Bekah S. McNeel

On a Friday night in April, two high school lacrosse teams battle it out at Bob Benson Stadium on the campus of Central Catholic High School. The high school boys whack at each other with their sticks and check each other constantly while running full steam ahead.

The visiting team was not another private school, not prep school kids or a club team. They are from Highlands High School, an SAISD school on the southeast side, near Southside Lion’s Park, where 85% of the students are economically disadvantaged. In their first year to have a team, they are out-resourced in almost every way when they meet the Central Catholic Buttons on the field, but they are in no way out-matched.

The Highland High School Owls play the Central Catholic High School Buttons. Photo(s) by Bekah McNeel.
The Highland High School Owls play the Central Catholic High School Buttons. Photo(s) by Bekah McNeel.

While the final score favors the home team, this is not an underdog story. The Highland Owls had beaten the Buttons earlier in the season and now the Buttons are “out for blood,” said Mary Mattia, the Owls’ coach.

Mattia is a petite blonde, World Geography teacher in her second and final year as a Teach for America (TFA) Corp member. TFA places college graduates like Mattia in low-income schools to spark innovation and inroads to bridge the education gap between their students and those in wealthier districts. The program has been on campus at Highlands for three years. Like many of her TFA colleagues around the city and nation, Mattias was called upon to find that extra something special to make an impact on students.

“I played lacrosse and always loved it. It always did great things for my life,” Mattia said.

So when a student came to her and asked her to teach him to play, she told him to get a team together first, while she researched how to start an official team at the school. The student came back with 22 names on a list, and Mattia knew she needed to make a move on her research.

The Highlands High School Lacrosse Team. Photo by Bekah McNeel.
The Highlands High School Lacrosse Team

Most of their equipment was borrowed or donated. They raised money for most of their expenses. The community came forward to assist in droves, proving once again how ready communities are to support schools – given the chance.

And then there’s the team itself.

As in any good sports story, the names on the list were more eclectic than if they’d been recruited by the coach. At first the athletic department worried that the lacrosse team would siphon off athletes from other teams, but that fear proved unfounded.

“We’ve got skater punks, nerds, athletes, church kids …” Mattia explained.

They didn’t all get along at first, but over the season, they have formed a special brotherhood, as well as a respect for their petite, blonde coach. At the end of the game, amid a flood of emotion (if you’ve never been in a team huddle after the last game of a high school season, you’ve really got to find a way to witness it – it’s like drinking concentrated emotion) the boys engulf Mattia in a group hug.

Mattia reminds them of their bond, and their responsibility to each other as a team. “Remember this moment,” she said. “And don’t forget to check in with each other. I love you guys.”

Team hug! Coach Mary Mattia and her team of smelly high school boys.
Team hug! Coach Mary Mattia (center, hugged) and her team of smelly high school boys.

Players echo the sentiment, until someone yells, “Okay, everybody sweat and fart!”

And with that, we are all reminded that these are high school boys and they are having a blast.

Coming from a football family, I will be the first to admit that I had to look up “Lacrosse for Dummies.”  It was surprising to me that Highlands had embraced a sport that was certainly foreign to them. Like many, I associated the sport with prep schools and the East Coast.

Junior Joshua Gonzalez and Senior Vincent Castillo admit that they hadn’t known much either, prior to meeting Mattia.

“I’d seen it on TV,” Gonzalez shrugged, “But I never thought it would be this [addictive].”

“I kinda got it confused with rugby,” said Castillo, who plays goalie with remarkable skill.

The players explained that their entire school went through a skeptical period. At first a prep school sport coached by a girl seemed less than “manly.” But winning games changed that. Now the players hope their respectable first season will entice others to join the team.

Mattia, Gonzalez, and Castillo agree that lacrosse has made a positive impact on the players. In addition to the many ways that team sports are accepted as pro-social development, being on the team made the boys focus on their physical wellness. Plus, Highlands has a no-pass-no-play rule, so students who would be tempted to let schoolwork slip were instead motivated to work harder in class.

Gonzalez and Castillo said that they learned about leadership this season. With a brand new team, skeptical fan base, and no funding, they had to walk on to the field believing against all odds that they had something going for them. That something was character.

One last team huddle for the 2013 season.
One last team huddle for the 2013 season.

The team was all too aware of their conspicuous presence among the private schools and well-funded Northside schools.

“They have something to prove,” Mattias said. “Not just on the field, but with their sportsmanship. They are overcoming a stereotype.”

Because Mattias is a TFA Corp member, her sights are set on making an impact in the students’ lives. The experience and comradery of team sports, and this inaugural season, in particular, will leave the players changed forever.

Castillo plans to go into the Air Force, but he’s also looking forward to getting involved with the city’s lacrosse league. Gonzalez plans to work out with the University of Incarnate Word lacrosse club this summer as he plans to build on what Mattias started this year.

The drive to build something and commit to a common goal has given the young men a sense  of purposefulness that is certain to influence their future decisions.

Mattias’ time with TFA is up, but the community has rallied around the lacrosse team in such a way that they will be able to continue. Coach Jonathan Moreno is already involved with the team; plans for the future look bright. With so few public high schools supporting lacrosse teams, Highlands stands to be noticed if they can build a competitive program.

Shortly after seeing the Highlands game I saw the ACC men’s lacrosse championship match on ESPN. It was North Carolina vs. University of Virgina. I thought to myself, “One day, I hope there are graduates of Highlands High School wearing those jerseys.”

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

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Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.