As a teacher on the West Side, Sam Angelotta wanted to expose his students to a world outside of their neighborhoods.
To do so, he decided to teach his students a sport that had historically been played in whiter and more affluent communities, despite its origins as a game played by Native American tribes: lacrosse.
Angelotta, a former club lacrosse player and Ohio native, said he first came up with the idea in 2009, while he lived in Manchester, England and worked for the English Lacrosse Association.
“I helped grow the [game] through introductory clinics,” Angelotta said of his time overseas. “I saw the impact it had despite being in Manchester — where soccer is dominant.”
He started Outreach With Lacrosse & Schools (OWLS) in 2011, after he returned to the U.S. and became a student teacher at St. Malachy School on the Near West Side. He later became a full-time teacher there and coached lacrosse at St. Ignatius College Prep.
The organization not only teaches the fundamentals of the sport to a population that hadn’t been exposed to it much, but it also provides high school and college scholarships and offers mentoring and academic services from tutors, teachers, and school administrators, along with volunteers.
“We literally started in a boiler room,” said Angelotta, now 33. “We had 10 middle school-aged kids. ... Kids were like, ‘What is lacrosse?’”
But “once we got out there and started playing, kids immediately gravitated towards it. It’s a fast-paced game,” he said.
Neighboring schools took note and wanted to start their own lacrosse programs, he said. He also partnered with the Chicago Park District.
“The program exploded,” he said. “We got grants here and there. I was making it happen on my teaching salary, and running the program after school.”
He said the program succeeded even though there were “many unique challenges coming out of the West Side of Chicago.
“There was a lack of safe spaces and a lack of places to play, along with athletic budgets being cut in school systems across the United States. Kids need an option,” he said.
OWLS now has three tiers: OWLS Outreach (Grades 3-8); School League (Grades 5-8); and OWLS Academy (Grades 6-12). Between the three programs, Angelotta says OWLS has about 400 kids within its ranks. It serves kids from the South and West sides, particularly in the Near West Side, Garfield Park, Pilsen, Little Village and Austin — communities that have seen disinvestment over the years.
Angelotta’s growth mirrors what’s happening around the country. As participation in prep football declines, many athletic directors say they plan to add lacrosse to their programs, according to a 2018 survey by “Coach & A.D.,” an athletic trade publication.
Coach & A.D. dubbed lacrosse America’s “fastest growing” high school sport, and said participation is up 22% for girls and 18% for boys.
In recent years, OWLS has built partnerships with lacrosse programs in the city and the suburbs, along with universities such as Notre Dame and Northwestern. The program has gotten grants from everywhere from Dick’s Sporting Goods and the Bill Belichick Foundation to Goldman Sachs and Kirkland & Ellis.
Some of the players have gone on to play the sport in high school and college, while other OWLS alumnus have gotten opportunities in other sports.
Angelotta, who left St. Malachy in 2016 after three years as its athletic director, is now working for OWLS full-time as its executive director. In addition, he has one full-time employee. He wants to keep the program going as long as possible, noting that “kids who play sports across the board tend to do better in school and in life.”
Still, despite the emphasis on sport, he notes the program also focuses on more aspects than just the game. He says he knows he’s having an impact when former competitors return to help out.
“Our primary focus is academics, along with social and emotional growth,” Angelotta said. “Some of the kids pay it forward by coming back to coach.”