Anne Arundel lacrosse exchange with Stockport Metros celebrates four decades

“Friendship Through Lacrosse.”

That motto, simple yet powerful, has been the foundation for a unique exchange program between two lacrosse-crazy regions of the United States and England.

Anne Arundel County and the Stockport Metros are celebrating their 40th anniversary of building friendships through lacrosse.

It began in 1978 with an exchange program for boys’ lacrosse with Anne Arundel County All-Star teams visiting England in odd years and the Stockport Metros returning the favor in even years.

A companion girls’ lacrosse exchange, dubbed the Crosse-Over Tour, was initiated in 1996 and follows the same pattern.

Both the Stockport Metros boys and girls contingents arrived in Maryland on Thursday and will remain here through July 7. Each year, following two weeks of athletic and cultural activities, the tour concludes with the “friendship games” for both boys and girls.

The Touchdown Club of Annapolis will honor the long-standing exchange program on Saturday night during its annual Lacrosse Cookout and Awards Ceremony. Leaders from both the American and English sides will be presented with special recognition awards while the program as a whole will be celebrated.

“This ongoing exchange program between Anne Arundel County and the Stockport region of England is laden with tradition and is a true treasure,” Touchdown Club president Scott Schuetter said. “It is our pleasure to put the spotlight on this unique and special arrangement and honor the folks who have made it possible over the years.”

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

It all began way back in 1976 when contact was made between Sherwood Forest resident Rob Lewald and Les Grainger, founder of the Stockport Metros Lacrosse Club. Lewald, a respected leader in Anne Arundel County youth lacrosse circles, took a team to Stockport in 1977 and the tour was such a success both sides decided to keep it going on an annual basis.

Lewald teamed with Gene Reckner, Dr. Lou Ruland and others to form the Anne Arundel Youth Lacrosse Club, which oversaw the program on the American end. Grainger was the driving force on the English side for many years. Both Grainger and Lewald passed away years ago, but the template they created has lived on with others taking up the leadership mantle.

Mike Wenrich got involved with the program in 1984 when his oldest son Steve was selected to play for the Anne Arundel Under-13 squad. The Cape St. Claire resident teamed with close friend O.T. Campbell to succeed Lewald and Reckner as co-tour leaders from 1985 through 1992.

“I spent eight years as tour leader and we developed a strong line of succession. Typically, someone was brought in as an assistant coach then became a head coach then finally took over as tour leader,” Wenrich recalled.

Wenrich drafted Wilson Phipps and Mike Hogan into the volunteer program and they both wound up serving in the role of tour leader for the Anne Arundel Youth Lacrosse Club.

“I mentored Wilson and Mike until they were familiar with all aspects of the program then turned it over to them,” Wenrich said.

Steve Wenrich, a Broadneck High graduate, is among many former exchange program players who showed their gratitude for the experience by returning years later to assist as a coach.

“Personally, I am very proud of what the program has become,” Mike Wenrich said. “Our stated mission all along was that this was always for the kids. None of the adults ever had any kind of agenda.”

Paul and Morag Fox served as host family for Mike and Steve Wenrich when they first visited England. The Wenrich and Fox families have grown extremely close over the years, routinely vacationing together and attending the weddings of each other’s children.

“We hit it off from the very beginning and have maintained a bond for thirty-plus years,” Mike Wenrich said.

Lewald and Reckner worked with Grainger to develop a program in which two teams – Under-15 and Under-13 – travel one way or the other each year. The Stockport Metros program is similar to Anne Arundel County in that it oversees 10 different club programs in the region.

Anne Arundel County’s two teams traveled around northwest England playing games in locales such as Mellor, Heaton-Mercy and Chedal-Hume in addition to host Stockport. Similarly, the Metros squads that came here played games against Midget and Junior league teams from such community programs as Davidsonville, Gambrills-Odenton and Severna Park.

“We normally took a total of 40 kids (two teams of 20) to England and we tried to be as diverse as possible in order to represent as many Anne Arundel County recreation programs as possible,” Wenrich explained. “If we had one kid from Brooklyn Park apply, we made sure they were on the team.”

Wenrich’s pitch to potential players was basic: “I’ll give you two weeks of the best lacrosse you’ve ever experienced and I’ll throw England in for free.”

WHO’S WHO OF LOCAL LAX

Some of the greatest lacrosse players in Anne Arundel County history have traveled to England as part of the exchange program. Such legends as Andy Smith (North Carolina), Jimmy Ellis (Maryland), Brian Wood (Johns Hopkins), Michael Ruland (Loyola) and Ryan Wade (North Carolina) were members of some of the early American teams.

Wilson Phipps got involved with the program in 1995 and can remember taking a team to England that was loaded with future Division I talent, including his sons Michael and Brian who both played at Maryland. Other standouts included brothers Ronnie and Billy Staines (North Carolina), brothers Jamison and Justin Mullen (Virginia), Kip Turner (Virginia), Matt Larkin (Princeton), Nate Lewnes (UMBC), Tillman Johnson (Virginia), Drew Habeck (North Carolina) and Drew Pfarr (Towson).

Some of the notable coaches to help out with the Anne Arundel Youth Lacrosse Club were Ron Staines Sr., Eddie Mullen, John Lamon, Charley Toomey, Rob White and Matt Hogan among many others.

“I always loved that the program brought together players and coaches from all over the county for a common goal,” Wilson Phipps said. “The Annapolis Youth Lacrosse Association (AYLA) and Severna Park Green Hornets were arch-rivals on the field, but we worked and played together as part of the England exchange program.”

Meanwhile, the Stockport Metros Lacrosse Club has played a pivotal role in the development of the English national team, which just placed fifth at the Federation of International Lacrosse World Championships in Netanya, Israel.

Ravi “Baggie” Sitlani, a major figure in English lacrosse, began as a goalkeeper on the Stockport Metros Under-13 team that came to the U.S. in 1984. One of Sitlani’s teammates that year, attackman Chris Livesey, has served as tour leader for the Metros for the past decade.

Both men have attempted to carry on the legacy of Grainger, who bought all the airline tickets for the inaugural English touring group in 1978 out of his own pocket.

“I’ll never forget getting off a plane from Manchester and driving into Anne Arundel County and seeing lacrosse bumper stickers on every car and lacrosse goals in every backyard,” Sitlani said. “As a 12-year-old who had recently been introduced to the sport, I thought this area was the lacrosse mecca.”

Sitlani has developed a special friendship with Phipps and they stay with each other every year. They teamed to create a Ryder Cup-style golf tournament pitting the English coaches against the American coaches with some of the great courses in both countries providing the venues.

“I’m like family in Wilson’s house and he is like family in my house,” Sitlani said. “Those lasting relationships are really what it’s all about at the end of the day.”

Playing lacrosse games is just one part of the tour, which is ultimately a cultural exchange above all else. Anne Arundel County kids have visited Buckingham Palace, William Shakespeare’s birthplace, Warwick Castle, the Tower of London and Trafalgar Square. Meanwhile, the English lads annually take a day trip to Washington, D.C. to see the White House, Capitol building and various museums while also checking out many sites in historic Annapolis, including the State House and Naval Academy.

“Lacrosse is merely the platform to provide a much greater experience,” Sitlani said. “These players are being exposed to another country and a different culture at a young age and it is something that they will appreciate for the rest of their lives.”

TIMES ARE A CHANGING

Sitlani said the Stockport Metros program is stronger than it has ever been. There was once a time when finding enough good players to field two touring teams was tough. Now the Metros must conduct tryouts for the 42 valuable spots.

It is a different story on the Anne Arundel end as the proliferation of summer club lacrosse has made it more difficult for program leaders to put together representative teams. Parents that are already paying thousands of dollars for their children to play club ball and have tournaments almost every weekend of the summer are somewhat reluctant to shell out an additional $2,000 and take two weeks for a trip to England.

Colin Campbell succeeded Chris Kelly as Anne Arundel Youth Lacrosse Club tour leader five years ago and has faced an increasing challenge when it comes to recruiting players.

“We are confronting competing interests with club lacrosse in terms of time and money,” Campbell admitted.

Campbell first traveled to England in 1989 as a member of the Anne Arundel Under-13 squad when his father was co-leader with Wenrich. Knowing the rich history of the exchange program, Campbell is not about to let it collapse on his watch.

“Our tour survives and thrives because of word of mouth about the experiences of the players and their families. Everyone who gets involved stays involved,” he said.

Scheduling competitive games for the Stockport Metros while they are here in the county is not nearly as easy as it used to be. Campbell was thankful to AYLA, Kent Island, Crofton, Severna Park, Broadneck Area Youth Sports (BAYS) and South River Youth Athletics (SRYA) for putting together teams at both age groups.

Anne Arundel County emerged as a hotbed for girls’ lacrosse in the late 1980s and it quickly became obvious the exchange program with the Stockport Metros should expand in response to that development.

In 1996, longtime Anne Arundel County recreation coaches Steve Barry and Steve Willett created the Crosse-Over Tour program that enabled girls to enjoy the same experiences as the boys.

Barry and Willett worked with Grainger and Tony Malkin to develop the girls’ lacrosse exchange, which now has its own rich history. More than 1,000 Anne Arundel County players have “crossed the pond” to share the stick sport with their Stockport Metros counterparts and learn more about life in England.

Willett has been the driving force of the Crosse-Over program for the past two decades and said Anne Arundel girls are nominated by their various recreation league commissioners then selected based off attitude, emotional maturity and lacrosse skills.

Acceptance into the Crosse-Over program is a two-year commitment consisting of hosting a Metros player one summer then traveling to northwest England the next. St. Mary’s-Annapolis, BAYS, Chesapeake Youth Lacrosse Association, Pasadena Buccaneers, Davidsonville and Severna Park are among the organizations that have consistently participated.

“Many lasting friendships have been forged over the years as former players keep in contact with each other and their families and visit each other outside the tour,” Willett said.

Willett has received assistance in Anne Arundel County from coaches such as Heidi Wood, Andi Whiteford, Don Harrison, Dave Gateau, Donna Liberto, Kevin Rose and Jeff Bunker. Tour directors for the Metro Girls have been Sue Nichols, Anne Sharp, Anne Bryant, Ian Ritchie and currently Tony and Michelle Malkin.

An all-time roster of Anne Arundel players, which Willett maintains and annually updates, features such Division I standouts as Kelly Coppedge (Maryland), Brooke Dieringer (North Carolina), Jess Adam (Duke), Kristen Lamon (Maryland), Stephanie Lazo (Penn State), Aislinn Probst (Navy) and Haelle Chomo (Georgetown).

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