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Baltimore-area natives lift Uganda to success in world lacrosse championships

Andrew Boston wore a headlamp so he could walk to the bus stop at night. He carried a lacrosse stick to ward off wild dogs, and then he waited for a bus that might not come.

For Uganda to be ready for its historic debut on the world stage, he knew he had to make this journey. Every weekend.

Hired as the head coach of the Ugandan national team in September, Boston, an Ellicott City native and Loyola High graduate, made the 20-hour round trip from the radio station where he was working in the Teso region of the northeastern part of the country to the capital city of Kampala. There, he would work with the team.

"I realize how absolutely ridiculous it sounds, but when you're there, it's just the way it is," Boston said. "There was nothing that was easy about this."

Boston's efforts have been rewarded with two wins — and heaps of publicity — in the Federation of International Lacrosse World Championships in Commerce City, Colo., a suburb of Denver.

Uganda, the first African nation to compete in the world championships, took up the sport just a few years ago. And its ties to the Baltimore area are strong.

Aside from Boston, who was a defenseman at the University of Delaware, Tyler Steinhardt, who hails from Reisterstown and graduated from Boys' Latin, is the team's general manager.

Steinhardt, 20, traveled to Uganda in June 2011 as part of the Fields of Growth organization, which seeks to plant seeds for lacrosse in developing countries. Steinhardt, who would make two more trips to Uganda, was asked by Fields of Growth founder and Wheeling Jesuit head coach Kevin Dugan to become the Ugandan team's general manager the following year

"I'm not [Ravens GM] Ozzie Newsome yet, but I did pick the players, I helped make cuts on the team, I was responsible for training, I helped with some fundraising, little things like that," said Steinhardt, who in 2012 founded the Shootout for Soldiers, a 24-hour lacrosse game that raised $120,000 to support wounded American troops. "It kind of got bigger and bigger, and now we're here in Denver, which is pretty incredible."

Boston had happily given up lacrosse after graduating from Delaware in 2003. He joined the Peace Corps, which had sent him to Haiti after an earthquake ravaged that country in January 2010. Two years later, he was sent to Uganda, discovered Fields of Growth via Facebook and sent the organization a message of his desire to meet staff members and Ugandan players.

"I went down for a week, and that was my first experience back with the game," Boston said of that meeting in December 2012. "Other than coaching my future son or daughter, it was the perfect re-entry to the game. I went back in the summer of 2013 and I wasn't a coach. I was there to help out, and I was really getting into it, and then I realized that I love this game."

A foreign game

In a country where soccer and rugby are the most popular sports, helping the Ugandan players adjust to the intricacies of lacrosse was a difficult assignment.

Steinhardt said some players put elbow pads on their knees, used girls sticks and would occasionally try to head the ball into the net like some of their soccer heroes. Boston said some viewed the sticks as fishing poles.

But the players began to learn and adapt, and Boston and Steinhardt even made cuts, narrowing the pool of 60 candidates to 25 — 18 of whom made the trip to the world championships.

Along the way, players have endured stark hardships. Eight of the 18 players hail from the northern region of Uganda, which has been terrorized by Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army. Kony has kidnapped children and forcibly drafted them into his army, and players have lost parents, siblings and other family members.

Some players have watched relatives die from HIV, and nearly all have battled poverty and hunger.

Even getting to the United States was a challenge. After a fundraiser, the Dream 2014 Campaign, launched by former Louisville lacrosse player Aimee Dixon raised about $150,000 to pay for travel expenses for the team and coaching staff, Boston was unable to secure his players' visas until days before the team was scheduled to fly to Colorado. American and team officials had to hammer out security details to prevent players from defecting.

"These men are from the villages," said Boston, who has been aided on his staff by former Princeton All-America midfielder Tom Schreiber (offensive coordinator) and Virginia rising junior defenseman Tanner Scales (defensive coordinator). "It's not like we brought college-educated, city-dwelling Ugandan men out there. Many of these guys are marginally employed. Over half of them on their passport applications wrote 'Sportsman' [as their occupations]."

Shaking up the world

Fed by sponsors and using equipment donated by lacrosse gear manufacturer Warrior, the team turned promise into results with victories over South Korea on Monday and Argentina on Thursday. Trailing 9-4 after three quarters Monday, Uganda scored six unanswered goals. Midfielder Patrick Oriana got the game-winner with 36 seconds left in regulation to secure the improbable win.

"It was exciting," Oriana, 26, said of the country's first victory. "Coming off of three straight losses, we needed some kind of motivation. That was the very first one. So we were very excited."

On Thursday, midfielder Castro David Onen, a baker who quit his job to play for the team, recorded seven goals and one assist to propel the Cranes — the nickname for the country's soccer team that the lacrosse team has adopted — to the 11-5 rout of Argentina.

"Win No. 2 was a little bit more special in some ways because it was such a complete performance by the team — both defensively holding a team to only five goals and offensively scoring goals, especially David Onen scoring seven goals," Steinhardt said. "That was just fun to watch, to see somebody put on a game like that. So No. 2 was definitely special as well."

With Friday's 14-7 loss to China, Uganda finished with a 2-5 record and placed 34th. Steinhardt said beyond wins and losses, the team has an opportunity to accelerate the sport's growth in Africa.

"It's about where the sport goes back in Uganda as well as what effect this has had on the sport of lacrosse worldwide," he said. "I think they shattered the glass ceiling of lacrosse, and it will be exciting to see where lacrosse grows from here."

Said midfielder Oriana: "There have been a lot of challenges, but at the same time, there has been development. We have seen improvement. We're becoming better lacrosse players along the way. We have picked up so many things."

Steinhardt and Boston's involvement in the team's future is uncertain. Boston's service in the Peace Corps ended last month, and he is planning to take the Foreign Service exam and get married in February.

Steinhardt is not sure what he will do. But he called the players his "best friends" and vowed to maintain his connection with the team and the country.

"I told them from the get-go that for me, it wasn't about July 2014," he said. "If it's July 21 and we're out, I'm going to be involved with these guys until the day I can no longer do any more. To be a part of this dream and this team is really special, and I'm very grateful that they've allowed me to be a part of this dream for this long."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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