Maiden voyage

ON HIGH SCHOOLS

St. Frances' first season is a big win, even if scoreboard says otherwise

Varsity Girls lacrosse

April 25, 2008|By MILTON KENT

The best parenting comes not when a mother or father yells at a child when he or she has made a mistake or spilled grape juice on the carpet, but when the parent takes a moment to gather himself or herself emotionally before addressing the situation.

Likewise, St. Frances girls lacrosse coach Artie Spruill is displaying an important feature of a good leader, namely the one that balances the limitations of an athlete in her charge against the player's ability to grow and improve.

"I constantly take a step back before I open my mouth," Spruill said. "`Wait, Artie. They're not on the level that you're used to being at.' I have to take a step back and realize what level they're on and what they're capable of doing. I'm not going to ask them to do something that I know they won't be able to accomplish. That would be settling them up for failure, and that's not my job."

Spruill's job, in this inaugural season of Panthers' lacrosse, is to take a group of girls - almost all of whom had never picked up a lacrosse stick before practice began two months ago - and make them proficient, as well as manage their expectations.

So far, so good, even in the midst of a schedule of scrimmages and games that has, heading into today's scheduled season finale against Digital Harbor, yielded one win.

"We don't come out here and think we're going to be the best," said sophomore N'Kiya Hamlin, who scored the Panthers' first goal in Wednesday's 10-5 loss at Lansdowne. "This is our first year. It's best for us to come out here and play hard. Even if we don't score goals, we go out and get the couple of ground balls that we do, make at least two or three small passes and throws. We've proven that we can do that."

Indeed, the measure of success for the St. Frances team is that rudimentary, because the Panthers' level of knowledge of the game is that basic, and their ability to improve is that limited.

Since giving up the Dunbar field when the Poets began practicing in March, the Panthers have been practicing each day on the matchbox-sized area outside the school gym in East Baltimore, where there are more acorns than blades of grass and as much concrete as dirt.

Oh, there are fields available in the city where the girls could play, but getting the players to those fields would require transportation that isn't accessible to them. So, learning to run plays off the 8- and 12-meter lines are out of the question for now. There's no track to run on, so conditioning is pretty much limited to the occasional two-mile runs that Spruill can arrange with them in a loop near the school.

In addition, as African-American females, a group that is grossly under-represented in the lacrosse boomlet, the 11 St. Frances players - just enough to field a complete team - are attempting to succeed against a perception that they might be better served in basketball.

"No one's taken the time to really commit to this and give them the opportunity," said Spruill, who played in high school at Loch Raven and in college at Howard and Towson. "They [outsiders] are like, `They just want to play basketball.' No, they don't. They really don't. They want to play something fun and different."

All of these hassles might be deal-breakers for an experienced group of players, but for the novice Panthers, each potential stumbling block is merely an inconvenience on the way to learning a great game.

"It's OK, because this is what we want to do," said JaNee Hill, a junior. "We come to practice, regardless of headaches, tests or whatever."

Luckily for the St. Frances girls, they have in Spruill a boundless source of enthusiasm, an ideal match for their desire to learn and improve.

Spruill is 22, a perfect age to share her players' energy, while commanding their respect. She originally contacted St. Frances officials hoping to find girls who would be interested in joining her nonprofit summer program, Coast 2 Coast. The school, in turn, offered her a coaching position for its startup program, and the rest has been history.

Spruill and the Panthers have learned to trust each other, and their faith was rewarded in March with a 6-1 win over Randallstown. The teacher and many of her students will play together this summer, and when the spring rolls around next year, when they move from club team status to membership in the C Conference of the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland, they'll be ready to fall in love with lacrosse all over again, warts and all and with a few more in the ranks to boot.

"That's all this was about," Spruill said. "I want the girls to have confidence that this is an outlet for them to get to college. It's an outlet to show them things other than Baltimore City. They'll meet new friends, experience new things. Lacrosse can take you over and beyond boundaries. Embrace that and take the ride."

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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