Free program teaches city children lacrosse skills

Posted: August 04, 2012

It's a game of endurance, speed, athletic skill, and more than a little finesse, most often played on manicured fields at colleges and suburban high schools.

Yet on a recent weekday evening, on a field near idle factory buildings in Philadelphia's Nicetown section, a few dozen children were learning the fine points of lacrosse.

"It's like hockey and soccer and all that mixed together," said Joshua Nieves, 11, taking a break after running through lacrosse drills with about 20 other boys at the Salvation Army Kroc Center.

Joshua, a sixth grader at Thurgood Marshall School in the city's Logan section, said he enjoyed the game because "it's fast and it takes some skill. It's just a lot of fun."

He is among about 60 boys and girls learning the sport as part of a free program called LEAPS (Lacrosse, Education, Attitude, Perseverance, Success).

The program was launched last year by Eric J. Gregg, a West Philadelphia native and son of the late Eric Gregg, a former umpire in Major League Baseball, and John Christmas, a former player for the Philadelphia Wings professional lacrosse team. Christmas now runs a youth lacrosse program in Southern California, officials said.

Gregg, 33, who coaches boys' lacrosse at St. Joseph's Preparatory School in North Philadelphia, said he was drawn to the sport at an early age, playing in a boys' lacrosse club in Lower Merion.

He later attended Episcopal Academy, playing on a team that won state championships in 1995 and 1996. After high school, Gregg played for Gettysburg College, graduating in 2002. Gregg also played for the now-defunct Philadelphia Barrage of Major League Lacrosse.

Gregg said he got the idea for the nonprofit LEAPS program while training students at St. Joseph's Preparatory School.

"Other kids would come up to me all the time and say, 'What sport is this?' " Gregg said. "I told my friends that we had to find a way to teach city kids to play this sport. And then we started LEAPS."

About that time, a few years ago, a friend told Gregg that the Salvation Army was building the Kroc Center, a $72 million community, fitness, and aquatics center at the former site of the Budd Co. plant, and that the center was interested in "nontraditional" sports.

The Kroc Center, on Wissahickon Avenue near Hunting Park Avenue, is funded by the Ray and Joan Kroc Foundation. Ray Kroc largely created the McDonald's restaurant chain.

The program at Kroc is in its second year. It serves boys and girls 8 to 17 and runs in the evening from 5:30 to 8:30 Tuesdays through Thursdays. Gregg said about 300 children participated in the program over the last two summers.

Officials at the Kroc Center welcomed him to teach lacrosse on their massive playing field, Gregg said.

He then reached out to Tina Sloan Green, who over nearly 20 years coached Temple University's women's lacrosse team to three national championships. She has helped Gregg coordinate the program.

Green also founded the Black Women in Sports Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to advancing the roles of black women in athletics nationwide.

On the Kroc Center field last week, Brianna Thomas, 10, worked out with about 15 other girls tossing and catching balls during a drill.

Asked how she liked the game, Brianna said, "It's fun and awesome. They keep you active and we do competition." She said she would like to play lacrosse in high school and college.

Her brother, Jahmeir, 8, said he liked the sport "because we get to learn new things. I like catching the ball and scooping it up."

Their father, Brian Thomas, 30, of the East Falls section, said the LEAPS program gives his children something positive to do in the summer. "It keeps them from staying in front of the television."

There are eight boys' and eight girls' lacrosse teams at high schools in Philadelphia, officials said. At city public middle schools, there are eight boys' teams and seven girls' teams.

Green said lacrosse can be a gateway to opportunities for girls interested in sports.

She said lacrosse and other nontraditional sports provide scholarship opportunities at colleges and private high schools.

"Some of those girls who are being exposed to lacrosse are not going to get scholarships to Division I schools, but they might decide to be a coach or a teacher," Green said.

"Girls of color are still at the bottom in the business of sports, mainly because they lack opportunities and they are not exposed to sports at an early age," Green said, adding that lacrosse could open many doors for such girls.


For more information on the LEAPS program, contact the Black Women in Sports Foundation at 215-877-1925, Ext. 320.

Contact Vernon Clark at 215-854-5717 or vclark@phillynews.com.

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