BALTIMORE — The University of Maryland’s girls and boys lacrosse teams both won NCAA championships in 2017.
Though it may appear that lacrosse is a sport unique to the black experience, in Maryland, the sport has been a staple among African-Americans for several years — dating back nearly 50 years ago when Morgan State University fielded a successful men’s team affectionately known as the “Ten Bears.”
Currently, the Charm City Youth Lacrosse (CCYL) league continues the Bears’ legacy, while attracting Baltimore’s inner-city and suburban area black youths to its program.
The attraction to lacrosse has always been a major draw among Maryland youth, both black and white, while young black athletes in other parts of the nation continue their typical focus on primary sports such as basketball, football, track or perhaps soccer and baseball. Primarily in central Maryland, black youths have for many years immersed themselves in the alternative sport known as lacrosse.
According to CCYL Executive Director Artemis “Artie” West, lacrosse is one of the oldest team sports in North America with origins in the Native American culture, mainly those who played the sport throughout Canada in the 17th century.
West was first introduced to the sport by her parents at age 7. While growing up in the Baltimore suburb of Towson where she attended Loch Raven High School, she gradually became a star player, helping her school win two regional titles and achieving at least one undefeated season.
“My parents exposed me to various activities as a child, including soccer, dancing, gymnastics, horseback riding and, of course, lacrosse,” West said.
While initially recruited to play lacrosse at Howard University, she ultimately decided to play at Towson University, where she enjoyed a successful athletic career while majoring in kinesiology and exercise science.
At age 31, the married expectant mother and parent of a 9-month-old son stays busy fulfilling her goal of continuously ensuring that minority children are introduced to the lacrosse experience. As CCYL’s primary administrator, West believes it’s vital to assure that her league participants — both girls and boys — stay committed to the game.
“It’s a way of getting the kids out of the city,” she said. “They meet new friends while staying active and fit. It also enhances their academics and opportunities to attend four-year colleges.
“For me, lacrosse has been a blessing,” West said. “It’s taken me all over the nation: Hawaii, Lake Placid, Vale, Colorado and, of course, Ocean City, Maryland.”
Prior to joining CCYL as an administrator, she and two colleagues, Britta Williams and current George Mason head coach Jessy Morgan, formed the Coast 2 Coast girls lacrosse team.
“C2C lasted for about a year. We had a great start, but we just didn’t have the financial backing in order to persist,” West said. “We were just out of college, but we had solid plans.”
CCYL currently consists of 600 children, from ages 4 to 15. All coaches are unpaid volunteers. The organization was founded in 2008 by Doug Gansler, the former attorney general of Maryland. He founded the league to benefit Baltimore’s inner-city youth. Gansler has also co-chaired the NAACP Criminal Justice Committee. For his work in establishing CCYL, Gansler has received the “Innovator of the Year” award from Maryland’s largest legal publication, according to published reports.
Another local figure who is pivotal to Baltimore’s inner-city youth participation in lacrosse is Donnie Brown, a city native and former member of the famed Morgan State team of the 1970s who also began playing the game as a youngster.
“I was a star baseball player, but was introduced to [lacrosse] by family friends — a mixed-race family,” he said. “I picked up the stick and never looked back. No more baseball.”
Brown starred at City College High School before trekking to Morgan State. Now 58, he remains connected to the sport and serves on CCYL board of directors. West denotes him as “the Papa of youth lacrosse” in Baltimore.
Meanwhile, the Charm City Gators are an all-girls unit that participates independently under the CCYL banner. The team, organized by West in 2009 and currently coached by George Roycroft, consists of girls ages 9 to 14 and competes with other Baltimore-area girls’ teams.
Roycroft says his team, though young, is very competitive “even when facing typically white, more experienced teams from suburban communities.”
“We’re not as experienced as the teams we face, but our girls have so much heart. I’m very proud of them,” said the three-year coach.
West said the sport has been played at Ivy League colleges for decades and still has the stigma as being the “sport of the privileged.”
According to the Federation of International Lacrosse website, the sport has Native American origins and is one of the oldest team sports in North America. Legendary Native American athlete Jim Thorpe, of Carlisle, Pa., was a star player while in high school.
Lacrosse was played throughout modern Canada, but was most popular around the Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic seaboard and the American South. By the 20th century, many high schools, colleges and universities adopted lacrosse as a league sport. Lacrosse became an Olympic sport for the 1904 and 1908 Summer Olympics, but was later dropped as an official sport.
West reflected on the sports’ African-American roots by noting the collegiate success of former NFL greats Jim Brown and Ernie Davis — both standout collegian lacrosse players while at the University of Syracuse. Brown is widely considered the greatest lacrosse player ever. In the early 1990s, Cherie Greer, an African-American and daughter of NBA Hall of Famer Hal Greer, was considered the premier collegiate women’s lacrosse player in the nation while leading the University of Virginia to the national semifinals.
West also noted the historical relevance of Morgan State University as the only lacrosse team sanctioned to play NCAA-level lacrosse at an HBCU (historically black college and university). In 1975, the Morgan State Bears men’s team defeated Harvard and Notre Dame, and upset No. 1 and undefeated Washington & Lee University. Before the Morgan State loss, Washington & Lee (Lexington, Va.) had not lost a regular season or home game the prior two seasons.
Brown, who played on the MSU team from 1977 to 1981, had the distinction of scoring the winning goal over Harvard during the team’s epic upset victory.
The Baltimore team’s exploits are recounted in the book “Ten Bears,” and the story was once being considered as a major motion picture production. In 2011, ESPN produced a Black History Month feature showcasing the renowned team.
From 1970 to 1975, the Bears were ranked in the top 25 four out of five seasons. Under coach Howard “Chip” Silverman, the Bears made the championship tournament twice. The program lasted until 1981, when the team was forced to disband for budgetary reasons. Though they never won any titles, the team made Division II playoffs in 1973 and 1975.
Brown said his affiliation with youth lacrosse has also forced academic excellence into the team’s mantra.
“If they can’t achieve high academics and get good grades, then that affects their ability to get on the field,” he said.