Freeport girls LAX making a comeback
At the conclusion of the post-game speeches, Danielle Ballard kicked off a quirky dance number -- to the amusement of her Freeport lacrosse players. This, as Diane Wahlers looked on with a mirthful smile.
It was a scene plucked from 1997. Then, that routine might have been routine. Then, Ballard, now the coach, was a star player and Wahlers, now an assistant, coached one of Nassau's perennial powers.
Until this season, Freeport's girls lacrosse team hasn't had much to celebrate in the last decade. But the "back in the day . . . " stories of the golden era of the '90s are passed on from the coaches to this group. So Thursday evening was a throwback -- an 18-7 victory over Valley Stream District had clinched the Conference V title for Freeport (7-0).
"I love you, Brit!" Kaitlyn Karp playfully yelled to teammate Brittany Gardner, who made eight saves. Ballard and Elena Sparaco grinned as they tallied the attack's goal total. It was eight, a career-high for the junior.
Quite a turn for a squad that was 3-8 last season and near the bottom of Conference A-II. The teams were grouped based on school size, so Freeport was in a pack with some of Class A's elite; teams the Red Devils once tussled with during a heyday that produced a 1992 county championship and finals appearances in '93 and '97.
But this season, Nassau Conference V was formed -- a collection of six teams, some relatively new upstart programs (Hempstead, Elmont and West Hempstead), and others trying to rebuild.
Perhaps Freeport's most impressive performance was a 13-10 win over Conference III's Herricks (6-3) on April 12. But securing a conference title "means a lot," midfielder Ashley Gomes said. The junior, who recently committed to Stony Brook, has a team-high 46 points. "This program has great history and we want to restore that prowess," she said.
The elimination of local youth leagues in the early 2000s was the "biggest contributor" to Freeport lacrosse's decline, Ballard said. "It's become a football town and some of the other sports have tapered off," she said. Wahlers, who started the team in 1985, said "without a feeder program anymore, most of the girls aren't introduced to lacrosse until junior high and it's tough competing against kids who've been in PAL since third grade."
Ballard credits Danielle Gallagher, the Manhasset girls lacrosse coach, with hosting clinics and providing scholarships for camps, which "have been instrumental in our progress."
In addition to the new conference, Freeport is loading up on the school's best athletes and developing skills on the fly. The coaches have cajoled soccer and basketball players into trying lacrosse. Defensive anchor Deon Edionwe is a tennis player. Gomes, Sparaco and Gardner? Cheerleaders. ("Hey, it's a sport!" Gomes said.)
"We've been through a lot of losing," Sparaco said, "but it's getting to the point where I can feel proud in saying I'm on the team."
They can also take pride in being one of only three undefeated teams in Nassau, along with Farmingdale and Garden City.
"We're not those teams, but we want to work our butts off and try to get this program back on that level," Gardner said. "It's one of those ultimate dreams. We want to be 'Freeport' again."