US Lacrosse Magazine has partnered with Blaxers Blog to produce a series of stories that illuminate the minority lacrosse experience and promote the accomplishments of those individuals who have defied stereotypes to succeed in the sport.

Read more about Blaxers Blog and the content partnership here.

"> Blaxers Blog: The Westtown School Story | USA Lacrosse Magazine

PHOTO COURTESY OF WESTTOWN SCHOOL

Blaxers Blog: The Westtown School Story


US Lacrosse Magazine has partnered with Blaxers Blog to produce a series of stories that illuminate the minority lacrosse experience and promote the accomplishments of those individuals who have defied stereotypes to succeed in the sport.

Read more about Blaxers Blog and the content partnership here.

Located near Philadelphia, Westtown School serves as the nation’s oldest continuously operating co-educational boarding school. In 1799, the college preparatory day and boarding school was established by Philadelphia Quakers and sustains its mission of being a safe, educational haven for students.

We at Blaxers Blog dive into one of prep lacrosse’s most diverse programs and the intricacies of empowering future ambassadors of the sport and the world at-large.

EMBRACING DIVERSITY

To Westtown boys’ lacrosse coach Carl Starkey, diversity is about the understanding of people from different backgrounds, ways of life, priorities and motivations.

“Racial injustice is fundamentally wrong, and diversity is more than just race,” said Starkey, who was named Westtown’s coach on March 2, 2019.

Despite representing one of the most diverse teams in the nation, Starkey is concerned that other programs don’t reflect the sport’s rapid growth. “Diversity is my success criteria; not skin color,” Starkey said.

He acknowledged how lacrosse’s affluence and visibility are viewed differently in non-traditional hotbeds. Success shouldn’t be measured by one’s wealth and upward mobility. Young players need to understand that the sport isn’t limited to those who possess high level finance jobs and attended clubs where sport jackets are worn casually. There’s another side to the sport that looks beyond these privileges.

New assistant coach and Puerto Rico national team captain Desi Gonzalez said serving at Westtown means being part of the change.

“Actually seeing diversity happen on your team is a different feeling than I’ve had beforehand,” Gonzalez said. “It gives a sense of appreciation for everybody, and unity is the ability to push toward one purpose without bias.”

The healing nature of lacrosse can’t be understated. Westtown midfielders Chrishawn Hunter and Diesel Schraufnagel persevered through the sport after family losses and paternal incarcerations shifted their trajectories. Hunter and his three siblings were raised in Rochester, N.Y., by their grandmother, while Schraufnagel left Wisconsin after witnessing his mother’s health struggles.

Starkey can relate to the challenges his players encountered. He has a personal redemption story of his own.

“I met my mom when I was 8, and I moved to Michigan while she lived in a shelter,” Starkey said. ‘I was in and out of foster homes and ended up dropping out of high school. I met my father when I was 15 and went back to high school in Chicago. I started playing lacrosse at St. Olaf’s College (MCLA Division II) in Minnesota after getting cut from the men’s basketball team and my roommate suggested I join.”

Last season, junior short-stick defender Caden Gulka tallied 27 points in a five-game span. The Edmonton standout of Filipino descent said he’s appreciative of the doors Westtown opened for him. Having a coach like Starkey who can understand the struggles of individual players helps.

“I think the team is also very special because we have players that come from all walks of life and from all different places in the world,” Gulka said.

Senior defender Suraj Sharma is of Indian descent and committed to play at Eastern University. Junior faceoff specialist Zack Ouassil has Moroccan heritage and trained under Greg Gurenlian at The Faceoff Academy. Team managers Yichen “Sam” Hu and Nicolas Vega Pereira hail from China and the Dominican Republic, respectively. 


“Use your voice and share your opinion; Westtown will listen.” — Carl Starkey


INDIGENOUS AMBASSADORS

“Use your voice and share your opinion; Westtown will listen,” Starkey said.

Westtown’s roster consists of three Indigenous players whose wisdom and play speak volumes — Teiohniserathe “Kyren” Lazore (Mohawk), Dan Lugo (Taino) and Oneniotekó:wa Maracle (Mohawk).

When Maracle and Lazore arrived, Westtown lacked history working with Indigenous students and conducted a land acknowledgement towards the Lenape Nation.

During an Indigenous People’s Day assembly in 2019, Lugo was presented with a wooden stick by Maracle and Lazore. The ceremony of solidarity and welcome was quiet but powerful as the school began to permanently recognize the holiday.

“My teammates are like brothers to me and help forget about missing home,” Lazore said. “Westtown is my home away from home. When we heal together as teammates, we grow and get stronger together. It’s truly an honor to turn heads and build something great here. Together as one, nothing else.”

This year, Lazore submitted an email to the Westtown administration and presented initiatives for Native American Heritage Month. For 2021, the collaboration would include the dining service department serving traditional dishes, arts and crafts day, Indigenous speaker visits and a MMIWG (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls) remembrance event.

Starkey will sponsor the MMIWG event by purchasing red shirts for students on campus. Starkey and Westtown’s commitment to celebrating diversity has helped push the lives of its students and student-athletes forward.

Maracle, for one, has committed to play attack at Lafayette after he graduates.

“Playing lacrosse is bigger than just playing for myself,” Maracle said. “I play for my family, teammates, coaches, spectators and the Creator, who gifted us with this game. Playing lacrosse heals me mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Healing alongside my teammates helped strengthen my bond with them. I’m honored to wear Westtown’s name on my jersey and for the opportunity to attend this life-changing institution.”








EQUAL ACCESS

Unequal access to resources can hinder lacrosse growth. Westtown’s Financial Aid & Full Access program operates as an equalizer that levels the playing field for youth from low income and at-risk backgrounds. It covers student expenses that extend beyond room and board tuition. Starkey is driven by the program’s purpose while ensuring that his dynamic team understands what access and diversity of thought entails.

“Imagine 10 kids all from the same team and not being able to distinguish the ones who can’t afford team essentials like hoodies and equipment,” Starkey said. “This fund is access to be at the table, and that’s really important.”

Haverford midfielder and Westtown alum Eli Vega benefitted from the Full Access program and spoke at Harlem Lacrosse’s 2020 virtual benefit about the networking opportunities he was able to experience.

“In America, we tend to confuse material prosperity with wealth,” Vega said. “The gap between myself and my peers is deeper than clothes and equipment. The doors open easier for you when you’re a friend of a friend.”

UNSCRIPTED PLAY

Starkey admits that his team’s strategy is run organically from just a few formations. The program has three focuses that require equal attention — talent, tactics and culture. Due to the team’s diversity, gelling is the biggest hurdle to overcome.

“If you can learn how to build that kind of trust, nobody will be able to play against you,” Starkey said. “The coolest part about our team is how unpredictable our games are and how difficult it is to defend against quick tempo transitions.”

Starkey has trust in winning with his players because they play for a better, bigger reason than their opponents.

“In order to be more relevant, we have to win more,” Starkey said. “Last year we beat Penn Charter, and it’s mind-boggling for a first-year team to be down 7-1 at halftime and come back to win. The lesson is about having the kids understand their talent level and learn to work together under different voices as a diverse team.”

Starkey learned box lacrosse tactics and training while working for the Minnesota Swarm’s front office with Aime Caines, Joe Cinosky and Corbyn Tao. He also learned strategies under the leadership of Eamon Thornton from McCallie School while playing in Germany. Starkey is a founding member of the Hungarian national team and coached in Europe.

“It’s hard to get lost on the field in box, and if a player is stagnant, that’s 20 percent of your offensive power gone,” Starkey said. “I have Anthony Joaquim on my staff at Westtown who plays for the Philadelphia Wings. We let the kids play while teaching the core fundamentals.”

Starkey wants the lacrosse community to understand that Westtown graduates finish as solid student-athletes and allies. Westtown’s unity is a testament for others to follow.




PHOTO BY JAMES QUINN SPORTS / WESTTOWN SCHOOL


GIVING BACK TO PHILADELPHIA

At 10 years old during the holidays, Starkey moved into St. Vincent’s Home for Children and was gifted a Detroit Lions starter jacket. He didn’t expect Lions running back Barry Sanders to visit the facility. Starkey was floored by Sanders’ quiet personality.

“The fact that he came from his platform to where I lived, sat down and talked to me alone struck me until this day,” Starkey said.

As a result, Starkey launched an annual neutral site game in 2020 at Harlem Lacrosse-Philadelphia’s practice field after their kids visited their campus in amazement. Westtown girls’ and boys’ lacrosse teams include six Harlem Lacrosse alumni in total.

Starkey wanted the youth to understand that lacrosse can a vehicle to college and that Westtown is invested in their growth. Glass and stones were removed from Olney Park as Westtown faced Penn Charter in the exciting matchup.

“We want Philadelphia to care about Westtown, not just because we are good, but because we’re going to change how the game looks,” Starkey said. “If you do right by people, you move the needle forward. They need to know that the bigger, older kids they see going off to college come from the same neighborhoods as them.”

Fortunately, two community game clips of senior midfielder and Harlem Lacrosse alum Hakim Hicks garnered recruiting pitches that led to a commitment to Johns Hopkins.

“It’s great to learn how to play with kids from different backgrounds,” Hicks said. “We’ll see this in the real world, and lacrosse is typically a sport that isolates certain demographics. So, what we have at Westtown is very special, and I’m glad to be a part of it.”