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Melinda Vaughn
When we last checked in with Melinda Vaughn in 2004, she was coaching the nation's only lacrosse program sponsored by a Historically Black College or University.

For Melinda Vaughn, something funny happened on the way through law school. She became the head coach of the first intercollegiate lacrosse team at one of the nation's historically black institutions.

Vaughn, who grew up in New Haven, Conn., was introduced to the sport as a seventh grader and became a recruited athlete before too long. Yet, she chose a different path. She spurned the programs that had an interest in her game and opted for Cornell University, in part because of the school's black studies curriculum. As a player, she made the Big Red team as a walk-on freshman.

While her career at Cornell was not prolific, her love and attachment to the game was solidified. She continued her playing career after college in both New York and Connecticut.

But her coaching career began in track and field, not lacrosse. "Most summers [during my undergraduate days] I helped coach an inner-city track and field program in Connecticut," said Vaughn. "The kids were really talented, and that experience sparked my interest in coaching."

But it was just a matter of time until this interest would collide with the sport she'd come to love. After first becoming a lacrosse official, Vaughn coached at Riverdale Country Day School in the Bronx during her two-year involvement in Teach for America.

Following that stint, she became an assistant coach at Wilton High School in Connecticut. That experience -- helping her team reach a top 20 national ranking -- put her on a dual career path.

Holding a master's degree in history and educational policy from George Washington University in the nation's capital, she found herself accepting an assistant coaching position at Howard University during her second year of law school at GW.

The story of the Howard lacrosse began with two undergraduates -- Jennifer Brown and Monique Richards -- in the mid-1990s. Both had played the sport in high school and sought to found a program. The University obliged and the club team was born.

In the fall of 1996 the team received enough support to obtain varsity and Division I status. The team's original coach was Laurie Polmilsak, who had to construct a program at a school were few had played the sport. Polmilsak built a strong foundation for the program and in May 2002, Vaughn went from being an assistant coach to taking over the reigns of the varsity program.

Lacrosse has long been a suburban game. African-American stars have been scarce although many still consider Jim Brown the best they've ever seen. And while the lacrosse community wants to be more diverse, Vaughn is not sure how diverse the sport wants to be. She says that there have been incidents with officials who have made presumptuous comments about the team, commenting on the team's speed but not its ability.

"Yet, in my opinion these young ladies can do more than just run, they are good athletes," she said.

But, by and large, her experiences have been positive and rewarding. While her team is getting stronger, the sport is getting better as well. While the Bison players come from all over -- including places like Colorado, North Carolina, Georgia, California and Illinois -- not all come to campus with even the fundamentals. In fact, Vaughn's current captain didn't play until she enrolled at Howard.

While very few public schools in major cities field teams, there are those who are working to bridge that gap and introduce the sport to children. "My mentor and friend, Tina Sloan Green in conjunction with Ayanna Green, coordinate a play day in June for kids in Philadelphia and the surrounding areas," said Vaughn. "The kids get to play lacrosse and get a feel for the game."

The Bison team is also making inroads on campus. "At Howard, like most other historical black colleges and universities, traditional sports [football, basketball, and track & field] still have a bigger following."

But Vaughn and her team work diligently to increase attendance in a variety of ways, including an annual "Family and Senior Day." Each member of the team brings family members to the game, which is followed by a barbeque.

"Last year we had about 200 people attend the event," said Vaughn. "This year our goal is 500."

And now there is an interest by some of the male students on campus to start a men's lacrosse program at the school as well.

As more opportunities become available for the athletes, Vaughn also hopes that there will be more opportunities for minority coaches in lacrosse as well.

"The (youth) camp environment will give you a chance to test your coaching ability, and see if you really like coaching," she said. If the interest is peaked, Vaughn would recommend the next step of contacting high school camps that focus on college-bound athletes.

"I started there and it worked out well," she said.

It sure has.

— Chanel Lattimer

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