As Mitch Whiteley drove a van full of middle school students into St. Paul's School for their first day of lacrosse camp Monday morning, he got a gentle reminder that this week's camp is different from most.
"There's a cornfield at the bottom of our hill," said Whiteley, the St. Paul's coach. "One kid had never seen a cornfield before."
At this lacrosse camp the only suburbanites and prep schoolers are the staff and coaches. The campers are all from the Baltimore City Middle Schools Lacrosse League, inner city kids from Harlem Park, Pimlico, Green Spring, Calverton, Roland Park and Lombard middle schools.
And it's hard to tell whether the campers, who don't pay a nickel to attend, or the staff, who receive token pay, if any, are learning more and having a better time.
When Gerard Kinsler, an eighth grader at Harlem Park, arrived at St. Paul's Monday he thought, "I'm going to learn a lot because a lot of good lacrosse players are out here who've played high school ball."
And Roger Reginald Harper, a Calverton eighth grader, said, "I was thinking to myself it was going to be fun making new friends."
John Wise, a Pimlico seventh grader, saw opportunity. "I wanted to play lacrosse in the summer because we only get to play in the school year," he said.
This week they're playing on green, grassy fields, hard to find in parts of the city. And they're being coached by players from St. Paul's MSA champions including All-Metro Tim Whiteley, Joe Gelbard, Steve Karvounis, Russell Croft and Tom Keratzes. Loyola High's Brad Hoag and St. Paul's alum Scott Bacigalupo, a second-team All-America at Princeton, are there, too. And the kids are getting their chance because Whiteley had an idea, the Lacrosse Foundation helped work things out with the city schools, and a parent of a St. Paul's player, looking to give something back to the game that had given so much to her son, made an anonymous grant to fund the new camp.
When the Middle Schools Lacrosse League was formed three years ago, St. Paul's was among the first to send players to conduct clinics.
"Mitch has always wanted to do something a little extra for the program," said Steve Stenerson, executive director of the Lacrosse Foundation. "Around March, he came to me with the idea for the camp and we talked about the problems like transportation. I told him we'd clear it with all the coaches and make sure we get kids out there."
Each school nominated eight youngsters for the camp based on academic and behavioral criteria, not athletic ability. Forty-four are attending this week. "We're dealing with kids that are the best, the most highly motivated," Mitch Whiteley said. "That makes it a little easier."
Playing and working together has made it easier still, after an initial feeling-out period.
"When I was handing out T-shirts Monday only one out of 10 would say 'hi' to me," Gelbard said yesterday.
"By the end of the day it was great," said Bacigalupo.
Gelbard and Tim Whiteley have done much of the organizing for the camp, including planning the daily programs. "The kids aren't worried. Anything we do they have a great time . . . We're having a lot of fun because they're really nice kids.
"Some of the suburban kids I've coached are always complaining. It's too hot for them, or they want to get some water or take off their equipment. These kids just want to learn."
Gelbard had asked his friend Bacigalupo, the All-American, to come in to talk to the campers. Bacigalupo decided to spend the whole week.
"When you tell these kids to go home and practice something, they really do it," he said. "Sometimes at other camps you know those kids are doing something else. You can see so much growth and development and see the appreciation for what you're doing.
Tomorrow evening at 6 the camp will wrap up with a game played before families, friends and whoever else would like to see some young talented lacrosse players in action. When it's over the youngsters will go home to practice what they've learned. It's not just lacrosse skills.
"You learn to be responsible by getting up early," said Harper. (Three vans and a station wagon stop by each school about 8 a.m.) "It gets you ready to have a job."
And Mitch Whiteley will start trying to find the money to do it again next year.