Then the opponent they had been thinking about all day arrived.
“They’re here,” goalkeeper Clara Kassaraba said as her teammates turned to watch the Churchill players enter the Silver Spring school stadium.
Going into Monday afternoon, Northwood was 8-2, having transformed into a contender for Montgomery County after decades of serving as a doormat. Although nearly all of their players didn’t learn lacrosse until after they entered high school, the Gladiators finished 9-1 last year. This spring, they won their first division championship, adding a date to the women’s lacrosse blank banner in the school gymnasium.
Yet they had never beaten a school in one of the county’s wealthiest areas, where lacrosse’s popularity is booming and many players have the resources to start competing as children. Another opportunity presented itself when Churchill, the Potomac visitors, came to Northwood.
Most Silver Spring residents are middle class — the latest US Census data recorded a median household income of $88,274. But in a sport that has grown at varying rates in the DC area and costs thousands of dollars each year to excel, Northwood players feel at a disadvantage when aiming for county wrestling.
“Even though we’re excited and excited about this game, and we know we’ve got talent, I think somewhere in our minds there’s just this attitude of ‘We should lose to them,'” said senior defender Amelia Eisenmann. “Like: ‘They’re so much better. They are more privileged than us. I don’t think we hold a candle to them. ”
As freshmen at Northwood in the 2018-19 school year, Delaney and Heidi Clesner warmed up for basketball practice in the auxiliary gymnasium. Their friends died with spare lacrosse sticks, and the sisters decided to try a new sport.
The lacrosse coach was Jennifer Buckley, who coached the Clesners in college basketball. They had speed and talent, but until now, lacrosse was mostly foreign to them.
Silver Spring’s only youth lacrosse program, a recreational team called the Silver Spring Warriors, was forced to cut its women’s program for the 2015 season due to a lack of interest. He still struggles to form teams, even as youth programs flourish in wealthier areas.
“I mostly started playing sports through my friends, and I didn’t have any friends who played lacrosse,” said Heidi Clesner, who would be Northwood’s first player named to the all-county first team. . “I really didn’t know what the sport was, so I was like, ‘Why would I do that?’ ”
Buckley, a former Capitol Police officer who started coaching Northwood eight years ago, has refused to cut players so she can maximize use of the equipment, which costs at least $300 per athlete . She also hosted an alumni game, where she asked former players to donate equipment.
Still, some gamers were concerned about the cost. When forward Fatima Escobar lost her $40 glasses during the first week of training in 2019, she panicked and searched for them for a day.
“There’s such a big barrier to entry, given the financial cost of equipment,” said Matt Breslin, who runs youth lacrosse programs at Bethesda and DC. “Even people who have the means say to themselves, ‘Why am I spending $550 on a sport that I don’t even know if my child is going to like? » ”
After a 2019 season turnaround, Buckley, 43, convinced the Clesner twins to join a club team – where most college recruiting takes place. They traveled to Bethesda to find a competitive team, Next Level Lacrosse, which costs their family at least $4,000 a year.
When they met teammates who had been playing since they were 5, the sisters grasped the gap in interest and accessibility across the county. They hope to play club lacrosse in college.
Many of their Northwood teammates didn’t have the same opportunity. Forward Grace Shadid aspired to play in college after receiving an adrenaline rush after scoring five goals in her first game of 2019.
But she has to work weekends, at Dick’s Sporting Goods, and that’s when the club’s teams usually play each other. The eldest was content to play wall ball at a nearby college after pointing. Shadid became her store’s lacrosse expert, although few customers bought lacrosse gear from Wheaton.
“Even though lacrosse is the sport of Maryland,” Shadid said, “it’s not a well-known sport here.”
About 30 minutes before Monday’s game, Buckley gathered his players together to soothe their nerves.
“When we were playing [Bethesda-Chevy Chase], it took us a whole half to get into it,” Buckley said, referring to Northwood’s 12-2 loss on April 22. “…We can’t do that today. We must go there immediately. »
Buckley has experience building a county contender. She was a founding member of the Richard Montgomery Girls’ Lacrosse Program in the mid-1990s.
To attract Northwood students to lacrosse, its players recruit during freshman orientation. Each season, the team uses the first two weeks of practice to learn how to rock, pass and circle the pitch balls.
During a practice last month, Delaney Clesner felt his team’s chances of beating one of the county’s top teams were slim. Buckley disagreed, recalling the progress of the program one afternoon when a 2018 graduate dropped by to donate equipment.
“Look, when that kid graduated, he won a game that year,” Buckley, whose team beat rival Blair in March, told his players. “If you had told them we would have beaten Blair, they would have said, ‘No way’.”
Northwood would not advance to county affirmation on Monday. Churchill led 9-0 before Gladiators midfielder Sequoia Santoro, who plays lacrosse in lime green soccer cleats, scored with 6:44 left in the first half. Santoro grew up playing soccer, but has developed a passion for lacrosse since her teammates convinced her to play last year.
Thirty-nine seconds later, Northwood seemed to find his rhythm when second-year midfielder Samantha Moser, the program’s potential star, scored. At half-time, the players sat on the pitch sucking on orange slices and drinking Gatorade while dissecting methods of defending Churchill.
“We’re playing well,” said senior Molly Kane, trying to cheer her teammates on. Despite tearing her left ACL in September, the defender will not miss her last season.
The Gladiators were confident in their game plan, but that didn’t matter when they couldn’t match Churchill’s skill set. The Bulldogs scored 44 seconds into the second half and never let go in a 21-4 rout.
“Playing against teams like that, nobody really feels the pressure,” said junior Ella Leffler, “because these girls have about a decade of experience on us.”
Buckley’s post-match message was short, allowing his players to deal with the loss. As they dispersed, Buckley, who struggled to find assistant coaches, picked up orange peels and trash on the sideline.
Players returned the next day for practice — another opportunity to make up for the years they hadn’t heard of lacrosse.
“I just wish I was introduced to the sport earlier,” Moser said, “because I like it a lot.”