“I didn’t know how it would happen,” Windley said. “I just knew right then that I wanted to play.”
Now a junior at Wise, Windley worked feverishly in recent months to turn her plan to bring the sport to the Upper Marlboro public school into reality.
Thanks to the former cheerleader’s efforts, the Pumas are among a handful of fledgling club high school lacrosse teams to pop up recently in Prince George’s County, one of just three school systems in the state without at least one team on the varsity level. Six girls’ teams and three boys’ teams have played games this season and at other schools, the groundwork is being laid for future teams.
The Wise team practices on an unlined field using hockey goals borrowed from the physical education department and equipment purchased by the players. Yet volunteer coach Nydia Velando and the 15 rostered players, a majority of whom had never played a sport at the school, have the lofty goal of someday becoming a varsity squad.
Entering their fifth and final game of the season Friday at C.H. Flowers, the Pumas are already an unlikely success story, showing the fast-growing game’s potential in the county.
“The first time we came out here and practiced, the girls didn’t know what cradling was. They didn’t know how to catch or pass,” said Velando, also the school’s girls’ soccer coach. “I feel like now we are understanding the game better and we’re able to think more as a team, moving from the basics into the actual game.”
Eleanor Roosevelt and Bowie have had lacrosse club teams for more than a decade fed by local youth programs, but in areas where the game has been slower to take hold, more teams are appearing, boosted by eager players, coaches and administrators.
At Wise, sport participation lags in the spring without the draw of basketball or football. Of the 2,257 enrolled students, only 118 play county-sponsored spring sports (tennis, baseball, softball and track & field), according to Wise Athletic Director Jason Gordon. Adding in the 15 girls’ lacrosse players makes the total number of female spring athletes higher than male (68-65).
Earl Hawkins, the county’s director of athletics, said he has not approached the county school board about the possibility of adding another varsity sport but would do so if at least 40 percent of the district’s 22 high schools were to have club teams in either boys’ or girls’ lacrosse.
“Now the parents are starting to see it and ask about it,” said Bowie girls’ coach Scott Jones, a volunteer who helped start the boys’ team at the school in 1996 and explored interest from the rest of the county with little success back then. “Once the parents start asking about it at these other schools, hopefully, it will build some momentum.”
At some Prince George’s County schools, grants from U.S. Lacrosse and other organizations have helped foster the growth. The Prince George’s Women’s Lacrosse Association, an organization spearheaded by Elizabeth Seton Coach Ashley Russell, also has played a role, holding coaching seminars and youth clinics in the area.
In an interview last month, Steve Stenersen, the president of the sport’s national governing body, talked about expanding the game beyond “the stereotypical, rich white child.” Prince George’s County has a population that is 65 percent black, according to the most recent census data.
“You see all the elements for growing the game and exposing sort of a non-traditional audience to lacrosse,” said Josh Christian, U.S. Lacrosse’s managing director for sport development. “We absolutely believe it can flourish in that area.”
The DuVal girls’ team began last spring after a grant provided sticks and goggles for 30 players along with goals and goalie equipment. The Tigers made their debut with one game in 2012 and expanded the schedule this year with a slate that featured the first game in Wise history, which the Pumas won 3-2 on April 15.
Parkdale received a grant with about $7,500 worth of equipment, and volunteer coaches have been running loosely organized practice sessions to teach the basics. Athletic Director Brian Moore believes the Panthers could join the competitive club circuit next spring.
“I wanted to wait and see if they would come back [to practice] again and again and they are,” Moore said.
Windley brought a different approach to the process at Wise, bolstering efforts to create a team before she’d even tried the sport. By November, she’d made up her mind that her school should field a team and approached Gordon to come up with a plan.
Windley garnered 104 names on a petition in a few days of collecting signatures during her lunch period and recruited Velando, who learned the sport in high school in North Carolina but had never coached it. Soon after, 55 prospective players showed up at an interest meeting.
When the season began, players were responsible for bringing their own sticks, cleats, mouthguard and goggles, which Windley said cost her approximately $100.
Early practices were devoted to the basics. Only two players had ever picked up a stick before, including the team’s top scorer, Shadia Zhakikani, who learned the game in gym class when she lived in Florida.
At the beginning, the Pumas didn’t have enough equipment.
Even Windley didn’t purchase her own purple stick until spring break about a month after practices started.
“If we only had five sticks,” Velando said, “then we shared five sticks.”
But the core players kept coming back and Velando could see the progress.
Senior Hera Butt heard about the team from Windley in biology class. She knew her cousin played the sport but not much else. She brought along her younger sister Fizah, a sophomore, to the first practice and both vowed to stick with it. Senior Alexis Hicks, another first-time athlete, ended up as the goalie “because nobody else would do it.”
Windley hopes the team will be her legacy at the school. By next year, she wants to have raised the $700 needed for regulation goals, so Wise can host its first home game. She’s reached out to the Upper Marlboro Boys’ & Girls’ Club about starting a program that would eventually feed the squad she started.
After Monday’s loss at Bowie, Windley struck up a conversation with Bulldogs senior Bridgette Leathers at the end of the handshake line. Leathers grew up playing the game and had a few tips for her opponent. Windley smiled as the veteran demonstrated cradling and soon invited her to the Wise huddle, eager to share the knowledge.
“It seems like it’s hard, but once you learn it, you got it and it’s easy.” Windley said of her newfound passion. “I just like the challenge.”