Photo by: Tony Leon/ActionWestPhotography.com
WHITTIER, Calif. - By nature, Whittier College men's lacrosse is on an island some.
The Poets, an independent program, are the only team in Division III to call the Pacific Standard Time Zone home. That leaves the team from Southern California left vying for the sole Pool B bid to the NCAA tournament, with flights to Ohio and Pennsylvania a must just to get games on the schedule.
But Whittier also finds itself in rarified air for another reason: The Poets have one of the most diverse rosters in all of college lacrosse. In a sport dominated by middle- and upper-class white families, Whittier has three African-Americans, four Asian-Americans, one Latin-American and even Miles Moscato, a player with half his left arm.
This sort of profile wasn't intentional, coach Nick Marks said. It's more attributed to how Whittier is ranked in the top 15 by U.S. World and News Report for campus ethnic diversity among liberal arts colleges.
"We are aware we're in a weird time in America right now, and I think the fact we have this environment is an example to the rest of the lacrosse world," Marks said. "Lacrosse is growing east to west in numbers, but I think the diversity of this sport is going to grow west to east. That's really what Whittier men's lacrosse is. It's an example of another type of growth that can occur within the sport."
Lacrosse participation has more than tripled nationwide since 2001, according to the 2017 US Lacrosse participation data, so Marks' remarks have firm footing. But the game, even at the highest levels, is still dominated by mostly white players. Those like Myles Jones and Trevor Baptiste of the U.S. national team are the exceptions, not the rule.
But things are slowly changing, freshman midfielder Daniel Ball said. An African-American, he grew up in El Segundo, Calif., then went to Hotchkiss, a prestigious prep school in Lakeville, Conn. From those experiences, he has a coast-to-coast understanding of what lacrosse — at least by skin color — looks like across the country.
"My experience here is very different than from the past, because I'm so used to being the only African-American player on my team," Ball said. "But now there's more diversity. It makes me feel at home seeing other people who look like me playing this sport."
That experience was one shared by freshman midfielder Cole Irie. From Berkeley, Calif., he's used to being the odd man out, at least racially, in lacrosse. An Asian-American, he used to recruit football players to his high school lacrosse team, but even that came with some wrinkles.
"I got guys my age, older than me, younger me, and I had to teach them how to deal with what goes along with being a non-white player in lacrosse," Irie said. "Even in a pretty accepting place like the Bay, some pretty nasty things get said. So learning how to help someone through issues and letting it go, that's helped me not only in lacrosse, but in my personal life and to be a better person overall."
The welcoming environment at Whittier isn't all about what happens on campus, though. The Poets are also heavily involved with the Compton, Calif., chapter of Harlem Lacrosse, going into the underprivileged and predominantly black community to teach the game. Some of the players have never picked up a lacrosse stick before, but there are moments where the excitement is palpable.
"Seeing how they react to me versus some of the other non-African-American coaches, I could see how the kids learning the game would be so excited to see how I was doing it," Ball said. "They were looking up to me, because I look like them. Seeing that light in their eyes is what I never had when I was younger, because I never had a coach or mentor who looked like me."
Added Jordan McGowan, a junior midfielder who's African-American: "It's a game that's accepting of people from all backgrounds, and it's a game that we want people to experience regardless of where you're from. Anybody can enjoy this sport."
As much as diversity in backgrounds, race and socioeconomic status is part of Whittier's story, they also made clear that they don't want to be pigeonholed by labels or presumptions.
Jared Holguin is a lacrosse player who happens to be Latin-American. Same for Alan Lin, an Asian-American who is more than the color of his skin. That's an important distinction, Marks said, and will only help the program in the long run.
"My mentality is that different is good, and diversity in experience is one of the most important things," Marks said. "If we have 48 guys who have 48 different perspectives, we can make it work."
As for the future, Whittier is set to bring in several African-American players next year, due to the recruiting efforts of assistant coach Curt Foxx. And that byproduct isn't purposeful either, as Marks said Whittier is just focused on finding good players with upstanding characters and academics. If they happen to be white, African-American or something else, it's all the same.
Then the hope is similar stories sprout up throughout the college lacrosse world.
"I hope our example is a realization that the sport is diversifying," Marks said. "I bet of all the college teams out there, a couple are similar to us and just haven't made attention about it. Our sport is starting to look different."