The following article appeared in the Northeast version of the April print edition of USA Lacrosse Magazine. Help fuel the future of the sport and have the magazine delivered right to your mailbox by becoming a USA Lacrosse member today.
Walt Eccles has watched some of the biggest moments in college lacrosse history from inside the Carrier Dome.
He was in attendance in 1988 for “Air Gait,” Syracuse’s legendary 22-21 win over Virginia to open the 1997 season and in February for the men and women’s doubleheader when Gary Gait and Katie Rowan had their numbers retired and former coach Roy Simmons Jr. was inducted into the Syracuse Athletics Ring of Honor.
The most special moments of all came when two of his five sons, Derrick and Sean, helped lead Albany to wins over the Orange. “I don’t know if anyone else from Syracuse appreciates that moment,” Eccles joked.
While the Carrier Dome is an iconic venue where the Powells mystified and Gary Gait took flight, where national championship banners were raised, lacrosse is a foreign concept for Syracuse city kids who live in its shadow.
“In the city of Syracuse, you can see the Dome from a lot of different vantage points, but for them the Dome is basketball and football,” Eccles said. “Lacrosse is not even on the radar.”
While the central New York region is fertile ground for lacrosse development at traditional high school powerhouses like Fayetteville-Manlius, Baldwinsville and 15-time New York state champions West Genesee, Syracuse itself is “an island” of untapped potential, Eccles said.
Eccles and other local lacrosse leaders are working to change that. Eccles’ five sons — Casey, Derrick, Sean, Matt and Ryan — are all products of Syracuse area public schools. It’s personal to him.
It’s not that the area is devoid of talent. Shaun Smith, who replaced the legendary Mike Messere as West Genesee coach, started the Corcoran High School program in the late 1990s which later became the Syracuse City Schools District team. SCSD has a long history of lacrosse and had two varsity teams until they were combined in 2015. Matt Dowd is the head coach of the boys’ program, while Dennis Kennedy leads the girls’ program. Both have had many players who went on to play college lacrosse.
But there’s a changed city demographic from non-traditional lacrosse communities among the 20,000 kids — evenly split among boys and girls — in the Syracuse City School District from K-12. Less than four percent of them play lacrosse.
That’s where Eccles and his fellow lacrosse disciples come in. He helps run Valley Lacrosse, a low-cost organization for children in grades 3-8 that participate in the Upstate Lacrosse Association — a league that since 1994 has served communities in central New York with a focus on instruction and athlete development.
There’s been an outpouring of local support for Valley Lacrosse as well. Le Moyne coach Dan Sheehan reached out this year and his coaches and players lend their help at city lacrosse clinics every week. Syracuse women’s coach Kayla Treanor and assistant Kenzie Kent also volunteered and there’s discussions to bring a group to a women’s game this spring. The Syracuse Boys & Girls Club and the Syracuse Parks & Recreation Department have also been supportive.
“The whole purpose of it is to give kids the opportunity to play without having to spend $1,500 on a travel team,” said Eccles, whose wife Kim also has assisted the city programs from behind the scenes.
Eccles worked with USA Lacrosse to bring the Sankofa Clinic Series to the predominantly minority Syracuse community last June. Many of the 100 kids in attendance played the sport for the first time. About 60 registered for the Valley Lacrosse summer program after the clinic.
“To me, those are the things you need to grow the game,” Eccles said. “You’re saying to people, ‘There are no barriers to you trying this. All you need to do is show up at this location and we’ll give you a stick and clinicians and then if you enjoyed it, we’re going to give you an opportunity to keep on playing.’ That to me is a real game-grower.”
Valley Lacrosse has had some nice success stories throughout the years. There were a pair of brothers who started playing after their father volunteered to direct traffic at a tournament and both — Trenell Broggans (Florida Southern) and Ben Broggans (College of St. Rose) played collegiate lacrosse. And there was Jerrin Spann, who worked his way to play at Webber International University, and Emilo Booker, who started in the program and remained in the game as a referee.
Eccles has yet to see an alum take the field at his beloved Carrier Dome. That would be the next milestone.
“That would be huge,” Eccles said. “That would really show that you made inroads.”
NORTHEAST REGIONAL SPOTLIGHT
AVON GROVE, PA.
Bryan Inagaki read an email about USA Lacrosse’s partnership with AED manufacturer Stryker and loved one sentence: “The goal is to have an automated external defibrillator on every lacrosse field in America.”
Avon Grove Lacrosse has already met that goal locally, implementing a program — Start the Heart — to procure eight AEDs and train its coaches in CPR and AED administration. The cause hits close to home. In July 2020, Brendan Avvento, a youth lacrosse player in Pennsylvania, collapsed suddenly during practice and went into sudden cardiac arrest. He survived thanks to the swift response of parents who came to his aid with CPR and an AED.
A legend is coming out of retirement.
National Lacrosse Hall of Fame coach Tina Sloan Green, a three-time NCAA champion at Temple and the first Black head coach in college women’s lacrosse history, will coach the Eyekonz girls’ lacrosse team in the World Lacrosse Women’s World Festival June 30-July 8 at Goucher College. USA Lacrosse is running the event, as youth, high school and adult teams will compete in conjunction with the World Lacrosse Women’s World Championship.