City Lax brings lacrosse to inner-city Denver

There's no second-guessing on Jaden Franklin's lacrosse field.

He's on the move from the first face-off, his cleated feet taking him exactly where he needs to be, sometimes before his mind even catches up. Lacrosse IQ, they call it: knowing instinctively how to exploit the ever-changing geometries of the 110-by-60-yard field, the split-second holes in the wall of those ten players opposing you and your teammates. But lacrosse IQ isn't enough; you also need confidence in your instincts. Confidence that as an attackman, you'll be able to take the ball up the field on a fast break — swimming your stick up and over the first opposing player, spinning clear as a second closes in, leaving a third in the dust. Confidence that your trusty, taped-up STX stick — your superpower, as Jaden calls it — will rocket the ball straight to the edge of the crease, the circle around the opposing goal, and that your fellow attacker's stick will be there to catch it and, in one continuous motion, fire the ball through the five-hole, the space between the goalie's legs.

Confidence to disregard all the ways that you're different from the kids you're playing against.

That confidence doesn't end with the final whistle. Right now, fourteen-year-old Jaden is sitting with a handful of his teammates in the stands at Invesco Field at Mile High, watching the University of Denver's sixteenth-ranked Division I lacrosse team take on Loyola's sixth-ranked squad. "D-Roy!" Jaden hollers when Dillon Roy, a Denver boy and DU's team captain, snatches up the ball and blasts past a defender. "He gave him the juice!"

Around Jaden, thousands of boisterous spectators are roaring with every goal, evidence that Colorado can compete with such longtime lax hotbeds as Baltimore and Long Island. The lacrosse world took notice last year when Bill Tierney, Princeton's lacrosse coach, left the school after six national championship wins and a Hall of Fame designation, taking his reputation as the best coach in the game to a new gig at DU. He arrived in a state that already boasted 250 youth teams, as well as more than a hundred boys' and girls' high-school squads, and whose pro indoor and outdoor lacrosse teams, the Denver Outlaws and the Colorado Mammoth, hold attendance records nationwide. No wonder Denver was recently named the number-one lacrosse town by Inside Lacrosse magazine — a title that Tierney's boys in crimson and gold will cement as they steamroll over Loyola to a 12-4 victory, winning an automatic berth in the NCAA lacrosse tournament.

Still, from here the new number-one lacrosse town looks a lot like the old lacrosse towns: lily-white. Does it intimidate Jaden to be sitting in a sea of white faces and cowboy hats, private-school jackets and plaid shorts? Does it bother him that across town in north Park Hill, many of his neighbors and classmates have never heard of lacrosse, much less seen a live game?

Not a chance.

At halftime, Jaden and a teammate leave their seats and file onto the field with about two dozen other middle-schoolers, most of them wearing blue hoodies emblazoned with the words "Denver Elite." These boys are among the state's best youth lacrosse players, hand-selected to play on a highly competitive middle-school team helmed by Tierney and his coaching squad, booms the announcer. "These young players are the future of lacrosse in the Rocky Mountain region."

For Jaden, that future began four years ago, when he and his fellow fifth-graders were told they were now part of City Lax, north Denver's first and only youth lacrosse program. What started as a bunch of kids struggling to hold on to their sticks has grown into an organization with more than a hundred boys and girls from fifteen schools, spread between five teams and twenty coaches. A big program with a big reputation: A spectator sitting next to Jaden at Invesco leans over and asks, "Are you guys from City Lax?"

That reputation now proceeds them, just like the cocky cheer they yell before every game:

"1, 2, 3, City Lax – you know!"

As in, you know Jaden's City Lax team has won every one of its official games over the past two years and netted two state championships. And you know it'll be angling for more at this year's Rocky Mountain Lacrosse Jamboree, a three-day tournament at Dick's Sporting Goods Park starting on June 4, the last City Lax games before these players move on to high school.

Soon folks across the country will know, too. City Lax: An Urban Lacrosse Story, a documentary following this first team, is making the rounds at film festivals. ESPN is slated to air a version of the film to coincide with the NCAA championships, which begin on May 28.

Jaden may be one of the stars of the show, but he's far from alone. There's his twin sister, Joanne, for example. The lead scorer on City Lax's eighth-grade girls team, Joanne's has also landed on the elite Team 180 squad, which travels across the country. "I've got three speeds," she says. "Jogging speed, running speed and vroom speed. When I feel everything pumping, I don't care what the coaches say, I am just going. I'm running, then speeding, then I score."

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner