It happened on a late spring Saturday afternoon in Omaha.
The cool mid-May breeze caused the fans ringing Westside High School’s modest football field to curl up under their blankets and jackets. They watched, peering through the late afternoon sun, as 16 high school lacrosse players made history.
The NorthStar lacrosse team, a group of Black boys from North Omaha, faced off against the private Creighton Prep High School for the 2022 junior varsity Nebraska state title.
Creighton Prep’s roster was stacked. Their seasoned players warmed up along the sidelines, while several of NorthStar’s first-year players anxiously waited to hit the field.
“I’ve never played lacrosse before, so I was just really excited that we even got to play in the tournament,” said Poe Hobza, a NorthStar player and sophomore at Central High School.
The game was tense from the start. Creighton and NorthStar each scored three goals, and the intensity ratcheted up another level, and another, as time began to run out.
NorthStar’s Daniel Duncan, a junior at Benson High, tried to push away the nerves. “I had to lock down and get groovy.”
With minutes to go, NorthStar had taken a two-goal lead, but Creighton Prep swooped in with a quick score. Duncan and his NorthStar teammates fought to fend off their more experienced opponents – to hold on as there two minutes left, then one, then mere seconds.
The buzzer sounded, and NorthStar dogpiled in the center of the field, sticks flying, as they celebrated their first high school state lacrosse championship. It was an unlikely title – a group of Black teenagers, almost all from families of low income, none of whom had so much as picked up a lacrosse stick as younger children.
The celebration stretched on, complete with the dogpile, an attempt to douse coaches with Gatorade and many triumphant shots of NorthStar players mugging for cameras, holding up their index fingers – the “We’re No. 1” sign – as they held their new trophy aloft.
“I was real excited,” Hobza said. “I was hyped.”
Winning a state championship was not the goal when NorthStar Foundation, an all-boys after-school program in North Omaha, launched its first lacrosse team in 2015. That first year, coaches and administrators could barely field a team, let alone find students who had ever played the game – or even heard of it.
“I knew it would be an uphill battle,” said head lacrosse coach Cort Irish. “But my bigger priority, which is still the case today, despite a state title, is to help our boys achieve their potential on and off the field.”
That goal is the heart of NorthStar Foundation’s mission. The organization opened its doors in 2014, created to help North Omaha school-aged boys, who traditionally face significant barriers to academic success, complete ninth grade and graduate from high school on time.
“Whether it be Omaha, Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago or another city – young men of color who may be under-resourced are the most challenged to get to high school graduation, on time,” said Scott Hazelrigg, founder and president of NorthStar Foundation. “Omaha is no different. We believe that to be a truly great city, Omaha has to have diverse leadership and economic opportunity. Education is the key to building that. That is why we are here.”
In addition to focusing on academics and adventure, NorthStar places a heavy emphasis on social and emotional development, hoping to provide students the life skills and emotional maturity needed to succeed beyond high school. Athletics plays a major role in that development.
Basketball was the first sport NorthStar offered, but Hazelrigg knew there were more opportunities they could bring to students. The perception of who plays lacrosse was very different from the profile of NorthStar’s students, and that got Hazelrigg excited. Each student would be able to find a local football or basketball team if they left NorthStar. But lacrosse?
“Most of our students had played or tried basketball,” Hazelrigg said. “None had played lacrosse. We wanted to offer an opportunity that they would never have access to if not for NorthStar.”
Though its roots are in ancient Native American traditions, today many associate lacrosse with wealthy, white Ivy League schools and the upper echelon of society – mainly because the barriers for entry are costly. A 2019 study found that the average cost to a family of a child playing lacrosse was $1,289 per year.
That’s largely because of the equipment and travel costs. At minimum a lacrosse player needs: a helmet, pads, cleats, padding, gloves, a stick, a mouthguard and practice clothing. Oftentimes, players will outgrow some of their equipment, requiring additional purchases each season.
For athletes looking to play in college, tournaments, camps, and clinics are often required and can come with hefty hotel, airfare or rental car fees just to get there.
At its higher levels, lacrosse is shockingly white.
In 2021, over 15,000 lacrosse players competed within the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Of those student athletes,12,719 were white. Only 584 were Black.
NorthStar leaders are well aware the odds are stacked against their lacrosse players, but they’ve worked to level the playing field.
Thanks to donations from local organizations and individuals, NorthStar is able to loan student athletes all the necessary equipment free of charge during the season. They also provide practice facilities that include a multi-sport field with on-site locker rooms and a coaching staff invested in their lacrosse and life success.
“Of course, winning is great, but it’s more about each boy growing as an individual as well as collectively as a teammate,” Irish said. “Showing them they can succeed at whatever they choose to do if they work hard and have the right focus, regardless of their background and experience.”
The team has also earned national recognition, receiving the 2022 Level the Playing Field grant presented by Hudl and Gatorade. The grant provides NorthStar with three years of access to Hudl’s suite of sports video and data software and the opportunity to be featured in a Hudl video series that highlights mentors helping student-athletes.
Emma Hulsey, Hudl’s manager of media operations, said the company has been thrilled to see their grant have such an immediate impact on a program that is so important to the future of the community.
“And the timing of the grant was so perfect,” she said. “We got to follow the NorthStar lacrosse team’s journey to a state championship.”
Support like this has helped many students go on to live successful post-grad lives. Last year, NorthStar celebrated Marlon Coleman, its first student graduate to be offered an athletic scholarship – to play lacrosse at Midland University.
“I can’t think of a more deserving young man to receive this opportunity,” Irish said. “Many of our boys, unfortunately, grow up not believing they have a path to college for a variety of reasons. This shows them that they can have that opportunity.”
The NorthStar lacrosse program has now grown to include more than 30 students who play on two teams: under-14 and high school.
And for NorthStar’s first high school state championship team, the win means more than a trophy and jubilant dogpile. It’s a symbol to the next generation of NorthStar athletes. It’s a message: Anything is possible.
“The way the team rallied around each other in that moment and said there was no way they were going to lose that game after coming this far … not just this season but since this program started,” said Irish. “I find myself tearing up.”
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