Unlikely Champions: North Omaha Boys’ NorthStar Program Wins Lacrosse Title

It happened on a late spring Saturday afternoon in Omaha.

A chilly May breeze made the fans who called to the modest football field at Westside High School curl up under their blankets and jackets. They watched through the setting sun as 16 high school lacrosse players made history.

The NorthStar lacrosse team, a group of black boys from North Omaha, took on Creighton Prep Private High School for the 2022 Nebraska State Junior Championship.

Creighton Prep was full. Their seasoned players warmed up backstage while several NorthStar freshman players looked forward to taking the field.

“I had never played lacrosse before, so I was very excited that we got to play in the tournament at all,” said Poe Hobza, NorthStar player and Central High School sophomore.

The game was tense from the start. Creighton and NorthStar scored three goals each, and as the time wore on, the intensity increased one more level, and then another.

NorthStar’s Daniel Duncan, junior high school student Benson High, was trying to get out of his nerves. “I had to shut down and get groovy.”

With minutes left, NorthStar took a two-goal lead, but Creighton Prep quickly scored. Duncan and his NorthStar teammates fought to fend off their more experienced opponents – to hold out as two minutes remained, then one, then mere seconds.

The buzzer sounded and the NorthStars lined up in center field, swinging clubs, celebrating their first high school state lacrosse championship. It was an unlikely name—a group of black teenagers, almost all from low-income families, none of whom had even picked up a lacrosse stick as children.

Courtesy Photo

The NorthStar lacrosse team celebrates winning the state junior lacrosse championship against Creighton Prep in May 2022. Many NorthStar players never even picked up a lacrosse stick or even heard of the sport in the years before they won the state championship. title. Courtesy Photo

The celebration dragged on, complete with a dog yarl, an attempt to douse Gatorade trainers, and plenty of triumphant camera shots of the NorthStar heists holding up their index fingers — the “We’re No. 1” sign — as they held their new trophy at the top.

“I was very excited,” Hobza said. “I was delighted”.

Winning a state championship was not the goal when the NorthStar Foundation, an afterschool program for boys in North Omaha, created its first lacrosse team in 2015. In that first year, coaches and administrators could barely put together a team, let alone find students who had ever played the game or even heard of it.

“I knew it was going to be an uphill battle,” lacrosse head coach Court Irish said. “But my bigger priority, which remains true today despite the state title, is to help our boys reach their potential on and off the field.”

This goal is at the heart of the mission of the NorthStar Foundation. The organization opened its doors in 2014 to help North Omaha school-age boys, who traditionally face significant barriers to academic achievement, complete ninth grade and graduate high school on time.

“Whether it’s Omaha, Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, or another city, young people of color who may not have the resources to graduate high school on time are the hardest thing to do,” said Scott Hazelrigg, founder and president of the NorthStar Foundation. . “Omaha is no different. We believe that in order to be a truly great city, Omaha must have diverse leadership and economic opportunities. Education is the key to making this happen. That’s why we’re here.”

In addition to its emphasis on learning and adventure, NorthStar has a strong focus on social and emotional development, hoping to give students the life skills and emotional maturity they need to succeed after high school. Athletics plays an important role in this development.

Basketball was the first sport offered by NorthStar, but Hazelrigg knew they had more options for students. The perception of someone playing lacrosse was very different from the profile of the NorthStar students, and this excited Hazelrigg. Each student will be able to find a local football or basketball team if they leave NorthStar. But lacrosse?

“Most of our students have played or tried basketball,” Hazelrigg said. “No one played lacrosse. We wanted to offer an opportunity that they would never have had access to without NorthStar.”

Although its roots go back to ancient Native American traditions, today many associate lacrosse with wealthy, white Ivy League schools and the upper echelon of society – mainly because entry barriers are expensive. A found that the average cost for a family to play lacrosse for a child is $1,289 per year.

Bonnie Ryan

NorthStar lacrosse player Devionte Bray faces an opponent from Westside High School during NorthStar’s semi-final triumph. NorthStar won the state junior title just a few years after the lacrosse program was established. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Ryan

This is largely due to equipment and transportation costs. The bare minimum a lacrosse player needs is a helmet, shin guards, boots, padding, gloves, stick, mouth guard, and practice clothing. Often players will outgrow some of their gear, requiring additional purchases each season.

Athletes who want to play in college often require tournaments, camps, and clinics, which can come with hefty hotel, airfare, or car rental fees just to get there.

At higher levels lacrosse is shockingly white.

In 2021, he played in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Of these student athletes, 12,719 were white. Only 584 were black.

The leaders of NorthStar are well aware that the chances of their lacrosse players are slim, but they have been working to level the playing field.

Through donations from local organizations and individuals, NorthStar is able to provide student athletes with all the equipment they need for free during the season. They also provide training facilities, including an all-purpose sports pitch with on-site locker rooms, and a coaching staff that invests in their lacrosse and success in life.

“Of course, winning is great, but every boy is growing both individually and collectively as a teammate,” Irish said. “Showing them that they can succeed in anything they want if they work hard and focus the right way, regardless of their education and experience.”

The team also earned national recognition with a 2022 grant from Hudl and Gatorade. The grant provides NorthStar with three years of access to Hudl’s sports video and data software, and the opportunity to participate in the Hudl video series of mentors helping student athletes.

Emma Halsey, Hudl’s media manager, said the company was delighted that their grant had such a direct impact on a program that is so important to the future of the community.

“And the timing of the grant was perfect,” she said. “We need to trace the path of the NorthStar lacrosse team to the state championship.”

Such support has helped many students to continue successful lives in graduate school. Last year, NorthStar honored Marlon Coleman, the first graduate to receive an athletic scholarship to play lacrosse at the University of Midland.

“I can’t imagine a more deserving young man who would get this opportunity,” Irish said. “Many of our boys unfortunately grow up not believing they have a path to college for various reasons. It shows them that they can have that opportunity.”

Bonnie Ryan

Coach Kyle Higgins greets NorthStar lacrosse player Jayden Griffin during the 2022 state team semi-finals. NorthStar, an after-school program designed to help black boys and young men graduate high school on time, launched the unlikely sport of lacrosse in 2015. In 2022, they won the junior state title. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Ryan

The NorthStar lacrosse program now has over 30 students who play on two teams: under 14s and high school.

And for the NorthStar team, the school’s first state championship team, victory means more than a trophy and a jubilant bunch of dogs. It is a symbol of the next generation of NorthStar athletes. This message: anything is possible.

“The way the team rallied around each other at that moment and said there was no way they were going to lose this game after they got this far…not just this season, but since this program started.” Irish said.

“I catch myself crying.”

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