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Students at Urban Community School in Ohio City now play on a turf field that was built in July and August.

The field is used during recess and after-school programs, and will be a spot for lacrosse clinics and competitions.

But it's not just a cushy new surface for elementary school students.

Ideally, it's the launching pad for an extensive partnership between Urban Community School, Ohio City Inc. and US Lacrosse, the national governing body of one of the country's fastest-growing sports.

US Lacrosse, as part of a pilot program it launched in June, and its North Coast Ohio chapter have committed $300,000 over two years to Cleveland. Half of the funds went to the construction of the multipurpose field at Urban Community School, and the remainder is expected to be raised from private donations.

The latter $150,000 will go toward the salary of a lacrosse manager who will be employed by Ohio City Inc., plus lacrosse programming for kids, resources to develop the sport in physical education classes and after-school programs, plus equipment, and CPR and AED training.

It's part of what Drew Roggenburk, the president of US Lacrosse's North Coast Ohio chapter, said is the national organization's "rock-in-the-pond" approach.

US Lacrosse, Roggenburk said, was "laser-focused" on getting the field built and hiring a person to manage the programs at Urban Community School. And it expects the initiative to widen significantly from there.

"The short-term goals are to increase awareness, get sticks in hands and get them to start playing," he said.

The Lacrosse Communities Project began in Albany, N.Y., and within a few months was expanded to Ohio City and Brooklyn, N.Y.

According to the organization's website, the initiative's goal "is to make the most racially, ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods in cities across the country focal points for growing lacrosse." 

'A pretty big deal'

Tom Gill, the president of Urban Community School, which was founded in 1968 and is sponsored by the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland, said the program is a "total coup" for the ecumenical school located at 4909 Lorain Ave.

"We have a long history of being in this neighborhood and running a high-quality program," Gill said. "With kids being able to stay here every night until 6, that field will be used virtually all day. It's safe, we have the trust of the families, the kids can stay here and play — it's a pretty big deal for us."

It's also significant for Ohio City Inc., which will model its new lacrosse program after its successful Near West Recreation partnership.

Near West — which includes development groups from the Detroit Shoreway, Tremont West and Metro West neighborhoods — started five years ago as a T-ball league in which 68 children participated, said Ohio City Inc. executive director Tom McNair. Today, it has more than 1,000 kids participating in a wide array of sports.

"I absolutely think it has the opportunity to open doors," McNair said. "We have lots of kids who participate in sports every day. Lacrosse is not something they get exposure to. The ability to get into different high schools and colleges — it can really help change lives."

One nearby university, Cleveland State, added a men's lacrosse program that completed its first season last spring. Dylan Sheridan, the Vikings' head coach, and some of his players have been teaching a lacrosse class at Urban Community's new field for 90 minutes every Thursday.

It's a chance for the program to promote awareness for the sport in the community, Sheridan said, but also a beneficial thing for the Vikings' student-athletes.
"Someday hopefully they'll have great jobs and a family of their own," Sheridan said. "And to use that as a platform, that's time well-spent."
Gill, the Urban Community School president, "can't say enough" good things about Sheridan and the Vikings.

The school is now involved in three projects centered around sports — lacrosse, the Foundry (a community rowing and sailing training center in the Flats) and Urban Squash Cleveland (a youth development center that is debuting later this month at Urban Community).

"What we're looking at as a school is how do we add (programs) and not take operating dollars away," Gill said. "The youth partnerships absolutely hit the nail on the head. They're free to our kids. They're right here. It's pretty neat. 

Casting a wide net

The next step for the Ohio City Inc. lacrosse program is hiring a manager, a process McNair hopes to have completed by November.

With the help of marketing by US Lacrosse, the position drew applications from all over the country, the Ohio City Inc. executive director said.

Roggenburk, the president of US Lacrosse's local chapter, said the national organization "will be sharing" in the salary.

"So we both have skin in the game," Roggenburk said of US Lacrosse and Ohio City. "We're in the midst of a capital raise to fund that and some other parts of the project. This is more than just the field." 

A lot more, actually.

The North Coast chapter is working with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, with the hopes of introducing lacrosse to children in phys ed classes. It's also meeting with municipal football leagues to promote lacrosse as a spring alternative to football.

"We'd love to ultimately build out a program that these kids who end up liking the sport will play for various clubs, whether it be school-based or rec-based, that then lead to a youth league," Roggenburk said.

That's an example of the ripple effects for which US Lacrosse is striving.

Roggenburk, who played lacrosse at St. Ignatius High School and at the club level for Miami University, said there were fewer than a handful of Northeast Ohio high school lacrosse programs when he competed in the late-1980s.

Now, he said, there are more than 120 boys and girls high school programs in the North Coast Ohio chapter.

"We truly believe the city and the young people not only represent the next great growth opportunity, but we owe it to the game and all the opportunities that go along with it," Roggenburk said.

Twitter: @KevinKleps

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