Beneath a scorching July sun, Anthony “Merc” Ryan unloads a box of lacrosse equipment from his car and sets it down on the turf. After a second trip, he returns with an armful of plastic water bottles, sweat beads dotting his forehead.
It’s an ordinary evening for Coach Merc, who spends most nights this way.
After arranging the lacrosse goals just right, he waits for players to file in and gear up, greeting them all by name and with the same warmth.
Kids ranging from age 7 to 17 begin warming up, and soon they gather into a circle around him. Under his direction, they spend the next couple hours working on their shooting and passing as part of a weekly clinic designed to give new players more practice.
“We take them as they come,” Ryan said. “If a kid wants to get involved, we get him involved.”
For the past 15 years, Blax Lax — designed for Baltimore city youths with an interest in the game — has operated by this open-door policy, one that invites players of all lacrosse backgrounds and financial means to join and beef up their skills. The nonprofit organization, founded by Ryan and his friend Lloyd Carter, hosts offseason workshops, camps, club leagues and organizes travel teams for tournaments.
Keon Johnson, 17, a rising senior at City who just picked up the sport a few months ago, said Blax Lax provides an invaluable resource for him as he works to improve his game.
“I’m getting better, but it was definitely tough at first,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t shoot at all before, but he’s helping me with that and with passing.”
With Carter now coaching men’s lacrosse at Hampton University in Virginia, Ryan has taken over most of the responsibility of maintaining Blax Lax. Like a parent, he does so with pride and great care.
For Ryan, his organization fills a need for Baltimore lacrosse players that the city on its own does not provide.
“We give them hope that they can play this game,” Ryan says. “Baltimore is a hotbed for lacrosse, but the city is overlooked.”
While a typical lacrosse clinic offered in Baltimore county can cost hundreds — and club team fees can pile up into the thousands — Ryan says most of his players can’t afford the same opportunities available to other Maryland athletes outside of the city limits.
This, he says, begets a cycle of inopportunity that starts with a Baltimore city player’s unequal access to top-notch lacrosse experiences starting at a young age. Subsequently, that player might not attract the attention of college recruiters.
Instead, Ryan said college scouts tend to keep more watchful eyes on players from county teams. Of the top 25 boys lacrosse teams in the 2018 National High School Boys Lacrosse Rankings, six Maryland county-based schools placed: Marriotts Ridge at 14, Severna Park at 15, Westminster at 16, Calvert Hall at 17, Boys’ Latin at 22 and McDonogh at 23.
Eboni Preston-Laurent, US Lacrosse’s senior manager of diversity and inclusion, said college-level recruitment tends to funnel through club and travel team coaches rather than high school ones, since scouts often make most of their appearances at summer and fall tournaments.
“It’s not that coaches don’t want to come to the city, but it’s easier for them to go to a tournament where they can see hundreds or thousands of kids at once,” Preston-Laurent said. “They’re not really going to high schools anymore because they don’t have the funding.”
Ryan hopes to end the cycle. For starters, he asks players for just $45 for five 90-minute workshop sessions.
“And if we get it, we get it. If we don’t, we don’t,” Ryan said. “We never turn anyone away because they can’t pay. We’ve got kids that are not able to.”
Other streams of revenue have proved valuable to Blax Lax’s longevity. Ryan said other regional coaches have lent support, and organizations such as Living Classrooms Foundation, STX and US Lacrosse have been helpful.
Preston-Laurent said US Lacrosse — which defines itself as “the sport’s national governing body” on its official website — has given annual support to Blax Lax in a variety of capacities, ranging from cash awards through their diversity grant program to in-kind donations including uniforms, equipment and stipends that help cover travel and tournament registration costs.
She said Blax Lax also belongs to US Lacrosse’s Urban Lacrosse Alliance, a network of 65 teams that coordinate with the organization to promote lacrosse in their communities through resources, programming and education. She said while economic barriers to entry certainly exist, some might feel socially uncomfortable joining the lacrosse community as well.
Preston-Laurent said there should be more races and ethnicities represented on the field.
“Kids should feel like they have a home in the lacrosse environment,” she said. “We want everyone to be a part of it.”
In addition to seeking institutional support, Ryan said that alumni of Blax Lax and City lacrosse have been generous in donating their time and resources to the program. He and Carter have both put their own money into sustaining it as well.
A fundraiser on GoFundMe.com set up by Ryan in 2015 continues to receive the occasional donation. Of the $8,000 requested, the fundraiser has accumulated $2,065 so far.
Aside from securing funds for Blax Lax programming, running the clinics and camps, managing the club and travel teams and helping run pick-up and games for kids and adults, Ryan also coaches high school lacrosse at City, where he’s been for the last 14 years.
It’s a demanding schedule, but Ryan, a retired corrections officer, seems content with the way things are.
“There are a lot of moving parts,” said Ryan, an Edmondson High alumnus. “We like to think that we save their lives by doing things that help them become better citizens, better students.”
Ryan spent a good portion of his career as a recreation officer in the Baltimore City Detention Center. There, he enjoyed interacting with juvenile inmates and looked for ways to help them when released.
He fell naturally into coaching nearly 30 years ago. As a Morgan State lacrosse player during the tail end of its years as an official NCAA team, he has seen the sport evolve at the expense of those who can’t afford it. Funding difficulties caused the Morgan State team to relinquish its NCAA accreditation in 1981. It now operates as a club team.
For eight years, he coached lacrosse at the middle school level before spending five years at Walbrook High. Now at City, he recruits new players the same way his high school coach recruited him: by attending games for other sports and persuading the best players to pick up a stick.
“I was playing basketball, and the lacrosse coach approached me and said ‘Hey, why don’t you come out and play lacrosse?’ ” Ryan recalled. “That was in 11th grade, and I’ve been playing ever since.”
In his 14 years at City, Ryan said he’s clinched several championships. He’s had more luck some years than others. But season after season, in the face of ever-present funding challenges and tragedy — such as the killings of Blax Lax player Devin Cook in 2014 and City boys lacrosse captain Ray Glasgow III this past spring — Coach Merc beats on.
Preston-Laurent said Ryan’s dedication to the sport and his community does not go unnoticed.
“He’s a pioneer in Baltimore city,” she said. “He’s gone through a lot of different ups and downs in continuing the program. But it’s a priority for him, so it’s a priority for us.”
And to his players, he’s an inspiration.
“He’s efficient and smart,” said Max Smith, a 16-year-old City lacrosse player. “He knows we have players who have never played before, so he’s diligent about working on everyone’s fundamentals.”
For Ryan, honing players’ skills is only a part of the job. He said he places equal emphasis on individual mentorship.
“We try to turn boys into men here,” he said of his players. “It’s not just lacrosse, we answer all of the calls. And believe me, we get called.”
Some of those calls come from Melvin Scott III, a City boys lacrosse alumnus and current Hampton men’s lacrosse player. He met Ryan as an eighth grader and ended up on the varsity squad the next year.
Scott, who now helps Ryan run camps and clinics, said when he first saw a lacrosse stick as a 10-year-old, he didn’t know what it was. He remains among the minority of City players who started the game so young.
“The majority, they’ve never been exposed before [high school] or heard of it, and if they have, they never knew how to get involved,” said Scott, a rising sophomore studying criminal justice.
He said his family considers Coach Merc as one of their own.
“I called him plenty while I was at school to get his opinion on what he thinks about certain things,” Scott said. “When it comes to lacrosse or my grades or even my social life, he’s like another dad, definitely.”
And Ryan doesn’t just answer the phone: He spends time making calls, too. Johnson said Coach Merc was there for him after the death of two loved ones this past spring.
“He always checked up on me. I stopped showing up for school and he kept calling,” Johnson said. “It’s a family, and he’s going to stay on you and keep pushing you.”
It’s Coach Merc’s signature push that hundreds of Baltimore city athletes know all too well. And it’s that same push that’s gotten Blax Lax through another offseason, through another year.