By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
Sitting on a divot-filled lacrosse field that doubles as a soccer field, Riley Fink began to ponder what might have been.
"I'm really happy to get to play here," Riley, 16, said of Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt. "But it might have been nice to have uniforms and a locker room and travel money and stuff."
As a star midfielder, Riley had opportunities to play high-level lacrosse. But it would have meant leaving Roosevelt, where most of his friends were and where his brothers had gone. Because he lives in Prince George's County, Riley had to choose: public school or varsity lacrosse at an elite, expensive private school. He chose the former and plays on a club team at the high school, which provides no lacrosse funding. And no place to change clothes.
That Riley had to choose galls many parents in Prince George's and Charles counties who live in the epicenter of the national lacrosse world. Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland are regular national college championship contenders, and half of the nation's best high school lacrosse programs last year were from the Baltimore or Washington suburbs. Yet neither Prince George's nor Charles, both affluent counties in the Washington area, can win approval to start varsity teams.
A lacrosse team, like a flourishing Advanced Placement program or Chinese classes, often is seen as a signifier of high-performing schools, marking them as well-heeled enough to support challenging academic courses and the kind of athletic offerings found among top colleges. The sport's reputation can benefit the school, coaches say, bolstering its standing in the community.
In Maryland, all but four school systems have at least one varsity program. The other two outliers are Garrett and Allegany counties, rural western areas with far smaller populations compared with Charles and Prince George's.
"Right now these are the only two big counties that don't have lacrosse, which is ridiculous," said Janis Milman, a Waldorf resident whose 14-year-old daughter plays for a recreational team in St. Mary's County. "Why should our kids get fewer opportunities to play because of where they live?"
School administrators in Prince George's and Charles have approved the creation of lacrosse programs, but there are no immediate plans. They said that because of tight budgets, it could be years before funding is available.
Coaches, parents and school officials also are sharply divided about whether the game will succeed in the two counties. Although lacrosse is the fastest-growing youth sport in the country, some worry that teams in Charles and Prince George's will struggle to attract players. Most high school and college lacrosse teams are still overwhelmingly white. Prince George's and Charles are two of the three majority-black school systems in the state.
"It's been one dead end after another trying to get black kids to play," said Ruthie Lavelle, president of the Maryland Youth Lacrosse Association. "There are kids who are so athletic, but all they want to do is play basketball. We're trying to get rid of the reputation as an elitist white sport, but it's not going to happen anytime soon."
Dennis Duffy, who coaches Riley's club team, says increasing opportunities for children to play lacrosse will boost interest. He has struggled with recruiting during his two years at Roosevelt, coaching about 25 students this year. Six of them are black.
Still, many affluent families, especially those in Maryland, expect lacrosse to be offered in schools irrespective of whether their children play. US Lacrosse's headquarters is in Baltimore, and the state's lacrosse history runs deep. An endorsement by the NCAA, which says lacrosse players are more likely to be higher academic achievers compared with other athletes, only adds to the prestige factor.
"It absolutely breeds good kids who are good role models for everyone else," said John Baker, a coach in Baltimore County who helped start a lacrosse program in Baltimore's inner city. "It's good for the kids who play, but it's their parents, teachers and classmates who are affected, too."
Duffy, who runs a small business in Washington, said he encounters far more former lacrosse players who have become CEOs compared with former athletes from other sports. But he said it is difficult to break into Maryland's crowded lacrosse landscape. When he left an assistant coaching job at DeMatha Catholic High School to train the Roosevelt team two years ago, he found himself teaching the most basic skills.
"I've been trying to bring University of Maryland lacrosse drills to what is effectively a glorified rec league team," Duffy said. "On my team, even if kids do have experience, they tend to be a lot less skilled than the ones in other places."
The Prince George's youth lacrosse league, run by Riley's mother, Carolyn Fink, provides opportunities to about 40 third- to eighth-graders, only a handful of whom go on to play high school lacrosse. At DeMatha, a six-acre campus in Hyattsville, two or three varsity players are from the county. None is from neighboring Charles. Half the players are from Anne Arundel County, and a quarter hail from Calvert County.
The difference, DeMatha Coach Scott Pugh said, is that the counties that produce top high school players are the ones with decades-long lacrosse traditions. In Crofton, whose lacrosse teams regularly win state youth championships, former Division I college players and coaches train elementary school students. The Prince George's youth program often has difficulty recruiting qualified coaches.
For Riley, who followed his two older brothers into lacrosse and who Duffy says is by far Roosevelt's best player, choosing to stay in public school and play for a club team could hurt his chances of being recruited by a major college program.
"The bottom line is, if you want to maximize your chances of getting a college scholarship at somewhere like Johns Hopkins or Maryland, you go to a traditional powerhouse high school," said Pugh, who will send eight players from the Class of 2008 to Division I programs.
Riley said that he knows he would have been more heavily recruited by college programs if he had played for a varsity squad and that he had considered transferring to DeMatha after his freshman and sophomore years. Ultimately, he decided to stay at Roosevelt, passing up a chance to start for one of the best teams in the country.
"Coaches will look at two recruits, see a guy who went to Roosevelt and say, 'I've never heard of that,' and go with the kid they know," he said. "If I went to DeMatha or if Roosevelt had a varsity program, I'd have a better name. It's disappointing, but you just have to work harder."