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Sam Angelotta coaches his St. Malachy middle school boys lacrosse team, part of OWLS, an inner-city lacrosse league he founded in Chicago.


Youth lacrosse league builds community and instills sportsmanship in Chicago's inner-city

by Elissa Nadworny
May 29, 2013


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Lacrosse players face-off in a scrimmage during an OWLS practice at St. Malachy, a Catholic school on Chicago's West Side.

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Boys lacrosse players complete a series of warm-up exercises during an OWLS practice.

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St. Malachy middle school boys lacrosse team awaits instruction from their coach during a practice.

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OWLS website

It may look like just a game with a web-ended stick and a small rubber ball, but on Chicago’s West Side, lacrosse is being used as a tool for life.

Andrew Brooks, a seventh-grader at St. Malachy awaits a pass from lacrosse teammate and classmate, DeAndre Chester. The ball lands just to the left of his outstretched lacrosse stick. Andrew throws his stick on the grass in frustration.

“Just flush it,” yells coach Sam Angelotta. “If you miss a catch or if you lose a ball, just flush it.” Angelotta puts his hand in the air to demonstrate the flushing motion. “Flush it man, just flush it.”

The ‘flush it’ advice is part of Angelotta’s efforts to help his St. Malachy middle-school boys lacrosse team learn about sportsmanship on the field. His team is part of an inner-city lacrosse league, called OWLS, which he founded in the summer of 2011.

Angelotta started the league at St. Malachy, a Catholic school on Chicago’s West Side, where he teaches pre-school. Since its inception, the program has expanded to five inner-city parochial schools and has plans to incorporate a Chicago Public School on the South Side next year.

With first lady Michelle Obama’s “Lets Move” initiative promoting active youth, there has been more attention paid to the issue of physical inactivity among low-income children, a topic Robert Halpern, a professor at the Erickson Institute in Chicago, has been studying since the late ’90s.

In a 2003 paper Halpern wrote, “…physical inactivity among children has come to be viewed as a distinct social problem.” Ten years later, he says that problem not only still exists, but it’s getting worse.

“There’s more awareness of it as a problem, but it’s still a growing problem,” Halpern said.

Halpern says society currently looks at physical inactivity through the lens of childhood obesity. But in addition to health, there is another important aspect of physical activity, one that Angelotta is using his lacrosse league to teach: community.

“There is a void in after school programming – especially with physical activity,” Angelotta said. “At OWLS we believe body fills the mind. Kids need play opportunities; they need long term solutions of organized teams.”

Angelotta, who played lacrosse at Indiana University and DePaul University and moved to Manchester, England to teach and coach youth lacrosse before finding a home in Chicago, said the league is more about teambuilding, sportsmanship and cooperation.

“I have my players watch videos of NCAA lacrosse teams walking on to the field, to understand what it means to be a student-athlete,” Angelotta said. “I have a bunch of athletic kids, but the goals is to make them into student-athletes.”

OWLS partners with local high schools, called the School-to-School Initiative, and area colleges such as Northwestern University, a powerhouse in women’s lacrosse and Notre Dame University, a top Division One program. US Lacrosse donated the league’s equipment and the US Lacrosse Illinois chapter president, Angelo Calvello, sits on the organization’s board.

“The partnerships really make a difference, and show these kids they are part of a larger lacrosse community,” Angelotta said. “We’re using lacrosse as a tool for life, exposing them to high school programs and higher education.”

The team recently took a busload of players to a Notre Dame men’s lacrosse game, and several chaperones brought their whole families to watch.

“Just being on a college campus helps kids think seriously about education,” said Nikkitta McCoy, a parent with two sons in the program.

When Angelotta first started practices at St. Malachy, the players didn’t respond to his whistle, broke out in fights over who had the ball, and couldn’t keep to a set practice schedule. “They had never warmed-up or learned how to stretch,” Angelotta said.

There are still players who come late, or who walk off the field to chat with friends watching practice, as one did during a weekly practice in April. “What are you doing?” yelled Angelotta from across the field. “This is my time. My practice.”

But many of those original students stuck with it, and two years later they are passing, receiving and working together to play lacrosse.

“We are finally playing team lacrosse, complementary lacrosse, versus individual lacrosse,” Angelotta said.

The team’s improvements are due in large part to the leadership and dedication of Angelotta, who coaches with a combination of intensity, coolness and kindness.

“That’s a boss move Nikeal,” Angelotta calls out, as Nikeal McCoy, a sixth grader, fakes to the right before passing to a teammate on his left.

“I started lacrosse to stay in shape for basketball,” said sixth grader Nikeal, “ but I really like it as its own sport.”

Nikeal’s past athletic experience with basketball is a common thread throughout the team. Many of Angelotta’s team grew up playing basketball – and the jump from a simple, more historical inner-city sport like basketball is how a number of players across the country are finding lacrosse, the fastest growing sport at the youth level.

Despite its participation growth nationally, swelling 77 percent from 2006, the majority of lacrosse teams remain in pockets of white affluent suburbs. A very different demographic than the OWLS neighborhoods.

 
“It’s just been basketball in that community,” Angelotta said, “so our lacrosse program is really bringing in the idea of a team and leadership in athletics, at the same time introducing a completely new game.”

The kids are certainly excited about their new sport. McCoy says her children love to play. “They’re always talking about having practice,” she said.

As more students and schools hear about the league, Angelotta must balance between being a sustainable and transformative program and expanding to new schools. “Growth is important, but so is quality,” he said.

Still, Angelotta knows that all the attention and interest in the community can only be a good thing. “There is definitely a culture of lacrosse developing here,” he said. And that was his goal.