Frankford lacrosse is changing lives

Frankford senior Terrell Cruz was first drawn to lacrosse while watching Teen Wolf on TV.

Fellow senior Deonte Vincent grew up with football dreams in lacrosse-crazed Maryland but was rarely exposed to the emerging stick-sport in his hometown of Baltimore.

Senior goaltender Ahjere Snyder, who also wrestles and plays football, had never heard of lacrosse but will play it in college - and fill his mother with pride.

Since Frankford coach Mike Kennedy started the varsity lacrosse program in 2013, he has sparked interest in the sport and helped several students change their futures through a game many knew little about.

"I'm just using lacrosse as a carrot," said Kennedy, who is also the dean of students. "And if it keeps kids out of trouble, and they go to college and graduate with a degree, they've won. That's all it's about."

Kennedy, 42, in his 10th year as a teacher, said he took the "hard way" to find the job he loved.

A teenage parent, Kennedy said he dropped out of high school at Abington to find work but later earned a degree at Montgomery County Community College.

He started coaching lacrosse when his two oldest sons, Stephen and Zachary, picked up the game as kids. Stephen, later a star for Temple's club hockey team, eventually gravitated more toward the ice.

Those experiences, said Kennedy, who started the nonprofit Philly Boyz Lax program, guided him when he began teaching at Frankford in 2009 and noticed students with potential but little direction.

With help from John Benci, one of many who helped bring boys' and girls' lacrosse to the Public League in 2010, and Eric Gregg - a longtime coach, star player at Episcopal Academy and Gettysburg University and a co-founder of Lacrosse, Education, Attitude, Perseverance, Success (LEAPS) - Kennedy started the Pioneers program.

In year one, the Pioneers made the playoffs. In years two and three, they lost in the Public championship game to Washington and Northeast, respectively.

More importantly, however, lives were changed.

No Super Bowl

College wasn't on Terrell Cruz's radar. Neither was lacrosse until he flicked through the channels and happened upon Teen Wolf on MTV.

"The way the ball was hitting the net and flying around," said Cruz, a 5-foot-11, 174-pound midfielder and faceoff specialist, "I thought I would love to try it."

That was the summer before his freshman year, and Cruz, whose heart once belonged to basketball, thought he would go to Northeast with all of his friends.

Instead, he found a home at Frankford.

Soon he'll choose from at least seven college lacrosse suitors - Neumann University, Immaculata, Rosemont, SUNY Broome Community College, Wesley, Potomac State and Westminster.

With a 3.4 grade point average, Cruz, who wants to study physical therapy, expects to earn financial support because of his academic prowess.

Division III schools do not offer athletic scholarships and, Kennedy explained, college coaches are more apt to seek strong students with little lacrosse experience than vice versa.

"This works because I tell kids from the get-go there is no Super Bowl," Kennedy said, referencing many players' desires to play professional sports. "Your whole Super Bowl is going to college."

After he ran with the wrong crowd early on at Frankford, Cruz said lacrosse helped him form more positive friendships.

He also heaped praise upon Kennedy: "He makes you believe. He makes you believe more [is possible]."

Cruz added: "Growing up I didn't really have a lot of family members that went to college. That wasn't part of my way of living. I just didn't see it."

Generational growth

Defenseman Deonte Vincent grew up in Baltimore and was well aware of a close family member's struggle with drug addiction.

Now, he hopes to choose from two colleges - SUNY Broome and Potomac State - where he can play lacrosse and study criminal justice with the hopes of joining law enforcement to rid communities of drugs.

But first, he had to let go of his first love.

"All I thought was football," Vincent said, smiling. "But 5-foot-7, 250-ish wasn't really cutting it for the NFL or college," he added, laughing.

Vincent, who came to Philadelphia in 2009, said he will be the first male in two generations of his family to graduate from high school.

When asked what role lacrosse played in his transformation, Vincent momentarily stumbled in search of words before emerging with poise.

"Lacrosse just basically turned me into a man," he said, firmly, confidently.

Team effort

On game days, senior goaltender Ahjere Snyder said, Frankford's lacrosse team wears shirts and ties in preparation for life.

Snyder, whose chief concern is making his mother, Marlita Graham, proud hopes to trade his tie for a lab coat as a veterinarian.

He will play lacrosse at SUNY Broome next year and later hopes to attend Tuskegee University.

To visit such out-of-town schools, Kennedy sometimes gets help from parents outside of Frankford.

Eileen Nisenfeld, whose son, Cole, plays at Northeast, once took several Frankford players to Potomac State College in West Virginia, including her son, Tyler, a Northeast graduate who now stars in goal for the Catamounts.

Justin Davis, a 6-foot, 165-pound senior for Mastery South, said former teammate Amir Fluellen inspired him to play lacrosse. Fluellen later transferred to Shipley and now plays at Division III power Salisbury University.

Davis, who will also play at SUNY Broome, said he has inspired five current members of Mastery's team into playing lacrosse.

The future

Khalil Lindsey is a 5-foot-7, 165-pound freshman midfielder at Delaware Valley University who graduated from Frankford but still looms large at the school.

After the Pioneers lost on Tuesday to defending Public champ Northeast, Lindsey sent Cruz a text message of support.

Lindsey, who started playing in ninth grade, was one of the program's first recruited players. Often players rely more on Kennedy making calls on their behalf.

The summers Lindsey spent hopping fences - bottles of water and food in tow - to spend hours in the hot sun honing his craft certainly didn't go to waste.

Lindsey does, however, lament his late entry to the sport and wonders how good he could be if he started sooner. That's why he teaches clinics every chance he can get.

Even without clinics, his lesson plan is being followed.

"More than you could imagine," said Frankford sophomore Marco Marcano. "Because actually seeing them make it out of here, go to a better place and play in [college], I'll be really glad if I have the chance to have the same feeling they have right now."