2020 was supposed to be an exciting year for women’s lacrosse players at Cass Technical High School in Detroit.
Last spring, after a year of preparing and several days of tryouts, the program had lined up enough athletes to fill out three teams for their very first season. Deja Crenshaw, then a junior, had secured a spot as one of the varsity team’s co-captains. And then, COVID happened.
“And it was just really heartbreaking to find out that we weren't going to play that whole season,” she recalled. “And a lot of us didn't even touch our sticks the whole summer. It wasn't good. It was pretty depressing.”
Head coach Summer Aldred said she went through all the stages of grief when she found out the season would be canceled. It was especially hard to tell her seniors that after helping to get the program up and running, they wouldn’t have the chance to represent Cass Tech on the lacrosse field. But beyond that, Aldred said, the coaching staff was also grappling with the huge toll the pandemic was taking in their community.
“Almost every single one of our players were personally impacted by losing either a family member or someone who was really close to them,” she explained. “And that put a whole new level of spin on it, because it wasn't just something abstract that was affecting our kids. It was real tangible in our community. And families were really feeling the pain and loss.”
Students were also struggling with the sudden loss of structure and routine. There was no school, no hanging out with friends after school, and, of course, no sports. And even for those who didn’t lose someone close to them, the anxiety that they might weighed heavy on students like Zahria Liggans, goalie and co-captain for the team.
“I was really, definitely worried when it first happened about getting sick and what happened, what will happen to me, what happened to my mom, because we're both immunocompromised,” said Liggans.
With both her and her mom in the same space all day, every day, Liggans said they were bickering way more than they ever had. There were so many unanswered questions: When will school start back up? Will prom happen? And without the ability to decompress with friends or channel her energy into sports and other activities, things started to feel pretty overwhelming.
“COVID kind of sent me in the worst mental health downward spiral I have ever been in in my life.”
So when Liggans got word that the women’s lacrosse team would be starting summer practices in June through Detroit United Lacrosse, she decided to join. And the support she found among her teammates helped pull her out of the dark place she’d been in during the pandemic. A lot of the girls on the team had a similar experience. For Lily Shields, the routine and camaraderie of daily practices helped her get through a very strange and stressful sophomore year.
“So, yeah, I mean, even like without trying like we just became super close and like a family, a lacrosse family,” she said. “So that made my year totally different because now it's like I have this community to rely on. And yeah, I have like friends now.”
Of course, the pandemic is still ongoing, and so practices had to look a little different than they did the year before. Aldred said in the early days of summer 2020, there wasn’t a whole lot of clarity about exactly what that meant for athletes and coaches.
“Did the kids have to wear masks outside in the summer, did they not? Where we are with social distance, what does that mean? Do we have to sanitize every single ball that we touch?”
Eventually, the team figured out a rhythm. The girls got used to running in masks. Coaches learned how to administer rapid COVID-19 tests. And Aldred said those precautions have paid off. They haven’t had any players catch COVID-19 during the season, which began in March 2021.
Kicking off their first season in the middle of a pandemic isn’t the only thing that sets the Cass Tech players apart from other high school women’s lacrosse teams. Lacrosse was invented by Indigenous people, and Anishinaabe tribes in the Great Lakes region have been playing the sport for hundreds of years. But in recent decades, it’s developed a reputation for being overwhelmingly white, and often inaccessible to lower income families. That’s despite massive growth in the sport overall.
“Michigan specifically, lacrosse has blossomed. In 2000, there were 15 teams and now there are 96. So the sport has grown exponentially,” said Aldred. “But what hasn't changed is the number of kids of color that have been involved. It was three percent then. It's three percent now.”
By contrast, the majority of Cass Tech’s varsity players are women of color, as are several members of the coaching staff. That meant the team was going to stand out. But after a year of massive protests against police brutality and a national reckoning on race, they weren’t trying to blend in.
“You go and play a team and nobody on their team looks like you at all. And then you have us kneeling during the national anthem and the other team and everybody in the stands are standing. And it's just, it's it's quite interesting, I'm not going to lie,” said Crenshaw.
Aldred, Crenshaw, and Liggans all recall some off-handed comments and microagressions throughout the season. But Liggans said that she was proud of how her teammates handled those interactions when they did occur.
“They've always played with class and with dignity. I think it also speaks a lot to their characters as individuals because it shows how resilient they are and how determined they ought to go out there and be like, you know what? I'm here to disprove everything that you think you know about me.”
After a rough start to the season, the first-year team started to get into a groove. Crenshaw and Liggans said they were proud of their teammates for learning and growing after every game. And, then, it was finally their turn. In an April 26 match-up against Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, the Cass Tech team scored their first victory.
“That entire game was just a game that had me on my toes the entire game because it was really close for a while and even come back at halftime. It was like we were only up by one or two,” recalled Liggans. “But then to see girls like Jordan and Taylor like get a fire under there, like get this fire in out of nowhere, they were just running the ball and I was just like, oh, we might do it, we might do it.”
Liggans and Crenshaw are both graduating this year and will head off to college in the fall. Liggans will be at Howard University, where she’ll be playing goalie for their lacrosse team. Crenshaw is headed to Clark Atlanta University, which doesn’t have a team...yet. As they move on to the next step in their lives, both say they’ll never forget the wonderful memories they’ve made with their teammates this year, both on and off the field.
After losing their first regional match-up, the team ended its season in late May. But the work they put in during this strange and stressful year didn't go unnoticed. The team received the Spirit of Detroit Award from the city council last Friday. And Crenshaw said parents, teachers, and administrators are also quick to praise them for making history as a majority Black team in a predominantly white sport. But while they are grateful for the attention that they’ve gotten as Detroit’s first high school women’s lacrosse team, she said that’s not what has made this season special.
“We definitely get reminded all the time that we are making history and we are doing it for Detroit and all the good stuff. And of course, we appreciate it so much. But to us, you know, we're just playing a sport that we love,” said Crenshaw.