Lacrosse finds a new home at Ballou and two other D.C. public high schools

Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON POST - Coach Holly McGarvie, center, leads the Ballou girls' lacrosse team -- including Diane Jones (left) and Bilqiys Freeman in practice earlier this month.

Holly McGarvie needed to get a few things out of the way before she opened practice for Ballou’s first girls’ lacrosse team last month.

No, the coach told a few players who asked, you cannot swing the lacrosse sticks at opposing players. Yes, to those curious but still skeptical, this is a sport unlike any you’ve ever seen or played, especially since nearly half of her roster had never previously participated in an organized team sport.

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Members of the newly-formed Ballou girls' lacrosse team talk about why they have embraced the sport and how the team was formed.

Members of the newly-formed Ballou girls' lacrosse team talk about why they have embraced the sport and how the team was formed.

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But her most glaring point was unavoidable for all of her players at the Southeast school, whose enrollment, according to D.C. Public Schools, is 100 percent African American.

“You’re going to play games where you see people who don’t look like you,” McGarvie said she told her players.

That may be starting to change in the District. Three D.C. public high schools are offering lacrosse teams for the first time this season – Ballou (girls only), Coolidge (boys only), and School Without Walls (boys). They join Wilson, which has had a girls’ team for more than a decade, and debuted its boys’ team last season. School Without Walls has also fielded a girls’ team in the past.

Ballou’s girls will play their first game Wednesday at Wilson.

“I’m ready to play already,” said sophomore Chard’E Montgomery, who had never been on a team before, but was persuaded by McGarvie to give it a shot.

Each school has started its team independently; the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association isn’t sponsoring a league this season. DCPS Athletic Director Marcus Ellis, however, expressed enthusiasm, not only for interest in a new sport, but particularly that it’s coming from girls, for whom athletic participation has lagged far beyond boys in the DCIAA.

“It’s really building something where there was nothing,” said McGarvie, 24, a two-time all-American midfielder at Princeton who is in her first year teaching biology at Ballou. “I’ve never had a whole team of girls who’ve never played before. I’ve done individuals at clinics, but never a whole team. I approach it like, ‘What would I want to teach them that I didn’t learn?’ ”

While the sport’s efforts to reach new players and fans outside of the mid-Atlantic have been successful, lacrosse’s national governing body is now focusing on penetrating the inner cities and changing the perception that lacrosse is a suburban game. Ballou, located in Congress Heights, has a gleaming artificial turf field, but is otherwise surrounded primarily by an area awaiting urban renewal. Lacrosse is not a sport found in the area’s parks and playgrounds.

“Lacrosse has not been a sport that has been accessible to kids from some socio-economic standpoints,” said Steve Stenersen, President and CEO of U.S. Lacrosse. “We’ve done a good job in this area, but we’ve got to do a heck of a lot more.”

Stenersen said stereotypes are a huge obstacle for the sport’s efforts to introduce itself to inner-city athletes. He recalled the struggle to start the Baltimore City Middle School Lacrosse League in the late 1980s.

“One of the challenges in the Baltimore league,” Stenersen said, “was that they viewed it as a white sport. [Players] were gone in a week [as a result] from peer pressure from friends who said, ‘Why are you playing that sport for white kids?’ ”

McGarvie said she didn’t have that problem when she first began recruiting players around school. Her motivation was, in part, derived from the school only offering four girls’ sports in 2009-10, when 28 percent of the participants in school-sponsored sports were girls, according to D.C. Public Schools, despite girls comprising 53 percent of Ballou’s enrollment.

Softball is the only other all-girls team offered in the spring at Ballou this year; there are about four or five girls on Ballou’s track team and co-ed tennis team. Tony Morton, who became Ballou’s athletic director last August, said girls’ sports is “our big push for next year.”

All of the equipment — sticks, balls, goals, mouthpieces, goggles — has been donated by contacts McGarvie made throughout her playing career. The only expense incurred to start the program was uniforms, which Morton said cost a few hundred dollars.

“She probably saved us four or five thousand dollars,” Morton said of the donated equipment.

When she took the field with her players for the first time, McGarvie had to begin with the sport’s most basic principles, which is why it does not matter that the Knights practice on a field that lacks lacrosse boundaries (their five scheduled games this season are all at other schools because McGarvie wants her players to see fan turnout at games).

With financial and athletic backgrounds that are similarly limited, Ballou players do not have amenities that those at other programs might consider necessities — footwear, for instance. Some players practice in boots because those were the shoes they wore to school that day.

So much of the sport is completely new to many of the Knights.

“I just knew that it was played with balls and sticks. That was it,” said sophomore Tayliyah Dixon. “This is the first time I’m playing with a team and sticking with it. I need to learn how not to give up.”

The ease with which lacrosse players are accustomed to cradling and passing the ball are still new to some of the Knights. So, too, is the running.

“You may be in pain, but it’s fun. It’s a workout,” said sophomore Regina Hawkins, one of the most dedicated players on the team. “It makes me want to do what [McGarvie] did. She’s a role model. It makes you want to have a better future than what you have now by using lacrosse.”

It’s a competitive culture shock for McGarvie, who, growing up in southern New Jersey, recalled as many as 50 players coming out for a varsity lacrosse team. At Ballou, meantime, 18 girls have come out, but never all on the same day. Some practices have as few as three players, while 10 on the field is a successful practice.

“It’s been tough. I have to change my expectations,” she said. “Now, there’s no competition. Everyone who wants to play is going to. When a girl doesn’t show up, what do I do? ‘You’re suspended?’ I can’t do that. Here, you can’t be too tough because you want them to like the sport.”

That point became clear to many of them when McGarvie took the team to the Duke-Georgetown game on March 12. Several players talked about how awestruck they were by how the collegians worked the ball around the field. McGarvie is also stressing to her players the ability lacrosse can have on improving players’ college applications.

“A lot of their eyes opened,” McGarvie said. “It was like, ‘Wow, this is what this can be?’ ”

 
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