It all clicked for Jason Gentry when he scored his first goal.
He remembers whipping past the opposing team in their orange uniforms. He remembers cutting toward the net, catching the ball and juking just a bit before letting it fly.
But most of all, he remembers that sudden surge of pride and the cheers of his teammates — the kind of feeling that means everything when you’re a kid.
So, just like that, Gentry decided he would be a lacrosse player.
“I was like, ‘This is my sport right here. This is fun,’ ” said Gentry, now 15 and a co-captain of the NorthStar Foundation’s high school lacrosse team.
It’s been three years since NorthStar, an all-boys after-school program located near 50th Street and Ames Avenue, started its lacrosse program. That first year, administrators and coaches could barely field a team. Most of the kids had never even heard of lacrosse, let alone played it.
Now, the program has grown to include more than 30 students playing on two NorthStar teams: under-14 and high school. Last month, players on the under-14 team won their first championship with an undefeated four-game run through the club team state tournament.
Lacrosse, administrators say, presents the boys at NorthStar with unique opportunities. Though it’s one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States, lacrosse is still finding its place in the Midwest, where football, basketball and baseball reign supreme. A less saturated environment gives players more opportunities to stand out.
Meanwhile, lacrosse nationally is working to move into urban communities like the one NorthStar serves. Organizers are developing new programs and methods in the hopes of helping the sport take root and thrive among a more diverse player base.
“The perception of who plays lacrosse is very different than the profile of our students, and that got us really excited,” said Scott Hazelrigg, president of the NorthStar Foundation. “How do we give our young people the opportunity to try something that they never otherwise would have seen themselves as doing and being successful at?”
That was the question that sparked the idea for a lacrosse team in the first place, Hazelrigg said.
“If we went away tomorrow, every one of our students could find a place to play basketball,” he said. “We were looking for a sport that was something that we could introduce to the young men that are regulars at NorthStar that they would never have otherwise been exposed to.”
Though it has roots in ancient Native American traditions, today, many associate lacrosse with wealthy Ivy League schools, said Eboni Preston-Laurent, senior manager for diversity and inclusion with US Lacrosse, the sport’s national governing body.
NorthStar, Hazelrigg said, caters primarily to school-age boys in northeast Omaha, most coming from single-parent homes. About 97 percent are African-American or mixed race.
“Lacrosse has always been deemed that kind of white, private school, East Coast sport,” Preston-Laurent said. “Our goal is to combat those stereotypes.”
In 2014, US Lacrosse started its Diversity & Inclusion National Grant Program, initially providing funding to more than a dozen lacrosse teams started specifically for kids in urban communities, Preston-Laurent said. Now, she said, the organization counts more than 70 teams in the program. NorthStar is one of them.
The grant provides funding for things like equipment, the cost of which can be a barrier for some low-income families, Hazelrigg said.
Another complication in starting NorthStar’s program was a shortage of locally available lacrosse coaches. So, Hazelrigg said, they made their own.
Cort Irish had experience coaching youth baseball. Three years ago, Irish said, he called his friend Hazelrigg and asked if there was anything he could do to help out at NorthStar.
“I was planning on hauling trash out, or mentoring or doing whatever (Hazelrigg) thought there was a need for,” Irish said. “He said, ‘You know what? I’ve got the perfect job for you. Congratulations, you’re our new head lacrosse coach.’ ”
Irish reached out to established Omaha lacrosse programs for training and guidance. Several schools in the metro area have lacrosse teams, including Creighton Prep, Omaha Westside and Elkhorn South.
Irish and Hazelrigg also began tapping NorthStar students about the possibility of giving the new sport a try.
Gentry was initially apprehensive. But it didn’t take long for lacrosse to make a lasting impression.
“I play football normally, so I like to hit,” said Gentry, who recently finished his sophomore year at Northwest High School. “And I like to score. So you combine those two? Best game ever.”
Still, the start of that first season proved difficult for the fledgling U-14 team. NorthStar lost its first six games. Badly.
It’s not that the players lacked the athletic ability, Irish said. Most of the players had experience in other sports. The challenge for them, he said, was mastering technical skills like catching and passing.
And once they did, Irish said, it showed. Immediately.
NorthStar won its next five games.
“The tide turned very quickly,” Irish said. “They started having fun, and (lacrosse) has been around ever since.”
NorthStar was originally intended to host boys up until the ninth grade, Hazelrigg said. But when the first group of ninth-grade boys were set to age out of the program, they asked to stick around.
So NorthStar upgraded its lacrosse team. After a trial year, NorthStar’s team played as an official member of the Nebraska High School Lacrosse Association during the 2018 season.
For Hazelrigg and other NorthStar administrators, the sport’s impact extends beyond the scoreboard. On several recent college visits, he said, one or two of the boys have asked schools whether they offer chances to play lacrosse.
And for some, that could mean financial aid, Preston-Laurent said.
“Lacrosse opens a window,” she said. “We’re seeing more and more kids getting opportunities for scholarships.”
In the meantime, coaches at NorthStar are enjoying watching the players grow and change with every practice, every game, every season.
“One of our coaches says it well: ‘A lacrosse player has a little bit of a swagger. They walk with something just a little bit more special. They have a stick in their hand, and how they carry that stick says a lot about who they are in relation to how they see themselves,’ ” Irish said.
“And while it sounds cliche, when our students walk out onto the lacrosse field for practice or for a game, they walk a little taller. They walk a little prouder.”