NEAR WEST SIDE — Aaron Brooks III had never heard of lacrosse when a coach asked him if he wanted to play back in the sixth grade.
Now, Aaron is less than a month away from his eighth grade graduation and hopes the sport he once thought was "lame and boring" can help him attain the goal he's set to make his grandmother proud.
"I want to be one of her first grandkids to go to college and graduate. Where I'm from there's not many kids that go to college," said Aaron, 13, of Homan Square. "If it wasn't for lacrosse I wouldn't think of going to Fenwick [High School] and I wouldn't have gone to a college campus like Notre Dame."
Inspiring kids to "want to go to college" was one of the main reasons Sam Angelotta founded Outreach with Lacrosse and Schools back in 2011. He began the program while working on his Master's degree at DePaul University as a "reaction to an appalling amount of inactivity for at-risk youth."
"We wanted [the OWLS program] to be transformative and basically give kids an outlet to bridge the gap in after school hours to keep them out of street life and things like that. But also to give them the opportunity for exposure to higher level academics, higher level lacrosse, get them outlets to play in high school and exposure to college campuses," said Angelotta.
Back then, the athletic director and a physical education teacher at St. Malachy, a West Side school with a 100 percent poverty rating at 2252 W. Washington Blvd., used "grassroots fundraising and equipment drives" for uniforms and equipment for his team of about 10 students.
Now, the transformative inner-city lacrosse program has grown to about 300 kids this year with five school based programs and three community based programs.
Those programs helped form the Urban Scholastic Lacrosse League, which pits the schools against each other for a match at Garfield Park each week. Lane Tech also hosts games.
The USLL currently has six teams including St. Malachy, Lane Tech Academic Center, Willa Cather, Garfield Park, Chicago Jesuit Academy and St. Ann that play every Saturday in April and May.
The league's newest team, Lane Tech, started the season with 23 players — 13 of whom had never picked up a stick before practices started in the fall.
The sport is the fastest growing in the country, with more than 400,000 players participating at the youth level, according to the U.S. Lacrosse Association.
"We kind of figured out quickly we wanted to develop competition within the neighborhoods rather than just have one team playing here or there. We're really just developing it block by block by block," Angelotta said.
The rapid growth of the program has helped eliminate the reputation that lacrosse is just for prep school kids, allowing more and more students access to the sport, he said.
The program has introduced Marquis Thompson, 14, to another sport that he hopes will have more scholarship potential then basketball or football, which most of the kids in the neighborhood already play. But it's also something a lot simpler.
"There's shootings on the block or around the corner every night. It's not really a safe area to play," said Marquis of Humboldt Park, who enjoys the opportunity to run drills and play outside.
Marquis, who plays lacrosse and basketball, said he's growing fonder of lacrosse — and hopes to earn a scholarship to college.
"I just want to do something so I can live in a safer area and have a chance to secure my future," Thompson said.
When St. Malachy and Lane Tech squared off in a close battle Saturday, April 12, Lane Tech took home the 7-6 victory on their home field.
Despite the loss, Angelotta still wears the smile of a victor having added the sixth team to his scholastic league. The growth of the league means more competitive games which helps his students feel more "like student athletes" and further fall in love with the sport he grew up playing in Ohio.
For St. Malachy's Nikeal McCoy, 13, of suburban Maywood, the sport has given him a chance to dream about playing competitvely at a higher level.
"Coach A just really got me into it," said Nikeal, sporting a Notre Dame College Prep hoodie, where he hopes to play one day. But his dreams go beyond high school.
"I just want a college scholarship so I can go to school for it — and to maybe make the USA team," he said.