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Morgan club lacrosse captain aims to restore school’s glory

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BALTIMORE (AP) — Morgan State University hasn’t had an NCAA lacrosse team in over 40 years. Kobie Johnson, president and captain of the school’s club team, wants to change that.

“Last fall, I came on campus with a purpose and with a plan to build this team up as strong and as talented as it could be,” Johnson, 21, said.

Johnson, a senior, has played club lacrosse for Morgan State, a historically Black university, since spring 2020, when the club consisted of fewer than five players who showed up consistently to practice.

In August 2021, Johnson set out to revitalize the team with help from Bill Krehnbrink, a former club coach who manages the team’s equipment, and Marty Lattman, who coached the team from October 2021 to May 2022. Johnson said he recruited players by approaching students in lacrosse-branded clothing and by scouring social media. He was also sometimes approached by students with lacrosse experience.

In April 2022, Morgan State was one of six teams that participated in the launch of the Next Collegiate League, a club lacrosse league sponsored by Next Level Sports and Entertainment, a Hanover-based 24/7 global sports network. All of the original teams are historically Black colleges and universities.

The teams played the six-on-six format of the game, which has been proposed for inclusion in the 2028 Olympics. Lacrosse is typically played with 10 players per side.

“We wanted to make impactful change,” Liam Banks, director of field sports at Next Level, said. “We want to create an opportunity for young players from underserved markets to have the same opportunities as everybody else.” Next Level covers the expenses for the teams, and the championship team receives $10,000.

Morgan State took second place overall in the league, losing the championship game to Delaware State University last May.

But Morgan State coach Skyler Hargrave is optimistic about the 2023 season, which starts April 2.

“A lot of guys have more experience under their belt,” Hargrave said. “I think our chances are pretty good at winning the championship game coming up.”

Johnson said the team has at least 25 committed players, up from about 10 in the fall of 2021. He credited part of the growth to the Next Collegiate League and the momentum it created on campus.

Banks said all games were shown on Next Level’s video network, which can be viewed on Fios, DirecTV and AT&T. For the 2023 season, live games will be shown on Sundays. The ability to play for a TV audience is one of Johnson’s favorite things about the Next Collegiate League.

“They’re basically bringing a dream to reality that I gave up on when I was little, the dream that you can go to an HBCU and play lacrosse at a high level and be visible while doing it,” Johnson said. “A lot of people in the lacrosse world, they say, ‘OK, we want this sport to be more diverse, we want more people of color to be involved.’ But nobody was actually taking the action to make it happen.”

For the 2023 season, the Next Collegiate League plans to add two HBCUs, in addition to some non-HBCU teams, to its roster, bringing the league to 10 to 12 teams, Banks said.

At the same time, Johnson is trying to honor the lacrosse team’s history by getting the sport restored to the university’s NCAA lineup.

Morgan State had a team known as the Ten Bears that started in 1971. It was the first intercollegiate team at an HBCU, and in 1975 the Bears stunned top-ranked Washington and Lee University.

But in 1981, Morgan State dropped the program. Shawn Celio, a former lacrosse player and coach who currently serves as director of HR partnerships and employee labor relations for Morgan State, said the decision was financially motivated.

“It’s a very popular story because it’s more than just sports. At the time, especially during the ’70s, there was a lot of racial tension in the city and in lacrosse,” Johnson said. “And the Ten Bears in the ’70s and those players, they took pride in beating that stereotype and showing, you know, they can play lacrosse too.”

In 2005, students launched the club lacrosse program.

“The current crop of Morgan State students has taken it upon themselves to start a new tradition of lacrosse at the university, and for an institution with such a rich lacrosse history, this is a very welcome thing,” Celio said in an email.

Vice President and Director of Athletics Dena Freeman-Patton said the university is launching an “evaluation and assessment” phase to determine whether lacrosse can return as an NCAA sport, a process she said is supported by community and alumni interest.

Johnson hopes his time at Morgan helps pave the way for a future in the NCAA. He grew up playing lacrosse in Prince George’s County and his father played club lacrosse for Howard University. Johnson recently interned with USA Lacrosse, the sport’s governing body.

Hargrave, who played lacrosse at Morgan State from 2014 to 2018, said Johnson is the “straw that stirs the drink for the team.”

“To be honest with you, we go as Kobie goes,” Hargrave said. “We lean on Kobie heavily to lead the team and just to be a guide for everyone to look to.”

Johnson has many high aspirations tied to a life in lacrosse.

“I’ll be able to live out my dreams of being a pro lacrosse player one day,” Johnson said. “There’s so much momentum for lacrosse, period, and if there’s any school to really take the initiative and go ahead with it, it’s the school that started it.”