Editor’s Note: We’ll be looking at a number of first year programs this year, and publishing reports from the coaches and supporters of these new teams. Our first report comes from Mary Mattia, out of Highlands High School, in San Antonio, Texas. She played a key role in getting a new program off the ground, and continues to support these boys with their dreams in big ways. We LOVE sharing stories like this one!
I looked at the group of boys – so individualized, and seemingly unconnected to one another. Sweaty from our first conditioning practice, some proclaimed that they had never really run before, and that they had never lifted weights. So, this is where we started.
In late October, the Highlands High School lacrosse team had 15 ultra-basic Brine sticks, a few real lacrosse balls, some tennis balls, and one lightweight goal. These were the first, among many, generous donations throughout the season, but I’ll be the first to admit that I felt like I was in over my head.
I had never been a head coach. I had to put aside the years of particulars learned in women’s lacrosse, which had been drilled into my head, and replace them with men’s lacrosse rules and regulations. I was dealing with a rag-tag group of boys, who actually have very different stories and backgrounds, but who many people lump into one hushed category: low-income.
Only a few had been athletes before. Several were more accustomed to a skateboard and donned lip piercings and gauges at our first practices. Many started the season without any athletic footwear. For a number of them, it had been a long time since they’d passed all of their classes in one semester. Some worked for the local grocery chain, others at McDonald’s, or in construction with parents. I had no idea how this was going to happen.
Of course, I didn’t know the San Antonio lacrosse community. And I didn’t know these boys.
We enjoyed our little fall-ball practices. We worked on getting to know each other, on getting in shape, and on figuring out who was really serious about seeing this through. Meanwhile, I felt like I was drowning under everything that had to get done, as well as my newfound realization of the responsibility I had to these boys. We had a few setbacks but finally settled on a wonderful assistant coach who was willing to completely volunteer time and experience, as well as a conditioning coach out of Austin.
I was not ready for this season. I kept thinking that I shouldn’t have jumped into this so blindly. So why did I?
In retrospect, that answer easily surfaces and becomes so clear: Whether I was conscious of it or not, every decision I made had to do with these incredible boys, and what I was so sure this unique and addicting sport could give them. I continued to think that maybe we should cancel our games and just practice and learn this year – while simultaneously being dumbfounded by the fact that things had progressed so quickly that we actually had a legitimate game schedule in year one.
What it comes down to is this: these boys – they are something special. This is group of athletes that changed lives. And everyone wanted to see them get a chance.
When we came back from our break in January, we were officially pressed for time. Before I knew it, the hundreds of dollars in league fees were due, I was writing bylaws, the boys had to cough up $35 big ones to be US lacrosse members, and we still had basic sticks, and no pads. Our first game was on February 2, and we didn’t have but a few “real” sticks. My boys had never set foot on a field with lacrosse lines, nobody had played with a d-pole yet, and my goalie still couldn’t take legitimate shots. He didn’t have a helmet, let alone everything else.
Suddenly, and in large part thanks to our district coordinator, who simply decided this whole Highlands Lax project would come to fruition, positive things started happening. Reagan High School gave us our first 8 hand-me-down helmets and $1,500 – they paid our dues so that we could actually be a team. Their coach always wanted to help for the good of the game.
St. Mary’s Hall handed us $1,400. Texas State University partnered with us, let us meet with their team after their season opener, and conducted a huge donation drive for us. My new lacrosse-enthusiasts got bags and boxes of equipment handed to them from their new role models – college lacrosse players.
New Horizons Lacrosse out of Austin leased us full sets of equipment for free. TMI High School gave us nearly 15 sets of pads, and literally let us clean out their equipment closet. The San Antonio lacrosse community, I’m convinced, is the best around. They mentored me, my kids, and welcomed us all. (Editor’s Note: I literally cried when reading and editing this.)
In terms of our team, Micheal Williams was the catalyst. I had never met the tall, lean, hyper-energetic junior with an afro, but he bounced into my classroom in September with the idea that I could teach him and a few boys how to play lacrosse this year. I never thought I’d see him again when I asked him to scout out interest, but he came back with 22 signatures on a piece of paper.
He turned out to be a pretty solid defenseman, deciding that he would try to get at least one “yard sale” every game (that became his favorite phrase, and I think he actually reached that goal). Everything snowballed from there as we all worked through finding transportation, never playing a home game, getting sponsored jerseys, playing on a small, fire-ant infested dirt field, trudging through the grades, work schedules, court dates, and broken family problems.
Let me be clear – the respect I have for this group of young men knows no bounds. They have to fight, tooth and nail, for every shadow of a privilege they receive. These boys had to go back to their homes that most people I grew up with would consider well within the definition of poverty. Several guys couldn’t pay the US lacrosse membership fee, so we worked out a payment schedule.
Most of these kids don’t go home and live comfortable lives. My athletes work. They go to court. They enlist in the army straight out of high school because it is an excellent option. They eat chips for breakfast and drink soda for lunch. And there are much tougher situations than that. But here’s the catch – they have more heart, pride, and guts than any group of kids I’ve ever met.
The boys on this team fought for everything they got out of this first season, even with life throwing so many things their way and piling the baggage on. They proved that something truly positive can come out of this community directly. I still don’t know how aware they are of what exactly they have accomplished.
Needless to say, I think a lot of people – myself included – saw this team as an underdog. Nobody thought we’d come away from this season with a win, and certainly not two. From our perspective, our first one could not have been more beautiful. I remember looking out on the unseasonably chilly day and having an epiphany. These “hard” guys with the sponsored jerseys from a local cement company – they had become lacrosse players.
They boys had fallen in love with the game. I have never felt more connected to this game than when I watched them see what their efforts had accomplished. This team decided to build something for themselves, and it’s been glorious. They made something completely their own, and students who never would have even recognized each other in the halls found themselves together, on this distinctive field, playing this historic, yet historically affluent, game.
I think back to one of our very first information sessions, where I told them a bit about the sport and showed them some exciting lax highlights clips on YouTube.Before they knew the game, before they felt the sweat, before the pride of winning and the lessons of loosing, before the transformation in leadership and kinship… they walked out of my classroom yelling “Highlands Lax! Highlands Lax!”
They had literally just learned, minutes ago, that the abbreviation for lacrosse was “lax.” Yet they had already decided they were going to make something that nobody could take away from them. I am humbled and blessed to have been a part of what they created.
I’ll say it again: these boys changed my life and their own. They have always had a harder life than mine. They have opened my eyes to real grit, resilience, sportsmanship, and success. They are to be admired, and they don’t even know why yet. Welcome to the game, Highlands. I hope it does as much for you as it’s already done for me.
For a short video on the Highlands Lacrosse Team, check out KABB Fox in San Antonio.