Philadelphia team changing the face of lacrosse on a world stage

"Sometimes when we walk on the field, you can see some people, they're like in shock," said 14-year-old Samiah Hayes.

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Thursday, June 30, 2022
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"We have a motto, we don't just teach them the game, we prepare them for life," said Eyekonz lacrosse team coach Jazmine A. Smith.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- As they run up and down the field at Mander Playground, a group of girls from all over Philadelphia know they're preparing for some tough competition.

"It's not a delicate sport at all," said 14-year-old Samiah Hayes.

Even though the lacrosse field is tough, she knows a place that's even tougher.

"I'm from West Philly," she said. "In my neighborhood, it's not exactly safe."

It's why she seeks refuge at Mander Playground in the city's Strawberry Mansion section where coach Jazmine A. Smith hones the skills of her Eyekonz lacrosse team.

"To see these girls transcend in this sport," said Smith, who is CEO and founder of the Eyekonz Sports League & Field Hockey, which is the nation's only African American field hockey and lacrosse league.

But it wasn't an easy sell for all of the players when Smith started the program in 2002 and revamped it in 2013 to focus on exposing African American girls to the sport.

"When I first started, I never heard about this sport, ever," admitted Hayes with a laugh.

"I heard of basketball, football, all the regular sports. I never heard of lacrosse," said 13-year-old Azeezah Jones, who now loves playing with the Eyekonz.

Smith understands the hesitation since it took her a while to warm up to the sport when she started playing as a youth.

"I played for many years," she said.

Eventually, she says she fell in love with the sport. What she didn't love was the lack of diversity.

"I would be the only African American there," Smith recalled of the majority of her games.

That type of scenario doesn't play out when the Eyekonz are on the field.

"Sometimes when we walk on the field, you can see some people, they're like in shock," Hayes said of other teams and fans who see them approach the field.

The team has also developed quite a following partly due to features by ESPN and Nike on the team.

The players know that an all-Black lacrosse team is a rare sight, especially where they're going.

"The team is going to the world lacrosse tournament," said Hayes with a smile.

"We will be playing teams from Canada, England, Japan, Jamaica," Smith said naming just a few of the countries that will be represented at the World Lacrosse Women's World Championship in Maryland. Though there are other teams from Pennsylvania, the Eyekonz will be the only team from Philadelphia.

But it's not really all about lacrosse, it's actually about taking a shot at a better life.

"We really hone in on self-love and sisterhood," Smith said, adding that before each practice, the players line up and do self-affirmations in front of a mirror that their coach holds.

The program is open to kids ages 5-19.

"It has made me more self-confident," said Jones.

"We have a motto: we don't just teach them the game, we prepare them for life," said Smith.

It's a life beyond the violence in Philadelphia, which is why boys started flocking to the field. One rode his bike for about 40 minutes to get to the field.

"(The boys) said that it was a safe zone," said Smith. "So we created the boys' program."

The Eyekonz Sports League is now helping both boys and girls excel on the field as they seek a better future.

"They can do it," said Smith.