“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Educators and coaches have a clear purpose that can be identified in the titles they possess. They plan for every minute of every day to ensure their purpose can be fulfilled. Lesson plans and practice plans are designed with clear objectives to meet specific standards with proven outcomes.
Like educators and coaches, student-athletes have a clear purpose. They are guided by class schedules and afterschool activities that structure their days, weeks and months into predictable patterns of academic, social and extracurricular interactions.
In March of 2020, as many educators, coaches and students around the country were planning for the end of the academic year, that clear purpose and dependable structure disappeared in an instant.
The Manchester (Maryland) Valley High School girls lacrosse team was one of those teams suddenly stranded without purpose.
“We found out we were going to go on a two-week break, originally, while we were at a scrimmage,” said head coach Shelly Brezicki. “On the bus ride home is when I shared with the girls that we would be going home for two weeks.”
That two-week hold became a four-week hold and eventually the cancellation of the entire season due to the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the nation.
“I was in shock,” said Lauren Baldwin, sophomore goalkeeper. “I was prepared, I was ready, I was very hopeful for the season and then I just focused on the next season, the next sport. I had to get my head in the frame of, ‘I have to work harder. I have to use this time to get better.’”
Brezicki never lost focus on keeping her team engaged. She filled the void by sending her players positional workouts and engaged them in team competitions and even challenged rival high schools to friendly virtual workout challenges. Alumni stepped up to lead lunch and chats with current college players and coaches.
“As we were doing all of this, I was thinking, we also need to give back,” Brezicki said.
Baldwin and her teammate, Caroline Krauch, worked with their moms to begin making cards for people in nursing homes.
“Caroline’s mom was making cards for the nursing home and my mom said to me and my sister, ‘You guys should make cards. You should have a little competition,’” Baldwin said. “So, in my household we had a who-could-make-the-best-card competition. We made it fun.”
Brezicki asked the team members if they wanted to get involved and instantly the athletes and coaches had a purpose again – not to mention a competitive outlet.
The team developed a system of creating uplifting cards, coordinating front porch pick-ups, and delivering the handmade cards to the local nursing home. As the pandemic grew, the team saw another need in their community, and it impacted frontline workers.
“I was talking to my friend, Angie, who’s a nurse at Johns Hopkins, and she was talking about the need to give and supply things for the nurses who are working around the clock and can’t leave to go get a drink or pick up food,” Brezicki said. “They really only had a quick brief minute to refresh themselves.”
When Brezicki shared this with her team, it jumped on the opportunity to support frontline workers.
“We had to get creative,” said Brezicki. “We made an Amazon wish list and people were able to purchase from it, and it directly got shipped to Angie who delivered it to Hopkins. So, we were able to stay safe and quarantine and do what we were mandated to do while still helping others.”
Soon, alumni and the Manchester Valley community got involved. Through social media and word-of-mouth, community members searched for the wish list and started purchasing items to support the medical teams working around the clock to keep their community safe and healthy.
“Angie was overwhelmed with packages and packages of stuff,” Brezicki said. “We had to keep going on and adding more things because everything was getting bought out. It was great to see us connect our alumni and our community to do this.”
In addition to making cards for residents of the local nursing home and leading a large hospital care package drive, the Manchester Valley girls lacrosse team kept its commitment to participate in Relay for Life.
“The kids not only raised money, but they participated in a virtual Relay for Life,” Brezicki said. “They had challenges they had to do and video them—silly ones—like go out and jog in all purple in your neighborhood or skip for five minutes.”
The team maintained its competitive edge by finishing as the second-leading team in fundraising for the entire event.
“It was something that kept them together and gave them hope as we went through something extremely challenging, especially for our seniors who felt like they were losing a season that they had waited for so long,” Brezicki said. “We wanted to give them the feeling that we still had a season.”
Losing a season as an athlete and as a coach is in many ways like losing yourself. Coach Brezicki took the wise advice of Mahatma Gandhi and challenged her team to find themselves in the service of others.
“We play sports to build character; we play sports to form friendships,” Brezicki said. “My hope is that this season showed them that no matter what obstacle is thrown our way that we can achieve goals we’ve set for ourselves, but more importantly we can do it if we surround ourselves with people who help and support us. That has been our goal since the program started. It’s not just to build and grow lacrosse players, but it’s to build and grow young women who are going to go out and be leaders. Not only in our local community, but obviously society.”
Coach Brezicki and the Manchester Valley High School girls lacrosse team did not have the 2020 season they anticipated. The seniors did not get the ending to their high school careers that they had dreamed; however, what they got instead was a season filled with competition, service, teamwork and fun. The only thing missing was lacrosse.
Lindsey Atkinson is director of sports/communications associate at the National Federation of State High School Associations.