Despite systemic challenges, 15 Philly students thrive on their way to play women's college lacrosse

Fifteen females, from three Philadelphia high schools, will enter colleges and universities this fall courtesy of the efforts
Fifteen females, from three Philadelphia high schools, will enter colleges and universities this fall courtesy of the efforts of Eyekonz Field Hockey & Lacrosse League founder, Jazmine A. Smith.

In 2015, reported there were 84,785 girls participating in high school lacrosse programs throughout the United States with 13.9 percent going on to play on the collegiate level. Despite systemic challenges, 2015 was also the year that a group of young ladies in one of the country’s most deprived neighborhoods, the Strawberry Mansion section of Philadelphia, began their journey using the exclusive sport to create life transforming experiences.

“When I look at the list of 15 young African-American and Latino women, who will attend college to play lacrosse, confirms that women of color have a bigger seat at the table,” said lacrosse coach, educator and advocate, Jazmine Smith. “I am so proud!”

Smith, the founder of Eyekonz Field Hockey and Lacrosse League, is a former Strawberry Mansion High School lacrosse coach that created the school’s girl’s field hockey and lacrosse teams.

At the infamous institution, that garnered international praise under the leadership of former principal Linda Cliatt-Wayman, Smith added to the School District of Philadelphia’s high school lacrosse program which boasted nine other teams, in two divisions, this season.

“The legacy I wish to leave for younger girls is that it doesn't matter what color you are or what shape you are, anybody can play lacrosse,” said Precious Brown of the soon to be shuttered Delaware Valley Charter High School.

Slated to attend the California University of Pennsylvania, as one of five student-athletes from Delaware Valley Charter Smith has help place into colleges and universities, Brown said “knowing that I will be playing on a college lacrosse team makes me feel excited for the next step in my lacrosse career. I want to play lacrosse for the rest of my life.”

Introducing girls to the nontraditional sport that she once played competitively as a youth and collegiately, Smith has led a movement to grow the sport in some of Philadelphia’s most distressed communities.

“There are not too many girls who look like us who play lacrosse,” said Nereida Nieves who attended Mastery Charter School and will enroll in East Stroudsburg University. Commenting on being a part of a groundbreaking achievement, Nieves said “it brings a sense of change and hope to know that we have a chance to make history,” who wants to “encourage other girls to go after what they have a passion for.”

In 2012, 88.2 percent of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I, II and III men’s and women’s college lacrosse players were white. That number dropped to 85.9 in 2016. According to Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post, as the sport continues to grow geographically, its diversity remains stagnated by financial barriers, cultural perception and, as a byproduct of the two, a lack of access to lacrosse in urban public schools.

“Our Boy’s and Girl’s Lacrosse programs at both the high school and middle school level continue to grow across all of our city schools,” the School District of Philadelphia’s Deputy Chief of Communications, H. Lee Whack Jr., stated in an email.

The eighth largest school district in the nation, by enrollment, Philadelphia had 131,362 students during the 2013–2014 academic year. There were four middle school boy’s and four middle school girl’s lacrosse teams in the school district’s program, led by the district’s athletic executive director James Patrick Lynch, with 10 boy’s teams on the high school level.

“As we begin to strategically plan the expansion of our interscholastic athletic programs across The School District of Philadelphia, the game of lacrosse is an area where we see a lot of potential. Our students continue to enjoy the game of lacrosse, and we look forward to continuing to build more bridges for students to have access to this game,” said Whack.

Jamel Newton, Brown’s coach at the closing school (due to fiscal problems and poor academic performance), found the school district’s support of his team to lack the willingness to provide access and resources.

“We did everything we could to make sure the girls learned the basics of the game and developed their skills with what we had,” said Newton. With the support and advocacy work of Smith, Newton has five student-athletes that will attend college this fall, two attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities — Tionna Pyer, Howard University and Macha Frejuste, Florida Memorial University.

“We had games cancelled, practiced on the slither of grass in front of our school, and dealt with inconsistent player attendance,” said Newton. “It was challenging to keep the students interested because we lacked the basics to provide a quality experience,” Newton explained about his school’s program that was one of five teams in the School District’s Liberty Division. He also noted he was unaware that the district placed his team under developmental status, essentially classifying the program as a club sport and not varsity.

According to Whack, the Liberty Division consisted of Frankford, Mastery North, West Philadelphia, Smith’s and Newton’s teams. “The West Philadelphia team was disbanded due to the students having issues with the coach,” said Smith. “Although they may have had a team on paper, there wasn’t a team that competed in the league this year,” Smith said, stating there were only four teams that competed in the Liberty Division.

Seldomly competing against Independence Division teams that included schools with a history of lacrosse programs — George Washington, Girls High, Northeast, Franklin Towne and Central — Newton said in hindsight “we thrived and succeeded in spite of what seemed to be a set up for failure.”

Recent Strawberry Mansion graduate, Nadriah El-emin Gateword, was “mad” that “we had to keep playing the same teams over and over again with some games being cancelled.” She and her teammates only played against other African-American and Latino girls.

Headed to Loch Haven University, located along Pennsylvanian's Susquehanna River, El-emin Gateword is “excited and really didn’t think I would make it this far.”

“I’m really proud of myself,” El-emin Gateword said.

Members of the 2016-2017 Strawberry Mansion High School girl’s lacrosse team, formerly coached by Eyekonz Field Hockey & Lacr
Members of the 2016-2017 Strawberry Mansion High School girl’s lacrosse team, formerly coached by Eyekonz Field Hockey & Lacrosse founder, Jazmine A. Smith. (Patrick Clark|Tyrell Walker|

Philadelphia is located in a region, the Mid-Atlantic, known for producing world-class lacrosse players and programs. Being in between the lacrosse hotbeds of Maryland and New York, geographically Philadelphia is in a great position to lead the charge of growing lacrosse in urban areas.

“All of these cities are close to areas where lacrosse is very prominent, and they are where diversity tends to be concentrated,” Eboni Preston-Laurent, U.S. Lacrosse’s senior manager of diversity and inclusion, told Dougherty in her article, College lacrosse is 86 percent white. This high school team is showing what diversity could do for the sport, earlier this spring. “It takes a while to break stigmas, but I definitely think the sport is moving in that direction. That’s a very big thing,” Preston-Laurent said.

With Smith securing college enrollment for 15 girls from the School District of Philadelphia (shortly after she was informed by the district her coaching contract was not being renewed), she is contributing to breaking the stigma and barriers Preston-Laurent speaks of. Smith, with cooperation from Newton and other local coaches, has organized the largest number of minority high school graduating seniors, from a Metropolitan area in the United States, to play college lacrosse.

“This is an amazing achievement by Smith and all of her student athletes,” said Nic Vu, former senior vice president for adidas North America and newly announced CEO of Comoto Holdings. “I've been following Eyekonz both professionally and personally for quite some time now, and I am extremely impressed with all of the life skills and experiences the students receive through Smith’s passion.”

In a relatively short period of time, Smith has made a major impact throughout Philadelphia using lacrosse and field hockey as a tool to educate, expose and empower youth. Focused on access and opportunities for young ladies, Smith has forged collaborative relationships and partnerships to benefit the students and families she works with.

“I love what Jaz is doing with the girls using nontraditional sports which gives them more than just sport skills,” said former Albany State University (an HBCU) student-athlete and current chief defender of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, Keir Bradford-Grey. “I was a beneficiary of a athletic college scholarship and can appreciate the work and effort she has dedicated to getting these young ladies an opportunity to pursue higher education,” said Bradford-Grey.

After learning about the systematic “opposition” and “racism” Smith, Newton and their students have experienced with the School District of Philadelphia, ‎QuestLove Supreme on Pandora producer and talent booker, Laiya St.Clair, created a social media campaign to bring awareness to equal access for girls in sport.

“From the moment I met Jazmine, where she made it a point to break down the mission of Eyekonz before introducing herself, within our first minute of meeting I knew this was a movement that deserved a much larger word then “special,” said St.Clair.

“For these ladies who have excelled through the Eyekonz program to now matriculate to different universities proves that every absurd obstacle they went through with the Philadelphia School System and others was beyond worth their literal blood, sweat and tears,” St.Clair said.

As awareness of Smith’s impact and advocacy on behalf of her student-athletes has grown, elected officials including Philadelphia City Councilman Curtis Jones and Pennsylvania State Representative Joanna McClinton have expressed full support of how she uses lacrosse to change lives.

“I am beaming with pride knowing Coach Smith is literally changing the game,” said McClinton. “I look forward to her continued leadership in empowering our little sisters with opportunities to change their lives and that of their families.”

During one of their first practices, Strawberry Mansion High School girl’s lacrosse team participants learn the game in the h
During one of their first practices, Strawberry Mansion High School girl’s lacrosse team participants learn the game in the historic school’s gymnasium. Three of those pictured are headed to play lacrosse in college this fall.

Philly’s 15 Female Lacrosse Players Attending College in 2017

  1. Christine Antoine (Delaware Valley Charter High School), Penn State University - Abington
  2. Cassandra Pryer (Delaware Valley Charter High School), University of Delaware
  3. Macha Frejuste (Delaware Valley Charter High School), Florida Memorial University
  4. Precious Brown (Delaware Valley Charter High School), California University of Pennsylvania
  5. Tionna Pyer (Delaware Valley Charter High School), Howard University
  6. Ajune Williams, (Mastery Charter High School), East Stroudsburg University
  7. Arienna Carrabalo (Mastery Charter High School), East Stroudsburg University
  8. Daijah Patrick (Mastery Charter High School), East Stroudsburg University
  9. Dianna Walldell (Mastery Charter High School), Indiana University of Pennsylvania
  10. Nereida Nieves (Mastery Charter High School), East Stroudsburg University
  11. Shayina Benson (Mastery Charter High School), Kutztown University
  12. Yasmeen Jefferies (Mastery Charter High School), East Stroudsburg University
  13. Nadriah El-emin Gateword (Strawberry Mansion High School), Loch Haven University
  14. Nadirah McCrae (Strawberry Mansion High School), University of Hartford
  15. Samani Hilon (Strawberry Mansion High School), Delaware State University
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