Dylan Willis is a sophomore on the St. John’s men’s lacrosse team, living a dream that he started to think about in fifth grade.

Willis had only been playing a couple of years when he joined the Hempstead Police Athletic League (PAL) program that was reborn in 2012. 

“I thought it might be out of my reach, maybe it was one of those things I’d continue to dream about,” Willis said. “At that point, I didn’t think I’d play D-I.”

Willis played two years for Hempstead PAL before continuing into middle school and eventually graduating from high school at Kellenberg Memorial in Uniondale, N.Y. Those two years with Hempstead were an important part of his development.

“It helped me tremendously,” Willis said. “A lot of the players that I played with were just starting. I probably had two or three years of experience on them. It was a good opportunity not to disrupt them, but learn from their mistakes and help them become better. Helping other people always helps you become better.

“It put me more in touch with my fundamentals. It gave me the opportunity to really evaluate lacrosse and see it from another perspective.”

Hempstead PAL hopes others will follow Willis all the way into college lacrosse. Even if not, the sport has a place in this predominantly black and Hispanic community.

“It’s vital. Without a spring sport to play, there are too many bad options around for them,” Willis said. “A lot of the kids that played on that team, they played sports throughout high school and stayed out of trouble.”

Hempstead PAL director and coach Alan Hodish is a former teacher and coach in the Hempstead School District. He began coaching varsity lacrosse in 1975 and started a youth program in the community in the late 1970s that consisted of 100 kids. It helped to spark Hempstead High School’s golden years of lacrosse. 

“Even then, we were an underserved community,” Hodish said.

The program ceased operations shortly after Hodish left for law school in the mid-1980s. In 2012, he brought it back under the Hempstead PAL umbrella. He’s kept it to one team of largely fifth- and sixth-graders, with some fourth-graders. They receive support from the Long Island Metro Lacrosse Foundation.

“We practice two or three times a week and have games on Sundays,” Hodish said. “It became known as a strong after-school sport. We’re quite happy with a smaller program.”

Hempstead PAL has produced solid results. 

“These kids are picking up the sport quickly and getting success in the league,” Hodish said. “Two years ago — we don’t look for wins and losses — but we were 7-1, and last year we were 6-1. We usually get the kids for just two years. Occasionally we’ll get a fourth-grader. We culminate with a wonderful award ceremony.”

The ceremony includes awards named for former Hempstead greats. Hodish has brought in former U.S. team goalie Bill Beroza to present the Bill Beroza Goalie Award and speak to the program. The James Ford Offensive Award is named for the former Rutgers standout, while the Aaron Jones Defensive Award honors the former Cornell star. The James Metzger Award is named for the former Hofstra standout who is now one of the program benefactors.

“It’s wonderful that these boys are developing lacrosse skills,” Metzger said. “In Hempstead, you’re going to see a lot more African-American players in middle school and high school and ultimately in college and the professional leagues. It’s richly rewarding to be involved in that.”

Metzger, the godfather of Rob Pannell, comes each year to present his award and tries to convey how playing lacrosse opened doors for him, daring the young athletes to dream the same way Dylan Willis once did.