Opportunity the 'Common Denominator' for Arizona Lacrosse Academy

PHOTO COURTESY OF ARIZONA LACROSSE ACADEMY


This article appears in the Pacific Southwest edition of USA Lacrosse Magazine. Join USA Lacrosse today to start your subscription.

A desire for working in underserved communities and a love for lacrosse spawned through his child’s involvement in the sport has developed into a passion project for Jason Andersen.

A Chicago native who had no opportunity to play the sport when growing up in the Windy City, Andersen got to know the sport when his son, Dylan, began playing in third grade. When the family lived in Minnesota, he saw the benefits of strong community-based lacrosse programs.

Dylan Andersen, now a freshman midfielder at North Central College in Illinois, continued to play when the family relocated to Arizona and his dad wanted to provide opportunities for even more people to play. Jason Andersen founded the Arizona Lacrosse Academy (AZLA). Through camps and clinics, the nonprofit organization has helped train more than 350 players the last two years.

But the elder Andersen’s biggest passion is the AZLA’s relationship with the Boys & Girls Club Barker Branch in Scottsdale. His goal was to provide a lacrosse opportunity at no cost to people that had never seen the sport.

Andersen, who is Asian American, attended a magnet public school in Chicago when he was growing up. People of all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds came to the school. Many eventually became the first in their family to attend college.

“That was the biggest thing to shaping the rest of my worldview,” Andersen said. “The one common denominator was opportunity. We all had the same educational opportunity.”

Andersen went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at Northeastern Illinois and a master’s degree in elementary education at Grand Canyon. He was a teacher for many years. He thought he’d become a principal, but then found a different calling.

“I found I had a passion to serve underserved areas,” Andersen said. “I started working as a consultant and my job was to go into some of the worst schools and make them something the community could be proud of.”

Andersen’s desire to spend more time with his family opened his schedule to pursue the AZLA. He tried to work with public schools at first, but eventually he found a more receptive audience with the Boys & Girls Club. “The director told me, ‘All these kids know are football and basketball. I don’t know anything about lacrosse, but these kids need to see other sports,’” Andersen said.

They couldn’t offer much, just a field and kids, but Andersen promised to make everything free. The pandemic delayed those plans. The AZLA started with clinics last summer at the Barker Branch, and in January played their first game, competing as a 12U team in the 7v7 league in Youth Lacrosse Arizona.

USA Lacrosse provided a grant through the Urban Lacrosse Alliance to pay for the Boys & Girls Club bus to provide transportation for the weekend games. Equipment from USA Lacrosse, ReLax Collections and other donations gave the players what they need for practices.

Andersen had plenty of other help. Jeff Wilson, the academy’s director of lacrosse, travels over an hour each way to help run practices. Chad Toliver, the former Major League Lacrosse player, relocated to Scottsdale last summer, and serves as the academy’s director of diversity and inclusion officer while helping to coach.

The on-field results haven’t come yet — the team lost its first eight games — but there are more important wins that don’t show up in the standings.

“We have a couple of kids who are very challenging to deal with because of circumstances that are out of their control and they bring that to practice,” Andersen said. “We were passing out jerseys and one of them asked if they could take it home with them. He said, ‘I want to show it to my mom and show everyone at school that I’m a part of this team.’ That’s why we do this. They’re proud of what they’re doing. That was a really meaningful moment for me.”

Andersen plans to expand the program at Barker Branch to more age groups, and eventually to other Boys & Girls Clubs in the area. And right across the street from Barker Branch is the Salt River reservation. COVID-19 restrictions have prevented him from getting involved with the Native youth from Salt River, but those opportunities may soon emerge.

“We’re seeing a lot of positive feedback,” Andersen said. “People are starting to see this is a good thing.”    







PACIFIC SOUTHWEST SPOTLIGHT

CALIFORNIA

The Los Angeles Umpire Board held junior officials training for girls’ lacrosse in February, preparing more than 25 officials for the spring season.

HAWAII

The Aloha Youth Lacrosse Association started the 2022 season Feb. 22.  The small league in the middle of the Pacific grew at a rapid clip pre-COVID. The 2020 season was canceled and the 2021 season was limited to small clinics and scrimmages into the summer months. AYLA anticipated a full 2022 season and a return to growing the game as restrictions wane in the state, with an estimated 250 boys and girls grades K-12 participating.

NEVADA

The High Sierra Lacrosse League offers coed 6U play. The league provides multiple weeks of practices and games, getting more kids playing at an early age.

NEW MEXICO

The Las Cruces Lacrosse Club, Duke City Lacrosse and the New Mexico Lacrosse Association teamed up to conduct training for physical education teachers in the Las Cruces School District. The training will serve to help build lacrosse in the region — from the class to the grass.

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