For Spalding, playing lacrosse with special needs players is 'happiest day ever'

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Casper Norriss wasn't about to pass up his big moment in the spotlight. So when the 33-year-old who plays in the Davidsonville Athletic Association's adaptive lacrosse program for players with intellectual and physical disabilities saw his opportunity, he took it.

Running free on a fast break, Norriss eschewed the easy score for a behind-the-back trick shot, a difficult move even for the most experienced of players.


"I've tried it twice in the last two years, and shot it wide," Norriss said. "This time, I heard everybody scream, and I knew I made it."

It was just one highlight of many as the program played its annual fundraiser game at Archbishop Spalding, where players with Down Syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), cerebral palsy and other special needs took the field to the cheers of dozens of vocal supporters.


Players, ranging in age from 9 to 52, got the complete "big game" experience, getting pregame introductions, then running onto the turf field through a human tunnel of Spalding lacrosse players. The athletic Norriss, who said he has ADHD, documented the moment through cell phone video while running under players' sticks.

"It's like my favorite day of the year," Cavaliers junior Emily Cooper said. "It's helping people and doing what we love to do, which is lacrosse. We all look forward to it and talk about it all the time. It's just the happiest day ever for them and the happiest moment for us. They get such a joy out of what we do every day."

Spalding junior varsity coach Shannon Garden became involved in the program four years ago, looking for a way to help her players give back to the community

"This seemed fitting," said Garden, who was hoping to best last year's total of about $1,800 raised for the program. "The kids just fell in love with the adaptive players."

Paul Marcellino, who founded the adaptive program with wife, Nina, in 2010, said the money has been used to pay for trips to out-of-state tournaments, as well as equipment and uniforms.

The Marcellinos launched the Davidsonville program — one of two in the state, including one in Parkville — a year after working with U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) to enact Rosa's Law, a measure, named after their daughter, that replaced the words "mental retardation" with "intellectual disability" in law.

Games are played on a half-sized field, with players outfitted in full protective gear. On this day, the teams played two 10-minute halves. Most often when the whistle blew, it was to give a player an extra chance to score.

"It's showing them respect," Marcellino said. "Everybody's watching them. They just have a joy coming out, getting their name announced and then playing on a field like this."


Garden said Spalding's players benefit as well, with some former participants even going on to pursue careers in special education and physical therapy.

Adaptive player Kelsey Hess, 21, said the program has both a physical and social impact on participants.

"It gives us time to not only improve our athletic skills, but to also see our friends," said Hess, whose two brothers played lacrosse at Spalding.

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Parent Eva Tucholski spent the afternoon cheering on son Dan, who has cerebral palsy and a degenerative eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa. Dan played with the help of Spalding lacrosse player Patrick Reilly, a senior midfielder, often keeping a hand on his shoulder for guidance.

"He loves it, because these high school kids who come out and volunteer, he sees them as friends and teammates," Tucholski said. "He doesn't see them as caretakers."

Dan didn't score a goal in this game, but that didn't seem to matter much.


"Oh well," he said. "Had fun."

"It makes me feel good when you see the people that don't normally get a benefit in life be able to smile and feel good about themselves," Norriss said. "Even though they don't get to play on the regular lacrosse team, we have a lacrosse team where everybody gets to play and everybody has fun."

To Mike McGeeney, the program's director, as well as the defensive coordinator for Spalding's boys varsity team, the ultimate payback is the expressions on players' faces.

"It's just nice when they show up and they're smiling," McGeeney said. "They put the stick on, they put the gear on, and they're like, 'Coach, we're ready to go.' That's pretty cool."