Lacrosse is known as a sport played by rich white people. This Salt Lake City school program is trying to change that.

Youth and high school lacrosse coaches affiliated with East High School have for years tried to introduce the sport to communities on the west side of SLC, and it’s working.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Edward Tonga runs drills, during East youth lacrosse practice, on Wednesday, June 22, 2022.

Of the 20 players armed with sticks in any given lacrosse game, on any given field in the United States, the odds are that most of them will be white.

The sport has for decades been associated with affluent, white communities mainly on the East Coast. In 2021, about 84% of all NCAA men’s and women’s lacrosse players across all divisions were white.

That’s what Charlie Freedman saw when the New Yorker started coaching youth boys’ lacrosse in Utah back in 2006.

“The game has important lessons for everybody to learn, and it frustrated me that it was being played in one demographic,” Freedman said. “I really disliked that, to be honest with you, and felt like it needed to be played by everybody.”

That’s why, on a warm summer morning on the East High School football field, things look noticeably different than they do in many other places where lacrosse is played. On this field, in a state that is nearly 78% white, diversity is being emphasized. The boys’ youth teams have more than a dozen people of color. The girls’ high school team is mostly non-white.

And even though players say they have dealt with naysayers and racist comments from opposing players and parents, what’s happening at East could be a bellwether for the future of lacrosse in Utah and beyond.

Taking lacrosse to the west side

Many parents credit Freedman with growing lacrosse on the west side of Salt Lake City when he started a team in Glendale in 2012, using grant money from U.S. Lacrosse for equipment. Before long, Freedman had a team of 26 players.

Intermountain Lacrosse, a Utah-based nonprofit that organizes leagues all over the state, now has a new area development program that subsidizes league costs for the first few years of a new team and also gives equipment.

“In all honesty, it was designed to focus more on some of those areas — like Glendale or Kearns that [are] a little more on the west side of the valley — that historically haven’t really had any lacrosse programs,” said Collin Madsen, a director for the organization.

Matt Pearson moved to Utah in 2017 from Maryland, where his sons played lacrosse and hockey. When he arrived, he was looking for a way his sons could continue playing lacrosse. A call to Freedman ended with Pearson coaching third- and fourth-graders in the spring of 2018, and recruiting parents to coach and kids to play.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) 11 and Edward Tonga watch the action as they wait their turn, during East youth lacrosse practice, on Wednesday, June 22, 2022.

That’s how 11-year-old Edward Tonga got introduced to the sport. He was friends and football teammates with Pearson’s son, Reilly Pearson-Ortolani.

Pearson said it was Tonga’s participation and skill that gave them the idea to recruit other children from the west side of Salt Lake. His initial intentions, he said, were to build the most talented teams possible made of reliable and committed kids. Diversifying the program has been a positive, if unintended, consequence.

“This sport is colorblind,” said Matt Pearson, one of the East youth boys’ lacrosse coaches.

Where Pearson has made a name for himself within the lacrosse community this past season, though, is with his efforts to make playing for the East youth teams more accessible for those who live on the west side of SLC. He moved one practice a week to the Glendale area, and also has been giving rides to some of those players to practices on the east side.

Fia Tonga, mother to Edward and 16-year-old Tui, said Pearson simply moving one weekly practice to her community helped her and other parents of color built trust in Pearson, Freedman and others.

“That spoke volumes to a lot of the families,” Fia Tonga said. “They’re willing to meet us halfway. If you can meet us halfway, I’ll definitely bring my kids.”

Enduring the naysayers

Eli Bowen took a hard hit during the final game of the spring youth season for the seventh- and eighth-graders. Tai Taulanga, 14, knocked the opposing player to the ground in retaliation as a way of protecting his teammate.

The opposing player offered a shocking response to Taulanga.

Taulanga recalled the opponent saying, “This isn’t even your sport” while calling him a racist slur.

(East High School) The East High School girls' varsity lacrosse team poses for a photo.

It was a moment that reminded many coaches and parents about the obstacles that still exist when attempting to diversify lacrosse so any young boy or girl, regardless of race, can grow to love it.

Fia Tonga remembers when her children first started playing the sport and the kind of pushback they got from others. She was told, “It’s a white man’s sport,” or her kids would be told to “go back to where they came from” and “go find another sport.”

Freedman, who also coaches the junior varsity team at East High, said that about four years ago, his team took the field for a game and heard from someone in the crowd, “What are you doing to our sport? Is this what this game is becoming? You’re ruining it.” He held back tears as he recalled the incident.

The girls’ high school team has also had its share of disparaging comments. Alejandra Cruz, who will be a junior at East this fall, recalled an incident this past season where an opposing player engaged in what she described as “racial profiling.” Cruz recalled the opposing player saying, “They come from a ghetto school. They won’t win. We don’t need to try that hard.”

Sau Tafisi, whose two sons Sau Jr. and Petelo earned full scholarships to William Penn University in Iowa to play lacrosse, said his kids have been called the N-word, “gorilla” and “animals.”

“You don’t believe that it happens, but it actually gets said out loud and it’s shouted,” said Luseane Tafisi, the two boys’ mother.

Players for the most part said they try to ignore people who make racially insensitive comments. Taulanga said the racist comments he heard only pushed him to play harder. Cruz said the comment direct toward her team pushed her to play harder as well, but also frustrated and bothered her. Petelo Tafisi said he considers the comments he has heard “childish” and “dumb.”

Freedman and others said there is absolutely no place for comments like that in the game.

“We can’t stop hate,” Freedman said. “We can’t stop small vision. It’s always going to be there. But we can repudiate it.”

Lessons learned

(East High School) East High School sophomore Atna San (10) transitions the ball from defense to offense while freshman Kaydence Davis (5) looks on during a girls' lacrosse game in the spring season.

Pete Killilea, 13, almost quit lacrosse a few years ago. The sport had stopped being fun for him, and the atmosphere was nothing like on his football team, where teammates spent time together outside of practices and games.

But when some Polynesian kids joined his lacrosse team this past year, it started to feel more like a family, Killilea said. That feeling reignited his love for the sport.

“Family” is a word that is used among all the players and coaches around the East program. Several players aside from Killilea said everyone grew closer as a result of Polynesian players imbuing the team with parts of their culture.

“I feel like some of the west side kids learned that it’s OK to live a little,” Tui Tonga said. “We learned from the east side kids that it’s OK to be open and it’s OK to express how you’re feeling, what you’re doing.”

On the girls’ varsity team — which consists of Latin, Hispanic, Polynesian, Asian and Native American players — they’ve learned to be more respectful and mindful of each other’s cultures. Team dinners often feature food that represents their respective backgrounds.

Even Hanni Killilea, Pete’s mother, has taken away valuable life lessons from watching her son play on a diverse lacrosse team and Pearson put in extra work to make the sport more accessible.

“What Matt Pearson did for me as a 46-year-old woman was to [help me realize], ‘You know, sometimes you actually have to make an effort for things,’” Hanni Killilea said. “[Polynesian kids] could love this sport. They could be good at it. They can add to our kids. And we have to actually do something to make that happen.”

But perhaps that most meaningful lesson is the one the players themselves want to impart on those that still think lacrosse isn’t for people of color.

“Eventually if we treat everybody the same, then they’ll get it in their heads that like, ‘Oh these brown kids are not as different as us,” Taulanga said. “’These brown kids, they know everything we know.’ … That’s how I want it to be.”

Added Cynthia Amador: “I think it’s really important to just let people know, ‘Hey, we’re playing, too. This isn’t only for white people.’”

Parents and coaches know that helping lacrosse improve its racial diversity has a long road ahead. But those involved in the East program show no signs of slowing down their efforts. If anything, they’re just getting started.

“Lacrosse is going there anyway,” Pearson said. “It takes some work to get it there.”