They raised their lacrosse sticks in the air before playing in the state tournament for the first time in school history.
Heck, in Detroit history.
“Ceee! Teee!” the girls chanted.
“Whut?” came their reply.
The Detroit Cass Tech girls lacrosse team — the first PSL girls lacrosse squad — was getting hyped before playing in the regional Thursday night at West Bloomfield.
The girls were pumping their sticks in the air, chanting, jumping, hands raised to the sky. Most of these girls had never played lacrosse before joining this first-year team. Shoot, many had never even played a sport. Earlier this spring, on the first day of tryouts, one girl showed up wearing ballet shoes and the goalie had no idea how to put on her equipment — you sure, coach?
Everything had to be learned — how to hold the stick, how to catch a pass and how to be an athlete — before they could even get to the strategies. But here they were, feeling like pioneers: A team comprised mostly of black girls from the inner city, in a sport dominated mostly by white girls from the suburbs, feeling like they had already done something historic.
Because that is what Cass Tech did this season. They made history.
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It took a village to get this team started. They used equipment and shoes donated from the University of Michigan lacrosse club team, Dick’s Sporting Goods and the Detroit United Lacrosse Association (a youth organization trying to get this sport to spread through the city). A Cass Tech alum gave $10,000, and countless donations came from friends and family. A couple of the girls had internships at Quicken Loans and some employees there — it turns out there are a lot of lacrosse lovers at Quicken — donated to the team.
“Let’s go!” somebody screamed.
Yes, let’s go where nobody expected. Because two hours later, this story would transform, like a Disney movie come to life with a cool twist at the end, changing from a feel-good, heartwarming tale into something truly magical and profound.
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Making up for 2020
“You gotta go, guys!” coach Summer Aldred screamed from the sideline. “Make it happen, Taylor!”
Taylor Weston, a sophomore, had turned into one of the team’s stars. But every time she got the ball, West Bloomfield was double-teaming her, if not triple-teaming her. And the Lakers scored first.
Aldred called timeout.
“Defense, you need to go after the ground balls,” Aldred said.
Less than a minute later, Weston scored.
That felt monumental, considering where this started. This Cass Tech team was actually formed in 2020. But the day after tryouts, the season was canceled because of COVID-19. “It was so heartbreaking,” said Deja Crenshaw, one of the captains.
The seniors on the 2020 team never got a chance to play, never got a chance to wear their uniforms. So Aldred took the uniforms to the player’s houses, so they could get a picture.
“I ended up driving around in late April, early May, to all of the seniors,” she said. “I was, like, wearing two N-95 masks, gloves on, socially distant, handing them these uniforms. We wanted to have one last memory. We didn’t want them to have nothing.”
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Forged by their schedule
The Lakers were too strong, too experienced. They scored a flurry of goals for a 7-2 advantage at halftime.
“We know five goals is absolutely nothing!” Aldred told her team at halftime. “Sticks up, guys. Let’s do this!”
Cass Tech wasn’t freaked out by the deficit because Aldred had built such a tough schedule. It would have been easier to play a JV schedule, learning against similarly inexperienced players, but Aldred crafted a far more difficult path. She scheduled Lake Orion for Cass Tech’s first game and lost, 21-1.
“In the beginning of the year, I had specifically planned to play some pretty tough teams,” Aldred said. “The main reason I did that was because most of our roster has never played a lacrosse game. So the last thing I wanted was to play easy teams who are also in a similar boat, who also don’t know how to play lacrosse, and then it ends up being just like little kids soccer where 12 people follow the ball all the way up and down the field, and no one really knows what to do with it.
“I framed it as, ‘OK, guys, I’m not expecting you to win. But I am expecting you to learn. And so let’s go into this and try to get as much out of this experience as possible, where you guys can see what you’re supposed to do.’ ”
After a few weeks, the girls improved and they posted a pair of surprising wins, beating Avondale and Clinton Township Chippewa Valley.
“It’s been a surreal experience, like one of those teenage coming-of-age movies on Netflix,” said Zahria Liggans, a team captain. “It’s all the underdogs and kids who have never played a sport before, kids whose parents are like, ‘just get out there and play.’ It just feels like, this is me? This is my life? This feels like something I’m watching on TV. We look like a completely different program than we did in our first game against Lake Orion than we do right now. It has been probably one of the craziest experiences. We are changing the game and making history.”
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‘Do it for our seniors’
The game was slipping away. West Bloomfield had a 12-3 lead, and Aldred called timeout with 4:38 left.
“I know you are absolutely gassed,” she told her team. “There are 4 minutes left, maybe for the rest of our season.”
She bent down and looked the girls in their eyes. “Give it 110% for these last 4 minutes — for our seniors,” she said. “They deserve that. Do it for our seniors. Let’s get goal after goal. Protect the ball.”
They didn’t give up.
Are you kidding? These girls who learned a sport during a pandemic?
If nothing else, this season taught them about perseverance and teamwork. They learned that nothing is out of their reach. It doesn’t matter the color of their skin or where they were born. And they found out that countless people were rooting for them. People from the suburbs. People they haven’t even met.
Many of these girls didn’t really know each other before joining this team. Sure, they would see each other in the hallways. But they didn’t really know each other.
But now? They felt like a family.
This was their one escape — their one moment of normalcy — during this crazy pandemic. They couldn’t go to school — classes were all virtual — but they could get together at practice. It was the one time they could hang out and see each other.
“I think it made them realize that they have the ability to do anything they set their mind to and that they can be successful,” Aldred said. “Empowering young women is the whole reason why I come. Because it’s great to see kids gain that level of confidence in themselves. And personally, just makes me so happy to see the smiles on their faces, when they realize, wow, I can do this.”
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A gathering of teams
The game ended. West Bloomfield had a 12-3 win, and the Cass Tech girls met on the field.
“Group hug!” Aldred said.
They came together, arm in arm, a mix of emotions.
“Guys, we played our hearts out this season, and I’m so proud of how far we have come from the beginning of this season until where we are right now,” Aldred said. Her voice cracked with emotion. “So take this as a moment of pride — that you guys are the first Detroit lacrosse team, and you made it all the way to regionals and you guys competed your butts off.”
She pointed with her right hand while talking through a mask. “It was a close game through and through,” she said. “The score doesn’t reflect that, and I am so proud of each and every one of you. So let’s chant for West Bloomfield.”
They raised their sticks in the air.
“Thank you, officials!” the girls shouted together, pumping their sticks. “Thank you, fans! Thank you, WB! Go CT!”
Cass Tech principal Lisa Phillips walked up. “I’m proud of you,” Phillips said. “And coach, you are great.”
The team sat on the artificial turf and the girls gave shoutouts to one another.
“I want to say great job, Deja!” said someone wearing a mask.
“Z, oh my god, girl, every single game, you are like, awesome!” said another girl wearing a mask.
Then, the true surprise happened.
Phillips walked back toward the team, leading about 10 members of the Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook-Kingswood girls lacrosse team onto the field.
“Our sister team!” somebody yelled.
The Cranbrook girls had come to support Cass Tech. Aldred is head coach at Cass, but she is also an assistant at Cranbrook.
“They came and supported us,” one of the Cranbrook girls said. “So we came for them.”
The girls from Cranbrook and Cass broke into small groups and started talking. Some from the city, some from the suburbs. Some black, some white. And suddenly, none of the labels mattered anymore. They posed for one giant team picture — united in the love for lacrosse.
“This is what it’s all about,” Phillips said. “It means we are bridging the gap, baby. It takes CT to bridge the gap. For these girls from Cranbrook to come and support and stay and go talk to the girls, it means a lot. This is about school pride, city pride, representing, making history in a pandemic. This is another win, a win for the city of Detroit, a win for DPS. It’s about unity, bringing the suburbs and city together, to see that gap bridged.”
I’ve seen a lot of amazing things in sports — things that surprised me or amazed me — but this was one of the coolest moments I’ve ever seen.
Because it happened so organically.
“How long you guys been playing lacrosse?” I asked the girls from Cranbrook.
“I don’t know, third grade,” one said.
Cranbrook is a lacrosse powerhouse, with back-to-back Division 2 titles in 2017-18 and back-to-back runner-up finishes in 2015-16. And members from that team came to cheer for this team of newcomers, who had won two games all season.
This is my life? This feels like something I’m watching on TV.
Yep, it did. It felt like one of those Netflix movies: A bunch of underdogs coming together — winning in countless ways, teaching all kinds of lessons along the way — and the story ended with one of the most wonderful, happy, heartwarming, tear-filled surprises I have ever seen.
Kinda gives you hope about a lot of things, no?
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Contact Jeff Seidel: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.