By KEVIN TRESOLINI
The News Journal
WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) ~ Lacrosse has long been touted for the camaraderie it builds among players and the positive culture enveloping that brotherhood.
The sport’s very roots are in Native American games that sometimes were meant to settle disputes or had spiritual implications. The Iroquois called it “the medicine game.”
This spring, they’ve been experiencing the joys of competition and fellowship first-hand at what may have seemed an unlikely place.
Officials at the Ferris School for Boys, the secure-care facility for court-committed males ages 13 to 18 near Prices Corner, had observed an increase in disciplinary problems during the spring. Their solution was to provide a new sports team, as Ferris has football in the fall and basketball in the winter with its teams playing area high schools.
After briefly considering baseball, Ferris officials felt lacrosse made the most sense as a sport players could learn from scratch. In keeping with the sport’s penchant for goodwill, Ferris is fielding a lacrosse team with major assists from U.S. Lacrosse and members of the Wilmington Friends School team.
For those Ferris players, none of whom had picked up a lacrosse stick before January, it’s been a satisfying experience.
“It shows everybody their ability and that there’s no limit to their possibilities if they put their mind to it,” said one Ferris player after Saturday’s 6-2 loss to the MOT Charter junior varsity.
Among those enjoying the sight was Beth Mahr, U.S. Lacrosse’s manager for diversity, inclusion and sport science. Ferris, she said, is the only facility of its kind in the country with a lacrosse team.
“It’s awesome,” she said. “I’m so excited about what’s going on here.”
Because the Ferris players are incarcerated minors, the state Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families does not permit their names to be published.
“I love being part of this team,” another player said. “This is the first time I ever played sports. I never played on a team before but I picked it up really quick. It was because of the good coaches. It shows you how to work with other people, to think first, and not go off on your aggression and your anger.”
The only thing closely resembling a team previously for some Ferris players may have been a gang.
Ferris plays on a field enclosed by a high fence that curves inward at that top to make climbing over and out impossible. Opposing teams and guests must enter through a secure facility.
The families and friends of Ferris players watch games from behind that steel enclosure. After Saturday’s game, players walked over and greeted them, but the fence meant there were no hugs.
During the game, Ferris players, in their green shorts, white jerseys with green and gold trim, and gold helmets, tried their best to execute the fundamentals upon which lacrosse depends — the ability to consistently, quickly and successfully catch, cradle and pass that hard rubber ball.
Doing so was not easy, especially with all the speed, movement and players in red MOT Charter jerseys jabbing their sticks in an effort to disrupt those attempts. Scooping the ball off uneven ground was no easy task either.
While checking and other forms of physical play are key aspects of the male version of lacrosse, Ferris has discouraged that part and focused on basic stick skills and rules.
“We showed them a Notre Dame game,” said Jack McDonough, deputy director of the state’s Youth Rehabilitative Services Division and one of the people behind the program’s start. “The next practice kids were laying each other out. We said, `No, we’ll stick to fundamentals.’ ”
U.S. Lacrosse was also interviewing and videotaping players for a report on Ferris. Mahr was moved when she heard the gratification they’d drawn from the experience.
“A lot of them said they had to learn something brand new that they had never done before and they actually turned out to be pretty good at it,” she said, “and the pride that they had in their voices when they talked about it . . .
“That’s probably one of the biggest struggles for new programs, especially in diverse communities where lacrosse isn’t the first thing that comes across their plates. It’s hard and it’s challenging and it’s frustrating when they can’t get it. They only touched a stick four months ago. This is incredible.”
After Saturday’s game, the Ferris players gathered. Coach Kalyn McDonough, who played and coaches women’s lacrosse at the University of Delaware, told them it was their best game of the year, they’d trusted each other and had hustled. She was immensely proud of them.
One of the referees, Rodger Krass, who’d been in the U.S. Coast Guard, then presented Ferris with a challenge coin as a reward, he said, for their improvement, diligence and positive attitude.
A coach then yelled “One-two-three!” to signal a postgame cheer.
“Freedom!” the Falcons all screamed.
Some help from Friends
Wilmington Friends School students have community-service requirements they must complete. As part of his, senior lacrosse player Owen Ganse decided to help Friends assistant coach Lee Powers teach the game of lacrosse to Ferris players and coaches.
“I finished that like the second week,” Ganse said of those community-service objectives, “but I just kept coming back.”
Among the best outcomes from Ferris’ fledgling lacrosse efforts is the friendships that have developed between the Ferris lacrosse players and Wilmington Friends School players, many of them from affluent backgrounds and having played the game most of their lives.
Powers is Delaware’s U.S. Lacrosse Chapter president. One of his tasks is introducing the sport to underserved areas.
His wife, Dr. Katharine Powers, happens to be a licensed clinical psychologist at Ferris. She was among those who observed that spring brought more”`restraints” of Ferris residents and suggested a physical, outdoor activity such as lacrosse could help alleviate that.
While education, therapy and other various forms of treatment are instrumental during a Ferris resident’s stay, exercise and teamwork are valuable, too.
“If you saw them at the beginning of the season and you see them now, it’s an amazing transition and it really has to do with the great coaches and the kids from Friends who’ve come over to play with them,” said Nancy Deitz, director of the state’s Youth Rehabilitative Services Division. “Teenagers and sports have a connection that transitions across every socio-economic environment. They’re all just kids.”
Since January, when Ferris players began learning lacrosse, Powers and Friends players have been integral to the effort.
“It’s great for these guys to know they can do something they’ve never done before,” Ganse said before dashing off to his own game, Friends’ 18-2 win over Brandywine that improved the Quakers’ record to 10-0.
“I kind of came in thinking I didn’t want to be just be a coach figure. I think it’s kind of refreshing for the Ferris guys to talk to someone who isn’t in Ferris. They can talk to you like a kid. I just tried to be a friend and teach them how to play lacrosse at the same time.”
Ganse and teammates River Harper and Jack Coons, both juniors, could be seen laughing and chatting with Ferris players in a way teenagers would on any typical sidelines Saturday. They frequently provided encouragement and lacrosse tips.
As good as the Friends team is, Harper called the time spent with Ferris “one of the best parts of my week.”
“These guys have had tough pasts and made some mistakes but they’re all great people and it’s good to give them something to look forward to,” Harper said.
Coons, whose father is U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), said he and his fellow Quakers have found the ideal way to honor their school’s core values of service and stewardship.
“I have a smile on my face watching the whole game,” Coons said. “I don’t care about the score. Seeing them be able to pass and catch, set picks for each other, shoot. From where they were in January, it’s incredible.”
Powers and Friends players have spent as many as six hours per week at Ferris.
“These are some nice boys and they could play for me at Friends,” Powers said. “There are some kids who can really play. The difference between these guys and my Friends kids is opportunity. You take these kids and put them on a team at Friends or Tower Hill or Cape, they’d do great. There’s a boy out here who’s going to go to Caesar Rodney next year and he’ll play. He’s a really nice young man.”
Powers also pointed out one player who had a 3.5 grade-point average at his previous high school while taking Advanced Placement classes.
“He said `I just made one mistake,’ ” Powers added of that player’s placement at Ferris.
Watching the Friends and Ferris players interact on Saturday, Powers wasn’t surprised.
Such unity is lacrosse’s lifeblood, he suggested.
“It’s the lacrosse community,” Powers said. “One thing I want these kids to know is, lacrosse people like lacrosse people and we step up and take care of each other. We don’t care where you’re from, what part of town, whether you’re black or white, whether you speak English or not. Lacrosse people take care of lacrosse people, and we talk to the kids about the Native American origins, that this is the medicine game. We play this to heal our communities, we play this to be together. And we take it seriously.”
“This is a cause”
Emmanuel Carlis played football at Temple University, which made him ideally suited to be football coach at Ferris, where he’s also basketball coach.
“I know as much lacrosse as I do brain surgery,” Carlis said on Saturday.
That was actually before he and fellow Ferris football/basketball coaches Walter Armstrong and Richard Booker were trained and received U.S. Lacrosse certification.
But they also had Powers and his Friends players, and Kalyn McDonough, who was also willing to tackle the challenge of the male version of lacrosse, which is different than the female game.
They’ve also enjoyed the learning experience and seen the growth in the players.
“The best thing about is not only are these guys great coaches. They’re also tremendous role models for these kids,” said McDonough, who is Jack McDonough’s daughter. “That is truly what makes the program go round.”
Coaching Ferris players in a new, humbling, sometimes rough, sport has challenges.
In one game, the goalie was “playing beautifully,” Jack McDonough said. Then he gave up two goals and, upset, walked off the field, where coaches restored his spirits.
In Saturday’s game, that same goalie could be seen confidently running upfield with the ball himself and narrowly missing a scoring opportunity of his own.
But confidence and composure can be fleeting, and coaches have, at times, walked onto the field and escorted a player off.
Ferris hasn’t won any of its five games against junior varsity teams, though victory was hardly the primary objective, and still has two this week against Caravel on Thursday and Appoquinimink Friday.
When there is poise and self-assurance, however, there are moments such as Saturday’s when a Ferris player caught a pass, dodged several MOT defenders as he attacked the cage while cradling the ball to maintain possession, then fired in a goal.
“Getting a goal,” he said later, “that’s the best feeling. It hyped everybody up.”
When Ferris told the coaches it was initiating lacrosse, Armstrong said his first reaction was “la-who?”
Now he revels in the results.
“It’s been a beautiful thing to see the change in the kids and the teamwork and the camaraderie,” he said. “Guys who would never be seen interacting together, now they’re out here chumming it up.
“These guys are begging to get in the shower and get into bed after running up and down this field. The night shift appreciates lacrosse, too.”
In that regard, adding lacrosse has accomplished its mission at Ferris.
It has in other ways, too.
“I like playing lacrosse so much,” one player said, “because it’s given me the opportunity to be a role model for my brothers and sisters. On the field, it allows me to show a positive thing I’m doing while I’m here.”
Players have been able to personally see the results of important skills such as listening, patience, diligence, respect and cooperation.
After one game, a referee told Ferris athletic director Craig Walker it was the most competitive junior varsity game he’d worked all season, which Walker felt was quite a compliment.
In making his team’s schedule, Walker found out something he didn’t expect. Sometimes he has trouble finding schools willing to play Ferris, which only plays home games, in football.
With lacrosse, he had no difficulty at all.
“Lacrosse has a different culture, it’s a friendly culture,” Walker said. “It’s very open. These guys from Friends coming out to help adds another aspect to it. Football is a great sport, I love it. But it doesn’t have that. Lacrosse has the heritage going back to the Native Americans. We explained this to these kids and it made sense. `We’re on the field of battle but I still respect you.’ . . . This is a cause. We’re open to this. That’s why I’m glad we have it. It’s different.”
Ferris players may be different. But they have found, through lacrosse, that they’re just like everybody else.
“That’s the culture of the sport,” Mahr said. “It was created by the Native Americans and it was a war game. Different tribes played against each other and that can parallel so much with these kids’ lives, so they find comfort in the culture of lacrosse, like that’s where this is from and we’re a part of it. It was really cool to realize those parallels.”