A Career Full of Passion: Building Strong Lives with Lacrosse

Students on the playground at Harlem's P.S. 76 are learning a game they love and opening doors to their futures.

Spencer Riehl '13 describes his job in ways that sound like paying it forward. As a Denison student and lacrosse player, he was heard and encouraged, held accountable and pushed to be his best self. Now it's his turn, and he's doing the same for others.

For Riehl, lacrosse is a way of getting at something much larger. The sixth-through-eighth-graders at New York’s P.S. 76 are in it to play a new game at first, but as Riehl coaxes them through the early skills and inevitable fails of the sport, they’ve already started to change. They're converts long before they realize they’re acquiring a support system for building strong lives.  

Riehl has been a program director at Harlem Lacrosse for three years now, after spending his first year after graduating from Denison in London promoting the sport for English Lacrosse. When Harlem Lacrosse decided to expand in New York, he flew back to the states, interviewed, and landed the job in the program he's passionate about.


He’s very clear about his work: “It’s an intervention program, not a lacrosse program,” and it digs deep into developing strong habits and strategies for success in the young scholar-athletes.

It’s a good thing he feels so committed to it, as Riehl puts in close to fourteen-hour days during the season. He arrives at the school by 8 a.m. most mornings to greet his players before going on rounds to ensure they're in class. He conducts study halls after school before practice starts at 4 p.m., and after a two-hour practice come academic tutoring sessions. All of this is mandatory for the students, who love lacrosse, to remain in the program. 

“They come in as young kids and they just want to go on trips or they want to win some of the equipment incentives we offer, but by the time they’re in eighth grade, it’s become a way of being for them,” says Riehl. “For one thing, lacrosse is a way to develop non-cognitive skills, such as grit, resilience, teamwork — and ultimately the players learn to be autonomous as good students, athletes, and people.” 

He’s effusive when discussing the personal growth of his students. “We teach life skills,” he says, “The first thing I do with each of my guys is show them how to shake my hand and look me in the eye.” 

Riehl learned a lot about the power of mentoring as a student in college, when he was an economics major and captain of the lacrosse team. “Attending a school like Denison, where professors and coaches have open doors and are willing to talk with you at length about topics, assignments, your growth as a student, athlete, and person — that has really reinforced my belief in having a consistent and present support system around students at all times.”
 
“Open doors” is a key concept for Harlem Lacrosse. Not only is it about the coaches and mentors being available and vigilant in guiding the students’ improvement and growth, Riehl helps them understand that if they work hard and meet their obligations, “doors can open up for them.”

Riehl is proud of the hardscrabble way his program at P.S. 76 has performed on the field, despite modest facilities and shuttling around the city by foot and by subway from match to match. Through lacrosse, they play against some elite schools, exposing them to travel, and also to the culture of private education in America and the advantages it can bring. Harlem Lacrosse has sent nearly 70 students to boarding and independent schools around the country since 2011, students who have earned $24 million in scholarship offers.

Lacrosse is still a very small community with a long history at Denison, so opportunities are always presenting themselves for student-athletes who are ‘earning it,’ as Riehl says, even in college. The Harlem program first came to Riehl’s attention through Denison friend Bart Farinholt ’13, who now works part-time as a CAA (Coach Across America) for Harlem Lacrosse. “Also, Abe Freidin ’13 and Jack Sieke ’13 both tutor two of our student-athletes on a weekly basis,” he adds.

A formal internship program was initiated just this summer, and Liam Burman ’18 is part of that first intern group of twelve. Last summer, Will Nabors ’18 and others participated in an informal version of this program.
 
Riehl, who’s from Baltimore, got a jump-start on the sport with his father, Tom Riehl ’85 who played at Denison for Tommy Thomsen for four years, and mother Melissa (Meissy) Ray Riehl ’86, a Denison swimmer and strong supporter of lacrosse. 

Next year, Riehl will move up the ranks to become Director of Advancement for Harlem Lacrosse, which coincides with the program’s expansion into several more cities. (They’re already in Boston and Baltimore as well.)
 
The Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem won the city lacrosse championship this past season with a good number of former Harlem Lacrosse athletes, but Riehl emphasizes that the focus isn’t really on the sport. “Everything we put around the lacrosse builds on itself,” he says, and he looks back to his advisor Ted Burzak in economics and Coach Caravana, both of whom not only listened when he needed it but held him accountable when they knew he could do better. 


“I try my best to be that ‘support system’ with the Harlem Lacrosse student-athletes at P.S. 76 every day — in the classroom and on the field. I want to help to push them the way I was pushed, to be the best versions of themselves that they can be.” 

July 21, 2017