NorthStar Earns National Recognition for Impacting Urban Youth Through Lacrosse
When Lincoln, Neb.-based sports analytics firm Hudl sought to recognize athletic programs nationally that level the playing field for under-resourced young athletes, it found one in its own backyard.
The NorthStar Foundation in nearby Omaha, Neb. was chosen by Hudl and Gatorade as one of three national grant recipients (the others are in California and Texas) of the Level the Playing Field Grant for making an impact on youth sports. NorthStar uses academics, adventure and athletics to engage boys from third through twelfth grade.
The Omaha nonprofit launched a lacrosse program at its urban campus serving largely African American young men despite the sport having little presence in the North Omaha community. Against a steep learning curve and a short-handed roster, NorthStar has gone from easy pickings to state champions.
The story is told in Episode One of a Hudl original video series presented by sports beverage brand Gatorade. The grant and video coming on top of the May state title, NorthStar Foundation President, Scott Hazelrigg said, is “a thrilling surprise and well-deserved recognition for our boys, their parents and NorthStar coaches and staff.”
“It’s been an amazing journey,” Head Lacrosse Coach Cort Irish said. “Just getting the kids to try lacrosse was a monumental task. We just kept pushing, trying to make it engaging. The beauty of lacrosse is once you pick up a stick and try it you tend to love it. The reason why is it incorporates a lot of skills from sports like basketball, football, baseball, soccer and track.”
NorthStar fields a high school and an under 14 team. Early adopters who took the challenge saw their faith and work pay off. Recent high school graduate Marlon Coleman, 18, is among them. He culminated his career with a state title and an opportunity to play lacrosse at Midland University. He’s the first NorthStar lacrosse player to earn an athletic scholarship for lacrosse.
The quiet team captain who led by example on and off the field said, “I never expected” this.” A basketball player since age 3, lacrosse began as an off-season lark. “At first, I thought it was going to be just for fun. I didn’t think it was going to be this serious or get to this level.” The story of how far he and the program came after starting from scratch, he said, “let’s me know anything’s possible as long as you put the effort in.”
“To be able to truly believe anything is possible because you lived it is something no one can ever take away from these boys,” said Irish, who was recruited to helm the fledgling program.
Irish and the student athletes under his charge exceeded everyone’s expectations.
“Defying the odds is exactly what these boys have been doing. They’ve got hurdles and challenges they deal with on a daily basis and to be able to work through those while also trying to learn a sport that’s new to them has been inspiring,” said Irish. “The goal was to give kids an opportunity to get involved in an activity that made them more prepared for their future. To be able to see them grow into young men through the sport is an honor. To see their success on the field, capped by a state title, is icing on the cake.”
Buying in, persevering
Hazelrigg said the idea to form a lacrosse program centered around the proposition of “How do we give these boys a chance to find success in spaces that they might not otherwise have seen themselves.”
It took convincing, he said. “We were trying to sell something nobody had any context for buying. Fortunately, we had folks buy into that, like Marlon’s family. Now they’re a lacrosse family.”
“Yeah, we’re a lacrosse family,” Marlon’s mother, Alisha Gentry. confirmed. “For us to make the championship and prove naysayers wrong was amazing.” The family’s allegiance goes beyond lacrosse, which her sons Jason and Nasir Gentry also play. They and Marlon have engaged in other NorthStar activities as well. Another son and a nephew are also active at NorthStar. “We’re a NorthStar family,” Gentry said.
When older brother Jason took up lacrosse, Marlon followed suit. He got hooked. “I loved the speed of the game. There’s not a whole lot of stopping.” His point guard instincts carried over to being a lacrosse midfielder. Even the lateral movements are the same.
Growing pains remained for him and teammates, Marlon said. “Those first years were really hard,” Hazelrigg said. “We didn’t have enough players. None of our kids had any experience,”
NorthStar’s then grass field turned mud pit when wet, forcing road games. Its lacrosse pioneers stayed the course through early drubbings and dissing.
“The first couple years most everybody took pity on us,” Irish said. “We never were taken seriously. Our boys saw and heard that. They continued to fight through it and deal with it to the point they became one of the best teams in the state.”
A new top grade turf field has instilled pride and allowed NorthStar to play most games on campus.
“Our guys can have all the best equipment, they can have the nicest field, they can have great coaches, but they’ve still got to show up for practice, do the work and fight through it,” said Hazelrigg. “That grit is transferable into a job, into school, into life.”
Opposing coaches marvel at the endurance of NorthStar players like Marlon, who never left the field due to a short or nonexistent bench.
“That’s pretty powerful,” added Irish. “There’s a spirit of perseverance this sport has helped them achieve.”
Lacrosse as a means to an end
Students intersect with NorthStar in various ways depending on need, interest and age. Said Hazelrigg, “We remain a resource, so we don’t lose connectivity. It may be a robotics or rock wall or high ropes course. It may be an athletics program. We’ve had a relationship with Marlon for eight years. There’s a lot of touch points over a long period of time. Lacrosse became another opportunity to keep him here.
“The more things boys are exposed to the better chance they’ll find that passion or purpose that drives them to want to sacrifice to accomplish a goal or to learn more or do more. It’s something Marlon found with lacrosse. This became something he got really excited about and he was good at it, too.”
As Marlon progressed, his parents noticed he put more time and energy into it than basketball.
“That caught us off-guard,” his mother said.
Midland head coach Billy Dineen, who held clinics for NorthStar, marked Marlon as “a kid to watch” at 11. “He was really hungry for the sport. He kept asking questions, he kept wanting to learn more.” The more Dineen worked with him, the more improvement he saw. The same with the program. “I have tremendous respect for what they’ve done,” he said.
Marlon became the face of NorthStar lacrosse. “He’s been interviewed on several different occasions,” said Alisha Gentry, adding, “NorthStar has contributed to his confidence growing based on the platform and opportunities they’ve given him.”
“There’s a level of excitement throughout NorthStar about the lacrosse program,” said Irish. “You see kids who don’t even play rolling around the halls wearing NorthStar lacrosse T-shirts. All of which leads to more kids saying, what’s this all about, I want to be like Marlon, or I want to hold a trophy at the end of the year. I know there’s a lot of kids that look up to him. He’s handled everything with poise.”
Dineen can’t wait to coach him in college. “I’m excited for him to have this opportunity. I’m excited to get to watch him grow into a man. It’ll be very hard when he walks across that stage in four years to not tear up.”
NorthStar equals opportunities
Setting students up for success happens in different ways, Hazelrigg said. “Lacrosse is a metaphor but so are other programs.” NorthStar’s grown its facilities and programming to serve more young men.
“NorthStar gives these boys a variety of options they can enjoy and adults to mentor and encourage them,” said Gentry, who’s seen Marlon mature from the experience. “He’s always been a leader, but NorthStar provided a platform for him to really showcase and utilize those strengths in different capacities, whether lacrosse, basketball or social networking. I saw his leadership skills grow far beyond what they were.”
Student-athletes coming up behind Marlon, including some with collegiate potential, are sure to blossom, too. Said Irish. “It’s our belief this is giving them an opportunity to be involved in something bigger than themselves. It provides an opportunity to understand the importance of teamwork and accountability.”
There is hope NorthStar’s success in lacrosse helps grow the sport in North Omaha. The program receives support from a US Lacrosse grant designed to increase the sport’s presence in urban communities.
Hazelrigg envisions adding more teams to the program, including a summer travel squad with lacrosse schools from around the region.
“We have the ability to attract students from different schools so we can be a convener to create a much more diverse high school sports experience than otherwise possible. That breaks down a lot of barriers and builds opportunity for future conversation and understanding. Using lacrosse as that vehicle is really the greater underlying opportunity.”
Now that lacrosse is taking him to college, Marlon said, “I’m very excited and kind of nervous because it’ll be like a whole different game. But I’m ready hopefully. I should get better.”
“What that does is send a message to every kid at NorthStar, whether they’re lacrosse players or not, that maybe they can also go to college,” said Irish. “Maybe it’s through a different route but they deserve it just as much as some kid in the suburbs. Winning a title, Marlon getting a scholarship, the national video are all great things that continue to elevate that NorthStar brand. It proves that your background doesn’t really matter. With the right resources, support and focus, anything’s possible.”