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De La Salle lacrosse coach, among notable alumni at Kobe Bryant’s high school, carves trailblazing path


CONCORD – Before De La Salle seniors Henry Benner, Andrei Gran and Mikey Lencioni became key players on the Spartans’ dominant lacrosse team, they were watching highlights of their head coach on YouTube.

Johnny Christmas was one of the most exciting players of his generation. He won a national championship at the University of Virginia, was a Major League Lacrosse All-Star and had one of the sport’s best dive-across-the-crease shots.

At the same Pennsylvania high school where the late Kobe Bryant starred before being drafted into the NBA, Christmas’ name is listed alongside the basketball legend and numerous others as notable alumni.

“The knowledge Coach brings to the table is unmatched,” Gran said. “We can go to him for questions about different situations and he can tell us from his perspective what he would do. His experience helps us a lot and it translates to our success.”

In some ways, Christmas, who is Black, is a trailblazer.

He is a former star player and now a successful coach in a sport not known for its diversity. According to data compiled by the website Zippia.com, nearly 73% of lacrosse players are White while just 8.9% are Black or African American. Insidelacrosse.com reported that 83.34% of NCAA lacrosse players in 2020 were White compared to 3.86% who were Black, noting at the time that the sport was 40% more diverse than in 2012.

Christmas hopes his presence, which includes those YouTube videos, will help inspire more Black athletes to give lacrosse a try.

“Lacrosse is still predominantly not Black,” Christmas said. “I think as the sport grows and kids that are Black see me on video or on the sidelines, I hope it makes them more comfortable and a little more inclusive in this space.”

Christmas, 41, is in his ninth season as De La Salle’s head coach. His program has won three consecutive North Coast Section championships and is aiming to capture an unprecedented fourth in a row this spring.

There are three lofty goals Christmas sets for his team each season: Win East Bay Athletic League and NCS titles and beat the Bay Area’s premier program, Central Coast Section powerhouse St. Ignatius, a team that is 15-1 against De La Salle dating to 2008, including a 14-8 triumph this month.

“That’s the standard every year going forward,” Christmas said. “We want to win championships. That would be a successful season for us.”

De La Salle's Henry Benner (4) makes a shot against St. Ignatius High during their lacrosse game at De La Salle High in Concord, Calif., on Tuesday, March 19, 2024. Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
De La Salle’s Henry Benner takes a shot against St. Ignatius on March 19. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

Christmas certainly knows what it takes to flourish in a sport that has had steady high school participation numbers in California the past decade. He first picked up a lacrosse stick when he was in third grade, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Jason, who went on to play lacrosse and football at Villanova.

Growing up in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, Christmas saw firsthand what a high-level athlete looked like. Before he became a star at Lower Merion High School in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Christmas would often wait hours in line to watch Bryant (Class of 1996) play for the school’s basketball team. Christmas’ brothers were among Bryant’s teammates.

“I remember seeing Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski in line waiting to see Kobe,” Christmas said. “It was really awesome for me to see how he became one of the best basketball players of all time and one of the best competitors. There’s just a lot of pride around Kobe being from Ardmore.”

On the lacrosse field, Christmas became a three-time high school All-American and was heavily recruited by schools in the Big Ten and Atlantic Coast Conference, but ultimately chose to play lacrosse at Virginia.

Under then-Virginia coach Dom Starsia, Christmas thrived. He was a two-time United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association All-American and led Virginia to a national championship in 2003.

After college, Christmas turned pro. He played in both the National Lacrosse League and Major League Lacrosse for five years.

During his time as a pro, Christmas became a sales rep for a lacrosse manufacturing company. His responsibilities included traveling across the country to sell lacrosse equipment to brick and mortar stores.

That’s when he developed a love for the Bay Area.

“I had the choice to travel to Chicago or San Francisco, and since I went to Chicago a few times already, I wanted to see a place I haven’t been before,” Christmas said. “I immediately thought this place was great. I met some people who told me lacrosse was really starting to boom in the Bay Area. They told me it was a tremendous opportunity to start a club and build the sport and I just made the leap.”

With strong roots in the East Coast, lacrosse has migrated West over the past couple of decades. The NCS held its first lacrosse championships in 2004. The CCS crowned its inaugural champions in 2021.

Before taking over at De La Salle in 2015, Christmas was the junior varsity coach across the Bay at Sacred Heart Prep in Atherton.

At De La Salle, Christmas took over a program that had won three NCS titles under former coach Bob O’Meara.

Christmas’ teams have added four more section championship trophies to the case, earning acclaim from even the Bay Area’s top program along the way.

“De La Salle has always been a difficult place to play,” St. Ignatius coach Chris Packard said. “I have a lot of respect for coach Christmas and the entire De La Salle program.”

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