St. Malachy teacher starts lacrosse league for city kids

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, May 4, 2014

Most kids in Chicago have already shot a basketball — or at least tried to — by the time they start elementary school. Most have thrown a football around. And by the time they get to fourth or fifth grade, everyone knows who the stars are.

That’s not the case with lacrosse, said Sam Angelotta, athletic director and preschool teacher at St. Malachy School, 2252 W. Washington Blvd. Angelotta brought lacrosse — now the fastest growing sport in the United States — to St. Malachy in 2011 as part of Outreach with Lacrosse in Schools (OWLS Lacrosse) and its Urban School Lacrosse League, which now has six teams, three from Catholic schools.

“When we started lacrosse, no one had ever even picked up a lacrosse stick before, so everyone is on an even playing field,” said Angelotta, who played lacrosse in Manchester, England, and coached youth programs there before coming to Chicago to earn a master’s degree in education at DePaul University.

He started thinking about creating a lacrosse program for inner city children, and found his chance when he began teaching at St. Malachy

Teresita Cruz-Gray’s son, Lyle, 9, plays on St. Malachy’s team.

“He likes to play a lot of different things,” Cruz-Gray said of her fourth-grade son. “He just joins things. He came home one day and said, ‘I’ve got a lacrosse game.’ I loved that he had the chance to try something different. They wouldn’t be exposed to lacrosse without Coach A.”

Janice Chandler works at St. Malachy and her grandson, eighth-grader Jalen Weathers, plays on the lacrosse team as well.

“It’s been very good for the school,” she said. “The kids love lacrosse. They look forward to it.”

That was Angelotta’s hope when he started the program. Lacrosse provides an outlet for kids to be active and off the streets after school, and it gives participants an incentive to keep their grades up.

“We really want to emphasize the student in student-athlete,” he said.

If some of the players continue playing in high school, and even on into college, so much the better, Angelotta said. Partnerships with the men’s lacrosse team at the University of Notre Dame and the near-legendary women’s lacrosse team at Northwestern University provide exposure to college athletes and campuses for students who might not otherwise have a chance to visit them.

“It had to be about more than just doing some equipment drives,” Angelotta said, and throwing a pile of equipment at a school and wishing them luck.

To that end, OWLS recruits and trains coaches for the schools that participate. Most are young adults who played lacrosse in college, providing another link to the world of collegiate athletics for the young players. Angelotta said the coaches are mostly volunteers; he’d like to be able to offer a stipend if OWLS has consistent fundraising success.

In addition to the school-based league, OWLS offers community based programming, working with partners such as the Mercy Home for Boys and Girls.

Fundraisers keep fees and equipment costs extremely reasonable for players, often free for schools where the families might not be able afford them. For those who have an image of lacrosse as an elite sport, mostly played on the East Coast, Angelotta said, they should look to the roots of the game.

“It was a Native American sport,” he said. “And it’s still thriving in Native American communities.”

Benny Morten, principal at St. Ann School, said he jumped at the chance when the principal at St. Malachy suggested that St. Ann join the lacrosse league.

“We’re always looking to give our students opportunities outside our neighborhood,” Morten said.

St. Ann students already participate in basketball, soccer, running and flag football. Lacrosse is a growing sport and it seemed like a good fit, Morten said.

“We had some interest last year, and this year, it’s kind of caught on a little more,” Morten said. “It helps build their confidence, their sense of trying something new without fear of failing. Now they’re starting to see the benefits of their practice and their hard work.”

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