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Two years ago, Yacine Seck was searching for a sport to play with her friends during her first year at Oakland Technical High School. The lacrosse team, established in 2011 as the first girls’ lacrosse team at an OUSD high school, piqued her interest.
She knew what the sport was but had never imagined herself playing it, “because it was kind of like a white people’s sport,’” said Seck, who is Black. “I didn’t know if I’d really fit in on the team.”
But Seck decided to try out anyway.
Alyssa Belisle had never heard of lacrosse before coaches with the Oakland Lacrosse Club, a local nonprofit organization that introduces the sport to Oakland youth, came to her sixth grade physical education class at Claremont Middle School. They talked about the sport’s origins in Indigenous culture, demonstrated how to play, and invited students to join their club teams.
Now, both are teammates on Oakland Tech’s girls’ team, which is supported by the Oakland Lacrosse Club.
“I’ve made a lot of new friends on my team, and I got to make friends with people on other teams as well,” Belisle said. “Lacrosse isn’t really that big in the Bay Area, so it’s like a second family.”
This second family is also growing thanks to the Oakland Lacrosse Club, which is partnering with Oakland Unified School District to expand girls’ lacrosse across the district. This year, the lacrosse club helped start varsity teams at Skyline High School and Oakland High School to compete with the Oakland Tech team. Next spring, a girls’ team will be added at Castlemont High School, and in the following school year at Fremont, McClymonds, Coliseum College Prep Academy, and Madison Park Academy, creating an eight-school girls’ league.
“It means every high school field is going to be lined with lacrosse lines, which is monumental for the growth of the sport,” said Allison Allouche, the program director for the Oakland Lacrosse Club. “It means any middle school girl we recruit can still play in high school. Before, you had to go to Oakland Tech.”
Before this school year, the Oakland Tech girls’ team was the only public school team for girls in the city. The team had to play schools like Berkeley High School, Piedmont High School, Tamalpais High School, and Bishop O’Dowd, a private Catholic school in East Oakland.
“Generally, [lacrosse teams] are either at suburban schools or private schools,” said Kevin Kelley, the executive director of the Oakland Lacrosse Club. “One of the many reasons we’re creating this league is so we can have an Oakland league.”
He pointed to expensive equipment and the sport’s need for a large field as barriers that have stopped many youth from getting into the sport. As part of OUSD’s expansion, the club will cover the costs of establishing the teams, including equipment, uniforms, hosting clinics, and finding coaches. The start-up costs can be around $25,000 per school.
Founded in 2012, the Oakland Lacrosse Club aims to make lacrosse more accessible to Oakland youth by partnering with public schools to provide lessons in P.E. classes. While Kelley and his staff initially focused on middle schoolers, they decided to grow high school teams after realizing that their students had few options to continue playing beyond middle school.
The Oakland Lacrosse Club coaches visit schools, recruit youth to play on their club teams, which are not school-specific and are part of the Northern California Junior Lacrosse Association, in the spring, and provide academic support to students. In doing that, the group hopes to counter the perception of lacrosse as an elite prep school sport. Part of that effort includes educating students about the history of lacrosse. It’s considered the oldest sport in North America and was played by Indigenous groups in North America as far back as the 17th century. The game was sometimes played as a replacement for war, to settle disputes, and to honor the creator.
“For Oakland students, who are primarily students of color, for them to know it’s not a white sport and is actually a really inclusive sport is a really important message for them to hear, and to help them feel welcome in the sport,” Allouche said.
Over the past year, the pandemic and school closures have meant that the P.E. class visits are virtual, but the group is looking forward to interacting with students in person in the fall. This year’s varsity season is shorter because of the pandemic, and the teams are only able to play other Oakland teams because of COVID-19 restrictions. This year, Oakland High, Skyline, and Oakland Tech are able to play each other twice, for a four-game season.
For Jaynee Phung, a sophomore at Oakland Tech, playing lacrosse allows her to stay active and meet other people with similar interests. She joined the team this year, but was a bit nervous about playing during a pandemic.
“I was very afraid of COVID and going back to school at the beginning of the year. Coming back towards the end of the school year is still kind of scary, because you never know what’s going to happen,” she said. “But when you see everybody else wearing masks on the team, it makes me feel safer than if I was walking down the street and saw people wearing their masks down to their chin because they’re outdoors.”
The expansion of the girls’ lacrosse teams across OUSD is also part of an agreement that Oakland Unified made last year, following a controversial decision in 2018 to cut several sports teams. While district officials said the cuts were to save money, the teams that were eliminated disproportionately impacted girls. The move potentially violated Title IX, a federal law that requires public schools to provide equal opportunities for boys and girls to participate in sports. The district reversed the cuts after donors offered to restore some of the funding.
Franky Navarro said when he became commissioner of the Oakland Athletic League, which oversees sports in Oakland high schools in 2019, one of his goals was to grow the number of girls sports in OUSD. He was also looking for alternatives to sports like soccer, basketball, and softball, which are crowded with local youth teams.
“Oakland Lacrosse has a heavy influence already in our middle schools and we’re looking to build on that,” Navarro said. He researched which sports were growing at the college level for women, and where OUSD had room to grow, and landed on lacrosse.
Between 2013 and 2018, the number of collegiate lacrosse teams for women increased more than 20%, according to a report from US Lacrosse. At the high school level, it was the fastest growing girls’ sport in 2018, with nearly 2,800 teams in the U.S.
While playing in college is an option for some students, it’s not necessarily the goal for the Oakland partnership. Encouraging students to be active, participate in a team sport, and receive mentoring and academic support is more important.
“It’s not just a sports program,” Allouche said. “It’s really a community, and a team.”