When Dymin Gerow and Lenaijah Ferguson walked home from lacrosse practice as seventh graders at Commodore John Rodgers Elementary/Middle School in East Baltimore, the sticks they carried inevitably sparked conversations with onlookers.
“I got questions literally every single day because where I lived, nobody knew what lacrosse was, nobody knew what a lacrosse stick was,” Gerow said. “When I would go play wallball, people would come up to me and say, ‘What sport is this? What are you playing?’ I would be like, ‘Oh, it’s lacrosse.’ Then they would say, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen a Black girl play lacrosse before.’”
Said Ferguson: “There would be a few women that would ask me, ‘What is that? Is that for a sport? Where do you play that?’ I had to explain it to them.”
Rather than be intimidated by the inquiries, Ferguson and Gerow have used them as motivation. And on Saturday at 11 a.m., they will meet on opposing sidelines at UMBC Stadium in Catonsville when Gerow and the UMBC women’s team (1-2, 0-1 America East) host Ferguson and Hartford (0-1).
What makes Saturday’s meeting even more remarkable is that Ferguson and Gerow are members of the Harlem Lacrosse Baltimore chapter’s first middle school graduating class and the first two women from the national organization to play at the Division I level. Two other members of their class are Jazmin Servance, a defensive midfielder at Division II Missouri Western State, and Asiana Cothran, a midfielder at Division III Concordia University Wisconsin.
Jenny Moe, the chapter’s executive director, has been experiencing emotions similar to a mother witnessing her children reach certain milestones in their development.
“It’s incredible,” she said. “I am so proud of them. I’m excited for them and their families. But to me, the biggest thing is just the opportunities for their education. Yes, Saturday is going to be unbelievably cool, but to me, it’s about how these girls are going to get their college degrees at the end of their four years, and that’s really the point of it, that lacrosse can open that door of opportunity. That’s what we’re here to do at Harlem Lacrosse.”
Gerow and Ferguson’s introductions to lacrosse were punctuated by different approaches. Ferguson’s interest was piqued as she watched male classmates carrying lacrosse sticks to their practices.
“I had no idea what the sport was,” she said. “So after watching them, it kind of got me excited to want to play as well. And once they told us that they were having a girls team, I was so quick to jump on and play.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Gerow resisted appeals by Moe, who coached the middle school team, to give lacrosse a try. An avid basketball player, Gerow eventually agreed to join if Moe could demonstrate a few plays in lacrosse with roots in basketball.
After Moe diagrammed a split dodge’s similarities to a crossover and a roll dodge’s resemblances to a spin move, Gerow grudgingly added a stick to her belongings.
“Then she always kept coming to my basketball games and then we started talking because she wanted me to play lacrosse,” she said. “And everything went from there.”
After graduating in 2012 from William and Mary where she played midfield in 35 starts and earned the Colonial Athletic Association Commissioner’s Academic Award in 2009, 2010 and 2012, the former Jenny Michael began serving at Commodore John Rodgers as the Baltimore City Lacrosse & Leadership program director, which transitioned to Harlem Lacrosse’s Baltimore chapter. Moe, who married six years ago, said she quickly identified Gerow and Ferguson as potential candidates.
“Lenaijah is 6 feet tall, and the first time I really saw her was before our lacrosse practice when she was messing around with some of the boys that were at the field, too, and they had a football out,” recalled Moe, who grew up in Ellicott City and graduated from Centennial. “She launched this ball — I’m not kidding you — 50 yards. I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re going to be on my lacrosse team.’ With Dymin, I would just see her on the basketball court at recess every day, and she was schooling all of the boys out there. Lenaijah was the easy sell. Dymin took me a while to get her to come out to practice because she was like, ‘No, I play basketball.’”
Ferguson and Gerow said the most difficult part of the transition from basketball to lacrosse was throwing and catching a ball with the stick. But after a few months, they improved their stick skills and became more comfortable with their growth in the sport.
And by the time they graduated from middle school, they had earned scholarships to study and play lacrosse at private schools — Gerow at Episcopal High in Alexandria, Virginia, and Ferguson at The Frederick Gunn School in Washington, Connecticut.
Being the only Black player on the lacrosse team in high school was a culture shock for Ferguson. She recalled a Black player from an opposing team approaching her after a game and pointing out that her white teammates did not celebrate with her after she scored a goal the way they did with each other.
“That kind of opened up my eyes,” said Ferguson, who is now one of five Black players and one of 12 overall players of color at Hartford. “I honestly think that’s the biggest thing I think about and focus on when I’m playing lacrosse because I am a Black woman who is playing a predominantly white sport. … We’ve been talking to our team about it and what it’s like playing on a Division I lacrosse team as a Black student.”
Hawks coach Meg Decker, a Baltimore native and Mount de Sales graduate who was a midfielder at Navy (2008-09) and Loyola Maryland (2010-11), said she was moved by Ferguson’s decision to share her high school experiences with her teammates.
“I don’t think she feels sorry for herself, and I think that her opportunities through Harlem Lacrosse have built up in her mind that she can do anything that she sets her mind to, and you don’t hear that every day, especially from young black players playing women’s lacrosse,” Decker said. “They’re honestly told the opposite: stay on defense, stay in your lane, you’re kind of lucky to be out here. But through Harlem Lacrosse and hopefully her continued time here at Hartford, she can hear a different story and can walk in that. She walks with her head up and her shoulders back.”
In a similar vein, Gerow — who is the only Black player among the Retrievers — said she feels a responsibility to open doors for future generations of Black lacrosse players.
“I’m here to motivate and set an example for kids that grew up not playing lacrosse and have to get everything on their own,” she said. “I’m here to let them know that they can do it because I did and I’m doing it right now.”
Gerow has made the transition to Division I lacrosse look easy. She will enter Saturday’s game ranked second among the Retrievers in goals with five and third in points with five in three games, including one start. But she said that her career got off to rough start in the program’s season-opening 12-5 loss to Towson on Feb. 19.
“I was just playing scared,” she said. “I thought, ‘Damn, this is how the whole season is going to go?’ Then I got in my second game, and I just had more confidence in myself, and my coach was more confident in me. So that also helped. I can only go up from here.”
UMBC coach Amy Slade said she has been impressed by Gerow’s thorough critiques of her performances. Gerow has asked the coaches to help her refine her skills after every game, including cradling after the loss to the Tigers, protecting the ball while attacking the cage after a 12-11 win against VCU on Feb. 27, and catching the ball in tight space after a 15-8 loss to No. 7 Stony Brook.
“Any coach can say, ‘You need to work on X, Y and Z.’ but if the players are coming to you and telling you those are the things they need to work on, now you know they’re really becoming students of the game and their own games,” Slade said. “I think she’s becoming a true student of the game and making sure that she is making those changes.”
Ferguson has not played yet because of a groin injury that might prevent her from taking the field on Saturday. But Decker, her coach at Hartford, said Ferguson will travel with the team with the plan of allowing her to take one draw and then get off the field because of the significance of having her and Gerow on the field at the same time.
“Even if she wasn’t able to play, she’d be coming with me because there are some things that are more important,” Decker said. “With what’s happening right now with Harlem Lacrosse’s first graduating class and organizations like Harlem Lacrosse popping up all over the country and the differences they are making in the lacrosse community, this is a history moment. This is about something bigger than a game and changing it so that the game of lacrosse looks like the world, not just like a team of white girls on the field.”
Under normal circumstances, Moe said she would have packed three to four buses with players from Harlem Lacrosse and family members to watch Gerow and Ferguson in-person. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, she said the organization will have to settle for sharing with all of its members a link to a livestream of the game.
Gerow and Ferguson said they feel fortunate and validated to reach this stage in their academic and athletic journeys, and both said they will always support each other.
“I’m still going to wish her luck because at the end of the day, we did grow up together, and we did make it out together,” Ferguson said. “We worked hard to get to where we are now, and I’m going to make sure that I reach out to her and tell her good game no matter what the results are.”