Northwood lacrosse, long a doormat, tries to compete with the elites

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The Northwood girls’ lacrosse players gathered near a bench on their home field’s sideline and passed the time by painting eye black on each other, braiding hair and taking photos. Soon, the conversation turned to strategy for their game, set to start in 75 minutes.

“Okay, I think we just hold the ball,” senior Delaney Clesner joked, “and stall.”

Then the opponent they had thought about all day arrived.

“They’re here,” goalkeeper Clara Kassaraba said as her teammates turned to watch Churchill’s players enter the Silver Spring school’s stadium.

Entering Monday afternoon, Northwood was 8-2, having transformed into a Montgomery County competitor after decades of serving as a doormat. Despite nearly all of their players only learning lacrosse after arriving in high school, the Gladiators finished 9-1 last year. This spring, they claimed their first division championship — adding a date to the blank girls’ lacrosse banner in the school gym.

Still, they had never beaten a school from one of the county’s wealthiest areas, where the popularity of lacrosse is booming and many players have the resources to start competing as children. Another opportunity arrived when Churchill, the visitors from Potomac, came to Northwood.

Most Silver Spring residents are middle-class — the latest U.S. census data recorded a median household income of $88,274. But in a sport that has grown at varying rates across the D.C. area and costs thousands annually to excel in, Northwood players feel at a disadvantage when aiming for county contention.

“Even if we’re excited and we’re hyped up about this game, and we know we have talent, I think somewhere in our minds there’s just this attitude of ‘We should lose against them,’ ” senior defender Amelia Eisenmann said. “Like: ‘They’re so much better. They’re more privileged than us. I don’t think we hold a candle to them.’ ”

As freshmen at Northwood during the 2018-19 school year, Delaney and Heidi Clesner warmed up for basketball practice in the auxiliary gym. Their friends passed with spare lacrosse sticks, and the sisters decided to try a new sport.

The lacrosse coach happened to be Jennifer Buckley, who coached against the Clesners in middle school basketball. They had speed and talent, but to that point lacrosse was mostly foreign to them.

Silver Spring’s lone youth lacrosse program, a recreation team called the Silver Spring Warriors, was forced to cut its girls’ program for the 2015 season because of a lack of interest. It still struggles to field teams, even as youth programs flourish in wealthier areas.

“I mostly just started playing sports because of my friends, and I didn’t have any friends who played lacrosse,” said Heidi Clesner, who is believed to be the first Northwood player named first-team all-county. “I just really didn’t know what the sport was, entirely, so I was like, ‘Why would I do that?’ ”

Buckley, a former Capitol Police officer who began coaching Northwood eight years ago, refused to cut players so she could maximize the use of equipment, which costs at least $300 per athlete. She also arranged an alumni game, where she asked former players to donate gear.

Still, some players were concerned about the cost. When attacker Fatima Escobar lost her $40 goggles during the first week of practice in 2019, she panicked and searched for them for a day.

“There’s such a large barrier to entry, given the financial cost of the equipment,” said Matt Breslin, who directs youth lacrosse programs in Bethesda and D.C. “Even people who do have the means to it are like, ‘Why am I spending $550 on a sport that I don’t even know if my kid’s going to like?’ ”

After a turnaround 2019 season, Buckley, 43, convinced the Clesner twins to join a club team — where most college recruiting occurs. They traveled to Bethesda to find a competitive squad, Next Level Lacrosse, which cost their family at least $4,000 annually.

When they met teammates who had played since they were 5, the sisters grasped the divide in interest and accessibility across the county. They hope to play club lacrosse in college.

Many of their Northwood teammates haven’t had the same opportunity. Attacker Grace Shadid aspired to play in college after receiving an adrenaline rush from scoring five goals in her first game in 2019.

But she has to work weekends, at Dick’s Sporting Goods, and that’s when club teams typically compete. The senior settled for playing wall ball at a nearby middle school after clocking out. Shadid has become her store’s lacrosse expert, although few customers shop at the Wheaton location for lacrosse gear.

“Even though lacrosse is the sport of Maryland,” Shadid said, “it’s not a sport that’s well-known here.”

About 30 minutes before Monday’s game, Buckley gathered her players to address their nerves.

“When we played [Bethesda-Chevy Chase], it took us a whole half to get into it,” said Buckley, referring to Northwood’s 12-2 loss April 22. “… We can’t do that today. We have to go hard right away.”

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, her players recruit at freshman orientation. Every season, the team uses the first two weeks of practice learning to cradle, pass and corral groundballs.

At a practice last month, Delaney Clesner gauged her team’s chances of beating one of the county’s top teams as slim. Buckley disagreed, recalling the program’s progress on an afternoon when a 2018 graduate visited to donate equipment.

“Look, when this kid graduated, they won one game that year,” Buckley, whose team defeated rival Blair in March, told her players. “If you had told them that we would have beat Blair, they would have been like, ‘No way.’ ”

Northwood wouldn’t advance toward county contention Monday. Churchill led 9-0 before Gladiators midfielder Sequoia Santoro, who plays lacrosse in lime green soccer cleats, scored with 6:44 remaining 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 appeared to find its rhythm as sophomore midfielder Samantha Moser, the program’s potential star, scored. At halftime, the players sat on the field sucking on orange slices and drinking Gatorade as they dissected methods to defend Churchill.

“We’re playing well,” senior Molly Kane said, trying to encourage her teammates. Despite tearing her left ACL in September, the defender wouldn’t miss her final season.

The Gladiators were confident in their game plan, but that hardly mattered when they couldn’t match Churchill’s skill. The Bulldogs scored 44 seconds into the second half and never let up in a 21-4 rout.

“Going up against teams like that, nobody really gets the pressure,” junior Ella Leffler said, “because these girls have like a decade of experience over us.”

Buckley’s postgame message was short, allowing her players to process the defeat. As they dispersed, Buckley, who has struggled to find assistant coaches, gathered orange peels and trash on the sideline.

The players would return 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 sooner,” Moser said, “because I love it a lot.”

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