Allouche as director of operations, to support the development of new teams.

Kelley found a gem in Branch, who worked in real estate. She originally wanted to coordinate an OLC alumni game. It turned into a full-time opportunity as the girls’ program coordinator. Branch dove right into conversations with schools and administrators.

“You see when she interacts with the girls, that level of trust,” Kelley said. “Kids can sniff out pretty quickly if you’re committed and invested. Monica has it. When you see her on the field, you’re like, ‘Oh, this person’s here. She’s present for me.’ The kids can see, here’s a model of an African-American woman that did it in a sport that’s 90-percent white.”


JASMINE VO IS HEADED to the University of Oregon, where she intends to study public policy. She wants to be part of the change for more women that look like her.

Nicole Kwan hopes she’ll get into UCLA, where she wants to study business marketing and pursue a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Taylor Lowe will move to the East Coast in August to attend Georgetown, where she’s left her future open-ended. She could use her bilingual skills to become an international travel agent. Maybe she’ll become a foreign ambassador.

Vo, Kwan and Lowe all have aspirations beyond Oakland city limits. And though they will not play lacrosse in college, the sport that they picked up as middle-schoolers has become an integral part of their journeys.

“Lacrosse is such a rare sport to find in Oakland,” Kwan said. “The fact that we got this opportunity through lacrosse, it’s really a pleasure and honor to start this foundation. We’re building up this respect and our name. We’re building up history in Oakland high schools.”

Vo and Kwan star for Oakland High, which took on Lowe’s Skyline High team on May 3. Two teams battled on the turf at Oakland High, a school sandwiched between Park and MacArthur in the heart of the city. The rosters were built with players from a variety of backgrounds, including Vo and Lowe, who are Black, and Kwan, who is of Chinese and Vietnamese descent. Oakland is the second-most racially diverse city in America according to a 2020 report from U.S. News and World Report.

Vo stood at midfield and watched as the potential game-tying shot was released just after the buzzer, giving Oakland High the 9-8 victory over its crosstown rival.

“Did we win?” Vo shouted as she sprinted toward the cage.

Seconds later, the team burst out into a cheers of “O-High, O-High, O-High,” as teammates huddled around the 8-meter arc.

Vo, Lowe and Kwan all say lacrosse has given them structure, motivation and a reason to keep their grades up. They’re part of a burgeoning lacrosse community in Oakland.

“I found a good community here and found something I am passionate about,” Vo said. “You don’t see a sport like this in this town. This city is full of people of color and when we see lacrosse, it’s not something I’m used to seeing. But lacrosse showed me how much a sport can bring people together and change their lives.”

It’s that same community to which Branch was introduced in 2012 while she was at Oakland Tech. She didn’t know then that lacrosse would become such a big a part of her life or that it would be woven into the fabric of her city. But lacrosse and Oaktown have a special relationship.

“My teammates, those are my sisters for life,” Branch said. “I get to recreate this for other young women. A lot of my job is building relationships. Lacrosse gave me relationships, helped me grow and be a more well-rounded person. I’m quite literally recreating that experience for other people here in Oakland.”