The spirit of lacrosse has been a part of the fabric of North America for centuries, since the original Indigenous peoples created the game in 1100 AD. Now it’s widely considered to be one of the oldest team sports in the world. Chicago has a long history of celebrating all sports, including those that are relatively rare to locals such as field hockey, rugby, water polo, and especially pickleball. In Illinois, there are 102 boys’ high school lacrosse teams; there are also 84 teams for girls. In the city’s high school lacrosse wave, there are only 12 boys’ teams and 14 girls’ teams. There are also nine girls’ teams and seven boys’ teams competing in the CPS Chicago Public League.
Chicago public high schools were introduced to the game of lacrosse in the 1990s when club teams like Lane Tech High School came onto the scene. But the Illinois High School Association didn’t sponsor the sport until 2010. For the last four years, this city’s south side has been home for the sport, as it has produced nearly hundreds of Black athletes each spring. Some of those kids have a few years of experience, while others have never played the game at all.
Lacrosse is an athletic activity that Black high schools can lean toward, giving their youth opportunities to play something other than common sports like basketball, baseball, and most definitely football. However, Kenwood Academy is the only high school on the south side with a predominantly Black team.
“I think Kenwood lacrosse has been a social upheaval as far as the sports scene in Hyde Park,” says Kenwood Academy boys’ lacrosse head coach Scott Johnson. “And a lot of people who aren’t exposed to it are showing more interest. So, as a result of that, other schools are going to start to follow suit. I know for a fact that other schools want lacrosse teams. But the difficulty is finding somebody who is willing to do it.”
Johnson, 28, is a white Waukegan native who first fell in love with the sport in eighth grade. He started his playing career as a freshman at Warren Township High School in the northern suburb of Gurnee. The 2013 graduate played throughout his entire four years for the Blue Devils as well as for three different travel clubs. Johnson took his talents to Michigan State University as he competed for their intramural team before graduating with an interdisciplinary studies degree in 2016.
“I didn’t know much about it other than it was kind of a similar type of sport to ice hockey,” says Johnson. “That’s what first drew me in. My dad was an ice hockey player; I did not actually play ice hockey. But seeing lacrosse, I felt like that was kind of a similar type of game. I got interested in it, and from there I just kind of became obsessed with it. And I had a lot of fun.”
Johnson became a student teacher at Everett High School in Lansing, Michigan, after graduation. He eventually left after almost a year and moved back to Illinois, becoming a day-to-day substitute teacher for CPS high schools until he snagged a full-time teaching job at Kenwood Academy in January 2018.
The eighth-grade social studies and freshman human geography teacher was approached by former principal Greg Jones to coach the school’s eighth-grade lacrosse team thanks to longtime social studies and language arts teacher Ivan Sarudi, who generated the idea to have a team the previous fall. Sarudi, along with assistant coach Dan Getachew, recruited students and gathered just 15-20 players for the middle school team. Although they only played three games that 2018 season, it cultivated an opportunity for the school to add the sport to their high school program the following spring season.
“It was just mostly kind of fun and experimental,” Johnson says. “And we were just seeing what we were able to do that year.”
The Broncos boys’ varsity lacrosse team had only won one out of 14 games in their first high school season in 2019; it was Johnson’s first year as the head coach, appointed by former athletic director Danae Russell. However, that predicament didn’t discourage the team at all. The school also added a girls’ lacrosse team that same year.
“It was just a really good opportunity to just get out there and play some high school lacrosse games,” Johnson says.
Both varsity teams were able to display slight improvement two seasons later in 2021 when they amalgamated a total of eight wins (the season was shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
“If we continue to grow, generate more interest within the school, and attract more students, I definitely think that the program in Kenwood has an opportunity to be very competitive,” says Kenwood Academy boys’ assistant coach Chase Wheeler. “Definitely within the Chicago Public School system, but then also against some of the better teams in the Chicago area.”
Wheeler, 38, was born in Indiana and raised in Chicago’s Jackson Park Highlands neighborhood on the south side. After graduating from Christian Brothers High School in Memphis, Tennessee, Wheeler enrolled in Howard University as a business administration major. He soon discovered lacrosse during his sophomore year and subsequently joined their club team, which competed in the National College Lacrosse League. The former African American midfielder played three years for the Bison before graduating in 2007.
“I didn’t play in high school, unfortunately—I wish I had,” says Wheeler. “I picked up the sport very quickly, and I’ve grown up playing sports. But it became very clear that I enjoy playing lacrosse more than any other sport that I ever played.”
Wheeler was asked if he had any interest in becoming an assistant coach for Kenwood’s boys’ team last season, and Wheeler couldn’t refuse. He was amazed to see how the players were immediately drawn to the game despite not being too accustomed.
“It was an immediate yes for me,” Wheeler says. “Kenwood has an academic center. And in the academic center, we have a lacrosse team. So, that’s a great opportunity for middle schoolers to be exposed to the game and start to develop skills. It requires a skill set that is different from other sports. You’re throwing and catching a ball with your stick. And it’s something that a lot of children don’t experience, whether it’s in their backyard, gym class, or summer camp. But we also have freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors who just have interest in coming out and trying their first experience with lacrosse.”
Like all of the other sports programs in Kenwood, both lacrosse teams require their players’ parents to remit yearly fees of $150. Johnson received an endowment from the Urban Lacrosse Alliance grant that’s worth $5,000. The school supports both varsity teams with uniforms, backstops, and other equipment.
“That $150 that the kids are charged, that almost entirely goes to just lacrosse balls,” Johnson adds. “Because we lose a ton of them.”
Lately, in this current season, the Broncos boys’ varsity lacrosse team has been doing superbly well in producing and developing their skills. Talented Black players from their roster received all-conference honors in the Chicago Public League last season. Senior midfielder Rondell Wetzel, specifically, is establishing himself as a premier force on the field, as well as senior defensemen Charles Tinzie Jr. and Donllen Cooke.
But it’s senior attacker Adin Farmer who is starting to evolve into an offensively lethal weapon for Kenwood. Farmer, 18, was the CPL’s first-team all-conference player from the previous season. But as of now, he is the Broncos’ leader in goals with 49 and in points with 59. (Points include both goals and assists.) Although he doesn’t necessarily believe that his presence is making an impact on other Black kids who want to play, Farmer would love to see more of them embrace the sport.
“I hope there will be more Black kids who play lacrosse,” he says. “Because I genuinely believe if the barriers of entry for the sport were lower, then there would be so many other Black kids who love the sport as much as I do.”
The Broncos’ leading scorer was born in Richmond, Virginia, while his parents were grad students at Virginia Union University. Farmer and his family subsequently moved to Chicago when he was one year old. At the age of 12, Farmer arrived at Kenwood Academy. In that same year, he found a sport that would change his life forever.
“I decided to join the team just to try it out the summer after that year, and I never looked back,” Farmer says. “The first time I played it was in a summer tournament with some of the people I play with now, which is really cool, but I had no clue what I was doing and was running around extremely tired. I really enjoyed myself despite being completely clueless and more tired than I had ever been in my life at that point, but I’m glad I started, because it started something that I’m really passionate about now.”
Farmer eventually competed for midwest club teams like East Ave in Elmhurst and Four Star shortly after. Once he joined Kenwood’s varsity squad as a freshman in 2020, the rising attacker was ready to unleash his prolific scoring ability on the field despite his limited three years of experience.
This season, Farmer reached a remarkable milestone in his career when he scored 27 points in just four games. This incredible breakthrough launched him into the Illinois High School Association’s individual statistical ranking as the state’s top point-scorer for a few weeks. Currently, Farmer is fifth in most points in the IHSA.
Despite Farmer’s success, most lacrosse players from all levels in the northeastern and mideastern states are white U.S. citizens from wealthy environments, meaning that derogatory epithets and ethnic slurs are assuredly every Black player’s worst concern. While succeeding in a white sport like lacrosse, Farmer is keenly aware of being a target of overt racism.
“Honestly while playing the games at Kenwood I have not [been targeted],” he says. “But in my experiences playing for club teams and in other places in the midwest, I have certainly experienced some strange comments and slights about people being surprised that I play and that I’m good. I’ve had comments made about my hair or even just other players slighting me because of the color of my skin. But I’m aware of my position as a minority player in the sport, and it makes me more passionate about allowing lacrosse to become more expansive in Black communities so that no more people will have to feel like I have felt for just playing the sport that I love.”
Within the last five seasons of coaching Kenwood’s middle and high school teams, Johnson remembers unpleasant moments that have no place in any sport, let alone one as electrifying as lacrosse.
“There have definitely been some moments,” says Johnson. “In a middle school game against Beverly, one of my players was called the n-word by another player on the field. He was really upset; we talked to the other coach, and she talked to that player. Beyond that, there wasn’t really much else that we did. We talked about it, we tried to fix it and repair it the best we could. But once somebody’s said something like that to you, it hurts.”
The outcome of that first incident left Johnson’s player understandably livid during the Broncos’ 2017-2018 middle school season. But the head coach has witnessed other instances in games that were unjust and disappointing.
“As far as, like, covert things, I guess I sometimes make the observation that it seems like when our kids are getting beat down, it’s almost like a flag is never thrown,” Johnson adds. “Whenever one of our kids hits a kid too hard, sometimes I noticed that it’s like, ‘Alright, what’s the deal here? Why are we always getting flags for playing aggressive? But the other team never gets a flag for playing aggressive?’ So, that type of thing has come up a bit.”
Johnson and his team were tested yet again in another ugly matter.
“With the same exact kid, he was in eighth grade when it first happened,” says Johnson. “We were playing Latin School and it happened again. At that time, I think what ended up happening in that situation was he kinda charged the kid after the game and tried to confront him about it. And a bunch of players got in his way. And then, we dove deeper and deeper and had meetings with Latin and emailed back and forth about it. And they kind of denied the situation, and it kind of diffused from there.”
Despite facing racial hostility, Kenwood Academy is still planning to become a well-talented lacrosse program in this state. And they aren’t willing to relinquish anytime soon. Their current boys’ varsity team is the perfect example of diversifying a unit in this sport—they have three white players, one Hispanic player, one Asian player, and 20 Black players.
“I think for Kenwood lacrosse specifically in the next few years, we’re going to continue to improve quite a bit,” Johnson mentions. “Because, as we have been operating this high school club, the middle school team acts as our feeder. And we have about ten kids who are eighth graders that are going to graduate. They’ll kind of be the next generation of Kenwood lacrosse players.”
Kenwood’s lacrosse program is actively playing this season, but Urban Prep Academy’s Englewood boys’ team will not play this season due to a lack of student participation. For a team that has only recorded one victory in their four seasons of existence, the Lions forfeited the last four games during the previous year. Despite this, lacrosse has allowed the students to try an activity that is relatively new to them.
“Lacrosse provides an experience that is truly one of a kind,” says Lions head coach Garrett Hannett. “At Urban Prep, it would allow for athletes playing other sports to learn new skills and apply them on the field and for other students to discover a new sport to play and love. These students deserve to have another sport to play other than football and basketball.”
A Lynwood, Illinois, native and Marian Catholic High School graduate, Hannett competed for the Spartans and eventually Illinois State University’s club lacrosse team. He was informed by a college teammate that Urban Prep was searching for a head coach since their previous coach, Matthew Wegh, left after the 2021 season to accept a new position at De La Salle, where he stayed for one season. Wegh was also a prominent figure for the Lions as he and other administrators helped build the program when it started in 2019. As an African American fan and player who adores the sport, Hannett took the new head coaching position shortly after but failed to gain a victory last season.
“Some struggles the team experienced were the number of players to field a team,” says Hannett. “It can be hard for new programs to get fully committed players, but that was to be expected. Other struggles were mainly around acquiring equipment for players due to the cost.”
Urban Prep was able to contribute funds of around $1,500 for equipment for their players thanks to StringKing, a small sporting goods store that gave the team a discount. This was a great gesture for the team to avoid spending money on annual emoluments. However, high expenses on full packs of equipment have overburdened the program beyond Urban Prep’s budget for sports.
But the 27-year-old has good faith in the program and expects to return to the field with his team in the future. “I would like for the team to return and grow,” says Hannett.
Nonprofit organizations can also help introduce the sport to Black communities and inner-city youth. OWLS Lacrosse (Outreach With Lacrosse and Schools) has been a pillar for south- and west-side congregations since 2011. Since 2018, their scholars have earned around $900,000 in scholarships and financial aid for more than 300 Black kids per year.
“This centuries-old game has brought and continues to bring people together from all walks of life and experience for a common goal (or two),” says OWLS Lacrosse executive director Sam Angelotta. “It’s fast-paced, fun to watch, and exciting to play.”
As an Ohio native and Indiana University graduate, Angelotta moved to Chicago in 2009 after a year of playing in a senior lacrosse premier league in the north of England for the Manchester Waconians. The former early childhood educator and athletic director at Saint Malachy School founded OWLS Lacrosse as he was completing his master’s degree at DePaul University; Angelotta noticed during this time how African American children were facing some extreme disparities in Chicago. His goals are to confront childhood obesity and lack of enrichment opportunities.
“The ultimate goal is not only to provide access to the game but access to a high-quality college prep education and beyond,” says Angelotta. “We track our academy scholars through attainment of high-quality postsecondary credentials and/or valuable careers.”
Angelotta, 37, makes sure all of his scholars will obtain full support from his organization, which includes academic and career workshops, lacrosse clinics, and 12-month mentorships.
Since there is only one fully Black team in the city, many coaches, players, and administrators would love to see more primarily Black schools add more lacrosse teams to their athletic programs. De La Salle Institute is on its way, with a boys’ lacrosse team where nine out of 22 are African American players. Black teenagers can view lacrosse as a healthy outlet and a new gateway to seek athletic or academic scholarships. It’s very understandable that Chicago wants to send a clear message that this sport is for everyone.
“I would absolutely love to see other Black schools start lacrosse teams,” says Hannett. “Diversity is needed in the sport, and all are welcome to play.”
As for Farmer, Kenwood’s sensational star has ambitions to enroll at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign next fall and join their club team.
“I’ve always just been someone who loves feeling progress in the things I do,” says Farmer. “Lacrosse provides me with some very tangible feelings of progress, and it just feels good to get better. In addition to wanting to get better just because I like being good at things, lacrosse has also become a very meditative practice for me. It helps me clear my head and feel more clear overall, and I love that.”
Editor’s note (May 18, 2 PM): The print version of this story names De La Salle Institute as having a majority Black team; Kenwood Academy is the only high school on the south side with a predominantly Black team. It also names Matthew Wegh as the current head coach at De La Salle Institute; he coached there for only one season. Additionally, the number of teams competing in the CPS Chicago Public League has been updated. The Reader regrets our errors.