Lacrosse student-athletes hailing from Bowie State, Coppin State, Delaware State, Lincoln, Maryland-Eastern Shore and Morgan State are dominating the field as the Next Collegiate League kicks off. Get the full story from Matt Hamilton at USA Lacrosse below!
Kobie Johnson and Jairus Kelly stood yards away from the sponsor boards at USA Lacrosse headquarters that surrounded the Olympic-style field on which they had just competed, both looking down at Johnson’s bright red shoes.
Johnson, president of the Morgan State men’s lacrosse club, had just flashed his skills on the field as part of the Next Collegiate League, where the Bears topped Lincoln University 23-9 in the NCL Week 3 opener last Thursday. He did so while rocking the brightest cleats on the field — Under Armours with a mix of neon orange and yellow.
“I just like to stand out, honestly,” Johnson joked, a nod to the cameras that dotted the corners of the field.
“You should have seen him. Straight pipe shots. Two-pointers,” Kelly followed. “If you going to be doing that, you’ve got to stand out. Hashtag Kobie Drip.”
Morgan State is among six club teams from historically black colleges and universities competing in the NCL, which launched earlier this spring with a 6-on-6 version of the sport that’s similar to World Lacrosse Sixes. The Bears capped the event as the league leaders at 6-0 after edging Delaware State 15-14 in an overtime thriller later that night.
Johnson, also the team captain, has played lacrosse since he was 5. His father played club ball at Howard. He found a calling in the HBCU lacrosse movement.
But for many of his teammates, their experience with the sport could be quantified in weeks and months. Johnson recruited them. Players like Kelly became his understudies.
“I met this man, and the first week of school he says, ‘Have you ever played lacrosse?’” Kelly said, smiling as he looked up at the taller Johnson. “I said, ‘Nope.’ He told me to come out to practice one day. He gave me a stick, and that was it.”
“I’m glad people like you took a chance and said, ‘Hey, let’s see what he’s talking about with this lacrosse thing,’” Johnson answered.
“This is the most fun I’ve ever had playing lacrosse. The energy and pace from all these HBCU teams, it creates a competitive environment.”
— Kobie Johnson
The NCL gave players like Johnson, a lacrosse veteran, and Kelly, who picked up a stick last fall, a chance to compete for an HBCU on a national stage. The league is a part of Next Level Sports and Entertainment, a content platform and live sports and entertainment company founded by former Atlanta Blaze owner Andre Gudger.
The six teams — Bowie State, Coppin State, Delaware State, Lincoln, Maryland-Eastern Shore and Morgan State — started a 10-game season earlier this month at Maryland’s Ludwig Field. All games are streamed live on Next Level’s integrated cable and digital platform, which has distribution to 20 million homes in the U.S. and 100 million homes worldwide.
The dream of a league that featured HBCU lacrosse teams originated with Gudger and Liam Banks, the former Syracuse All-American who serves as Next Level’s Director of Field Sports. Over the past 8-10 months, Banks has spearheaded the effort to get the NCL off the ground and running.
After three weeks of action, Banks and the team behind the NCL are excited about its potential both in the short- and long-term future. He cited the Olympics — if lacrosse gains acceptance to the 2028 Los Angeles Games, it will be played using the Sixes discipline — as a motivating factor for the development of the league.
“Eight months ago or a year ago, when I talked to people about this concept, they thought it was impossible to pull off,” Banks said. “The idea of having a player from NCL in the Olympics is impossible, but each day we get to live out this mission, the possibilities become more real to others.”
The NCL has provided those that play lacrosse at these six HBCUs an opportunity to map out a future in lacrosse. The games are competitive, fast-paced and, given the varied experience between each player, sometimes unpredictable. But what’s most important to those that play is that the NCL is fun.
“This is the most fun I’ve ever had playing lacrosse,” Johnson said. “The energy you get out on this field, the energy and pace from all these HBCU teams, it creates a competitive environment.”
As family and friends roared from the stands at Tierney Field, Delaware State’s Julian Dixon reflected on the chance to play for his hometown school. The Dover, Delaware, native earned the league’s “Beast of the Week” award in Week 1 and had the Hornets at 5-0 entering Thursday night’s matchup with Morgan State.
“To be able to come out here and compete the same as anybody else, it shows that it doesn’t matter what race you are, you can play this game,” Dixon said. “Being able to make a stamp and be the first to do something. I hadn’t played lacrosse since my junior year of high school, so being able to get back on the field makes me feel more comfortable. To do that in my hometown with this school, it’s amazing.”
Representing six HBCU lacrosse programs, each playing at Tierney Field on the same day, was a vision many players said they could not previously fathom. With just two active HBCU varsity men’s lacrosse programs — at Division I Hampton and Division II UDC — players had little chance to imagine themselves suiting up for their respective schools.
The NCL has changed that perception for Johnson and others like him. He had stood behind the fence on the York Road side of Tierney Field watching the U.S. men’s team play at last year’s Fall Classic. Last Thursday, he had the chance to play under the lights on the same turf.
“I’ve always felt like HBCU lacrosse has so much potential, but I never thought it would happen,” he said. “Never in a million years. You guys made my dream come true that I gave up on years ago. This has me wanting to play on the national team and try to play in the Olympics.”
Standing on the same sideline, using a Brine lacrosse stick as a cane and sporting a navy blue jumpsuit embedded with Morgan State logos, was Ten Bears legend Donnie Brown. Brown, who played for Morgan State from 1978-81, famously scored the game-winning goal against Notre Dame on March 20, 1981.
As he watched Coppin State and Bowie State play each other, he reflected on that 1981 season. He remembered the Bears’ final game against Loyola with a chance to make the NCAA Division II final — a game Morgan State lost.
“Lacrosse in Baltimore was in trouble,” he said. “I prayed before the game for someone to come back and rejuvenate lacrosse in African-American communities, especially in Baltimore. Lo and behold, I was part of bringing it back. This league is part of that process.”
Brown, who has played a major role in the development of lacrosse in Baltimore through Charm City Lacrosse and at the high school level, was inspired by what he saw Thursday at Tierney Field. For him, the opportunity was enough to get excited no matter who won or lost.
“They are playing. No matter what the level is, they are playing. If they weren’t playing, what would they be doing?” Brown said. “You can ask any guy that I played with at Morgan, we all have the same story — that lacrosse saved our life.”
With the Morgan State club program rejuvenated through players like Johnson, several college students now have an outlet to express themselves. Lacrosse has become a conduit for HBCU athletes to showcase their massive potential.
The NCL hopes to help reignite HBCU lacrosse. Early returns are optimistic.
“When you go out here on Morgan’s lacrosse team, you hear about the Ten Bears,” Kelly said after walking through the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame. “You get the lectures. We met some of them. To see it in front of your face and read about the history of it, it’s really enlightening. We’re here continuing the legacy.”
Said Johnson: “We’re the next chapter of this amazing, storied lacrosse team.”