Lacrosse gives Spelman students more than a chance to play again

The first time Kyle Irwin saw Pauline Caldwell on the Spelman College campus, she chased her down.

Caldwell, a 19-year-old anthropology major from Austin, Texas, was strolling through the leafy all-women’s campus toting, of all things, a lacrosse stick.

Irwin grew up playing lacrosse in Duluth, but had “retired” after tearing her ACL in high school.

“I always loved playing, but I knew I wasn’t going to go pro,” Irwin said. “Until I saw Pauline carrying that stick, I was fully content with never playing again.”

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Caldwell was on her way to lacrosse practice.

Because Spelman doesn’t have sports program, students on campus have formed their own team and compete independently in a women’s city league.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Ten years ago this month, motivated by concerns about money and the collapse of their conference, Spelman made the bold move to eliminate athletics.

At the time of the decision, there were only 80 Spelman athletes across seven Division III sports, costing the school roughly $1 million for the 2012-13 academic year.

Credit: JOHN SPINK

Credit: JOHN SPINK

Those funds were reallocated to establish a campus-wide wellness program to address health and wellness issues facing Black women caused by poor diet and inactivity, like obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.

“My initial reaction, upon hearing that we were getting rid of athletics, was sadness,” said Joy Alafia, who lettered in cross country for Spelman in 1992. “But when I read the reasons why and the health issues that many Black women face, I was completely on board. My own biases and affiliations in sports were juxtaposed with the bigger cause and I understood that.”

Credit: Joy Alafia

Credit: Joy Alafia

Spelman’s new president Dr. Helene Gayle said the school is “proud of the evolution,” of the health and wellness program, which includes a state-of-the-art fitness center used by more than 500 people daily.

Students now must take at least two health and wellness courses as part of their core curriculum that focuses on activities they will likely continue into adulthood like walking, jogging, tennis, self-defense, boxing, cardio conditioning, swimming, yoga, tai chi, strength training and spin.

Gayle added that in an effort delayed by the pandemic, Spelman is working to reintroduce intramural soccer, volleyball, basketball and tennis to campus in the fall of 2023.

“We will continue to evaluate the best blend of team sports, individual fitness programs, and overall wellness activities and adapt to support the evolving needs of our student body,” Gayle said.

Olivia Robinson, a 20-year-old sophomore environmental studies major from Louisville, has taken spin and tennis classes and agrees that Spelman has done a good job of incorporating wellness into the curriculum, “But I just wish it didn’t have to come at such a high cost.”

Club status denied

When Robinson, who played sports high school, arrived on campus, she accepted that her playing days were over, but quickly discovered that she missed the competition.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

She put together a lacrosse team, from the more than 40 students on campus with experience in the sport, and devised a plan to get Spelman to reconsider bringing sports back. Or, more reasonably, get them to recognize the “Jaguars Lacrosse Club” as an official campus club.

Citing legal and health liabilities, Robinson said Spelman turned them down. Spelman did not respond to why the club was rejected.

Robinson continued to hold twice-a-week practices off campus and put the team in the Atlanta Lacrosse League, an adult women’s league.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“It has been an amazing journey to battle and start something from the ground up,” Robinson said. “It is beautiful to see the team’s commitment and how much these girls have poured into it with their time and energy. And it has allowed me an opportunity to step into leadership.”

Paying homage

On a recent Sunday, in the shadow of a high-rise condominium in Sandy Springs, Robinson was a bit worried. It is the day after Spelman’s homecoming and she wondered how many of the team’s fluid roster of 12 would show up.

Instead of Spelman’s sky blue, six members of the team walked onto the field wearing green and gold jerseys that called to mind the old Seattle Supersonics.

Paying homage to Spelman’s old teams, they call themselves The Jaguars.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Several women, not affiliated with Spelman, fill out the Sunday afternoon roster and after a brief huddle and pep talk, they scream, “Go Jags” and take the field against the Brave.

Less than 10 seconds into the match, the Brave scored its first goal. Less than a minute in, it was 2-0.

Irwin, who didn’t start the game smiled.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s our time now.”

‘Truly a part of Spelman’

For many on the team, returning to the field is a return to the familiar. Even the unpleasant.

According to NCAA data, while there were 10,807 white players across its three divisions in 2021, there were only 421 Black women playing college lacrosse.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Every Spelman player — except Natajha Graham, who played in Harlem — grew up as one of the few Black faces on their teams, where they were called names like “The Midnight Crew” and “Black Lives Matter.”

“This is a sport that is very white,” Caldwell said. “It is not that common to see a group of Black girls, who look like me, playing with white girls. Who also go a Black college like Spelman.”

Fewer than a handful of HBCUs, including Howard and Delaware State, who made national headlines earlier this year when their team bus was stopped and searched for drugs by Liberty County deputies, field lacrosse teams.

This is partly why for many of them, getting back on the field has been so important. Easing out of the COVID pandemic, the concept of the team also plays into the mental health portion of Spelman’s wellness efforts.

Laila Christian, the team’s 20-year-old junior goalie from Natick, Mass., spent the first semester of her freshman year attending classes online because of the pandemic.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“The way I started college, it has been very hard making friends,” Christian said. “I have caught up over the years, but having another chance to meet new people to run around and be active with and to do something I love with people who also love the sport, has been healing.”

Graham, 20, said playing lacrosse affords her a kind of freedom on campus that she had not experienced in her three years at Spelman.

“I haven’t always felt the sisterhood here,” Graham said. “Having this sport is what I was looking for. This is the first semester that I have felt truly part of Spelman.”

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

‘I wanna play lacrosse’

Midway through the second half, Kalilah Kmt, a freshman from Maryland, quietly made her way to the sidelines. She said hello to everyone and checked into the game.

Although she was one of Robinson’s first recruits, this was the first game she had actually made it to. She has been dealing withdepression and anxiety all semester.

“It is hard for me,” she said after the game. “I am homesick. I was struggling with my studies and sometimes it is so hard to just get up and go - even though I want to. Today I just said, ‘I wanna play lacrosse.’ So here I am.”

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

The Jaguars kept in close in the second half but lost 12-8. They have won just one game this season, which ends Nov. 6

“We are rusty,” Robinson said. “It is all about getting back into the lacrosse mindset. We will get there.”

Fundraising efforts

The field where the team plays is about 20 miles from campus and they get there by grace. Because they are not officially affiliated with Spelman, they have no financial backing, so along with transportation, they have to pay for their own league fees, uniforms and equipment.

A gofundme account has raised more than $5,500, triple what they anticipated. Robinson said the money is enough to last them a few seasons,

“Spelman students never disappoint me,” said Alafia, the executive director of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. “It is important to find an outlet and I hope they are able to navigate this successfully. I am very excited for their futures.”

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

It was still shorts weather last Tuesday when the team gathered for practice on a makeshift field near campus. Robinson ran them through shuttle drills and three on two scrimmages, to emphasize passing the ball.

After practice, they sat in a circle around the net and strategized about their next game. Then they went back to campus to study.

“Lacrosse has been good to me,” Irwin said. “It feels good to run and have a team doing something I didn’t know I missed. I look forward to Sundays.”