Lacrosse at Martin Luther King Jr. High School
Two teams of 10 gather on a field. They’re clad in what appears to be armor: a masked helmet, shoulder pads, padded gloves and uniforms. They wield what looks to be a combination of a tennis racket and hockey stick. For more than 48 minutes, the teams will race up and down the field, make full contact with one another, and throw, catch and shoot a rubber ball.
This is known as lacrosse—a sport combining elements of hockey, tennis and soccer.
While being the oldest sport in the United States, lacrosse is not well known in DeKalb County. However, that hasn’t stopped two DeKalb County School District (DCSD) high school teachers from attempting to sow the seeds of the sport through elementary age recruitment.
Martin Luther King, Jr. High School teachers Corey Carter and Ramon Rivers have been coaching boys’ and girls’ lacrosse at the high school level for more than seven years. The two teachers view the sport—like any other athletic and extracurricular activities—as a vehicle for success, college scholarships and student growth.
Boys’ head coach Carter, a Career Technical Instructor and DCSD educator for 25 years, said he started the sport at MLK seven years ago to provide more opportunities to students. He brought in Rivers, girls’ head coach and the school’s math department head, to broaden all student horizons.
Carter said lacrosse fulfills the needs of students who are athletic, but simply do not wish to participate in the school’s main sports of football, baseball, basketball and track. He said the team is typically comprised of students who don’t want to play traditional sports but maintain their athleticism.
“If we’re going to be about education and helping out everybody, let’s help out everybody,” Carter said. “All students like being a part of something. Students like saying, ‘It’s lacrosse season.’ They have pride in what they do and have pride in the sport.”
“The diversity of the sport is a draw—it’s a mixture,” said Rivers. “It’s not just hockey, it’s not just soccer. Students can take basketball skills or soccer skills and apply them on the lacrosse field.”
Three-year varsity girls team member and junior Erikka Crawford said she joined lacrosse because she appreciated how different it is. She said Martin Luther King, Jr.’s overall program is growing, as evidenced by the varsity girls’ team having their first winning season in 2016-2017.
“It’s the team, it’s the dedication everyone gives,” Crawford said. “I like how much skill it takes to do certain things, like cradling (keeping possession of the ball while keeping the stick in motion), catching and throwing. There’s a lot that goes into it—plus, it’s a thinking game, especially for females.”
Crawford said she plans to play lacrosse during her senior year and attract the attention of colleges and universities. After high school, she plans to continue showcasing her talents both on the field and in the classroom.
Four-year team member and senior Daniel Washington said he first saw people playing lacrosse on television. He said he appreciates how much physicality is involved in the sport, which involves running, near-tackles, and quick thinking.
“I like how fast it is,” Washington said. “You can throw the ball and have it on the opposite side of the field in half a second.”
Washington said he hopes to play lacrosse in college no matter which school he attends, but he has his sights set high.
“I would like to go to University of Maryland, but they’re [ranked] number one so I don’t know about that,” Washington said. “I’m looking at Oglethorpe University right now.”
Carter and Rivers attribute the lack of lacrosse in DeKalb County—where only six district schools offer the sport—with a lack of exposure at an early age. In the south DeKalb area, the sport is only offered at MLK High and Southwest DeKalb.
“There’s a huge need in this area for non-traditional sports like tennis, golf, lacrosse and swimming that are played at Ivy League schools,” Rivers said.
“A lot of students at this age, if they haven’t been playing a sport all along, they don’t want to learn,” said Carter. “They like to focus on the ones they already know and stay set in their ways. It’s all about exposure—doing something you’re not accustomed to doing.”
Carter and Rivers are in the process of developing Urban Lacrosse Atlanta, a nonprofit lacrosse program geared toward elementary and middle school aged children. The long term goal of the organization is to foster skills at an early age and develop a bonafide feeder program for DeKalb high schools.
“We want to start at Kindergarten on up,” Carter said. “We have to grow the sport. We have to get them at an early age. When we first started seven years ago, we were already 10 years behind. We’re always going to be 10 years behind. The only way we can grow the sport is the youth.”
“We’re looking to develop a full program,” said Rivers. “Right now, our students don’t have the opportunity to play lacrosse at a young age. This puts them at a disadvantage when they play in high school, against kids who have 10, sometimes 12 years of experience. Imagine trying to learn a sport in four years when someone you’re playing against is 6, 8, or 10 years ahead.”
Carter and Rivers said Urban Lacrosse Atlanta will coach and compete with youth as young as five or six years old. The duo wishes to install skills needed to compete at a higher level, and potentially provide a pathway to D1 and D2 college scholarships.
“They are giving away so much scholarship money,” Carter said. “Out of seven years in existence, 22 of our students have received D2 and D3 scholarships for a sport they just started playing. Think about it—how many could we have gotten if they had started when they were in kindergarten?”
If the program is successful, Carter and Rivers hope to cultivate more than 3,000 participants who will play against one another and travel to other leagues for competition. The duo is already surveying practice and playing sites in Atlanta, Lithonia and southern Fulton County. Free clinics will begin in Summer 2018 with hopes to have a league established by January 2019.
Once elementary age students begin playing lacrosse, Carter and Rivers believe the desire will last until high school and create a demand in local, public systems.
Carter and Rivers believe the program will fulfill a need in the metro Atlanta region, as they believe the metro area has the best athletes in the entire country. The vehicles to harness such talent and put it into more than just football, baseball, basketball or track, however, are lacking.
“US Lacrosse is looking to expand into urban areas. They’re looking at DeKalb County, Clay County and Fulton County where there is no presence at all,” Rivers said. “Besides Dunwoody and Druid Hills’ youth program, there is no nearby program. If we can learn how to play lacrosse, we can be great—we can put Atlanta on the map [for lacrosse].”
“DeKalb is the third largest school district in the state of Georgia,” said Carter. “We have the schools, we just have to put it out there for the students.”
See this story in the Spring 2018 issue of We are DCSD Magazine.