Delirium set in once the final horn sounded at Wise High and, like the rest of his teammates, Bowie senior Hamzah Abdus-Salaam instinctively tossed his gloves, lacrosse stick and helmet into the air for a celebratory dog pile.
The Bulldogs had just secured a thrilling 12-11 win over Eleanor Roosevelt in the first Prince George’s County boys’ lacrosse championship game, and the significance of it all was already sinking in.
“We’re in the history books now,” said Abdus-Salaam, and he might know better than anyone how big Monday night could be for the Washington area lacrosse scene.
It was only last year that Abdus-Salaam, who played soccer and golf when he was younger, took a liking to lacrosse even though his parents knew nothing about the sport. He went to Bowie’s administration and asked to start a team. The soft-spoken defenseman then recruited a coach and canvassed the hallways for players. Before long, the Bulldogs’ dormant club program returned to the field.
Then came news this past fall that Prince George’s County Public Schools would officially fund lacrosse as a varsity sport after years of grassroots efforts. Nobody benefited more than Abdus-Salaam. Last month, he signed a national letter of intent to play Division I lacrosse at Hampton, largely because of the film he accumulated as a varsity player this spring.
These sorts of stories will define the first year of Prince George’s County lacrosse. Though there were hiccups along the way, with issues ranging from a lack of officials and trained coaches to a lack of parity, the sport is finding traction in one of the region’s most diverse communities.
And Monday’s championship games encapsulated what could be and what is left to overcome.
The boys’ game went down to the wire as Bowie overcame a halftime deficit behind six goals from junior Jared Morgan and held off a late charge by Eleanor Roosevelt. The Bulldogs also won the county girls’ lacrosse title with a 20-7 win over Eleanor Roosevelt, but the game was not competitive.
“Hopefully more girls come out because now it’s a county sport” said senior Kasey Stevens, a Jacksonville recruit who scored seven goals. “Even if it’s just athletes in general, it’s easy to pick up and hopefully they just come out and keep doing the basics of the sport and it continues to grow year by year.”
Finding more balance remains a challenge. There are only two youth lacrosse programs in the county — the Bowie Boys and Girls Club and the Hyattsville-based PG Pride. But former Maryland state delegate Justin Ross, who started PG Pride and helped spearhead the political effort to get lacrosse funded by Prince George’s County along with state Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters and others, said the goal is to have youth programs set up in Upper Marlboro and Fort Washington by next spring.
This year, seven Prince George’s County schools fielded boys’ lacrosse teams and eight had girls’ teams. Prince George’s County Athletic Director Earl Hawkins anticipates a majority of the county’s 24 high schools to have enough players to field teams by next year, when the county’s teams will participate in the Maryland state lacrosse tournaments for the first time.
At Friendly, which only had a girls’ team this spring, only 11 players participated, one short of the 12 needed to have a full lineup. But the Patriots nonetheless showed up for every game and played down one player.
“It was a learning experience,” said Friendly assistant Julia Gafney, who worked in the penalty box during Monday’s boys’ title game. “But by the end, the boys were asking when can we get a boys’ team.”
Indeed the feel-good stories Monday far outweighed any obstacles that remain.
Take Eleanor Roosevelt boys’ lacrosse goalie Corey Lewis, an offensive lineman on the football team who picked up a stick for the first time this spring.
“I figured all I could do was play goalie, and I ended up loving it,” he said after making stop after stop to keep the Raiders in Monday’s championship game.
Then there was senior Nico Padilla of the Bowie boys’ team, a high-level soccer player who hadn’t played lacrosse in years until returning to it this spring. He is now deciding whether to play lacrosse next season at Howard or Hampton because of the attention Abdus-Salaam first generated.
More than the final scores, this was what made Monday so memorable.
“It was way better than I thought it was going to be,” Morgan said. “At first, I wasn’t confident because we had a lot of first-year players, but everybody on our team came a long way.”