The uphill battle for Baltimore City lacrosse programs is nothing new. Funding, interest and consistency are just a few of the annual obstacles.
Few hurdles, however, have threatened the building process for the area’s programs quite the way the shutdown surrounding the coronavirus has.
City lacrosse senior Makai Cummings is among the success stories being derailed by the unforeseen circumstances. During the preseason, before games were postponed, he had returned to the field for the Knights after rehabilitating a knee injury to serve as a leader for the team.
Committed to play club lacrosse at Morehouse College in Georgia next year, Cummings was ready to take center stage at City this season.
“I tore my ACL over the summer. I’ve been working really, really hard to get back this season and I’m in the best condition that I’ve ever been in all of my four years of high school,” Cummings said. “So, for me not being able to play my senior year and this being my best year of lacrosse — just with my stick work, my body shape — it’s really hard.
"This is a great group of guys that we’ve got this year. We have a lot of new and young talent. It’s just hard with this whole coronavirus thing and not being able to play this season.”
For years, Baltimore City public schools have been looked at as a “lacrosse desert.” Programs have been underfunded, uniforms tattered and torn, padding and sticks worn down. Backing from booster programs is nowhere near what you see in surrounding counties.
City coach Anthony “Merc” Ryan’s Blax Lax program has risen in the city for training the new wave of lacrosse players. Ryan coached City to a 12-2 record last season, winning the Baltimore City boys lacrosse championship and reaching the 3A quarterfinals.
Cummings was preparing for his fourth year as a starter on defense for City. Last year he was a key piece for a group that outscored opponents 147-64. In nine of the team’s 12 contests, the defense held teams to below five goals and six of the nine games were shutouts.
“I see the trend from my freshman year to my senior year. For one, we don’t have a lot of support coming from the outside,” Cummings said. “As far as money-wise, we wear the same pads pretty much, unless you buy your own stuff. They don’t put a lot of money for equipment or production and we don’t get a lot of media coverage. The sport has really grown, as far as skill-wise. That’s because during the offseason, we all like to come together and work out together and practice. No matter which school that you’re from."
Ryan’s City team has seen fluctuating numbers over the years, with many players switching between sports during the summer. This spring, because of the shutdown of all athletic activities, his team might lose an entire season and the summer training along with it.
“This is the first time in 31 years that I haven’t been out there in the spring,” said Ryan, a standout at Morgan State in the 1980′s when the Bears had a varsity program. “So, it’s greatly affected me. It’s a huge a gap. I plan my year to get ready for high school lacrosse during the season. Of course now, it’s kind of hard to find something to do without lacrosse and the kids themselves. I thought that I’d have a pretty good squad coming back. We had about 10 days of practice before all of this came out."
As much as Ryan feels for his top seniors like Cummings, he hurts just as much for the up-and-coming players on the team. For them, many of whom don’t play year-round, a month or two off is crippling to their development and the continued development of the program as a whole.
“I think about my seniors, and I didn’t have many of them ... but for them this was a season that they were taking to really prove themselves," Ryan said. "They were looking to go to college and so on and so forth and maybe a kid that didn’t get that much playing time — this was a year to really to put his knuckles in the dirt and get ready to play the game as hard as he possibly could.”
While not officially canceled, the prospect of playing games this high school season is bleak. The earliest games could be played under the current timeline is early May. Cummings, however, is holding out hope.
For now, Cummings has picked up classes online provided by City to finish his high school diploma. The instruction, which started last week, takes up roughly three hours a day and he said it has been a difficult transition so far.
“It’s hard when you when you’re trying to do work in your bed or in your house because you’re not as motivated to do the work that I do in school,” Cummings said. “A lot of the teachers are not really doing a good job at keeping the work up to date and keeping the students involved in it. It’s just a lot and it all just came out of nowhere and not many people were ready for it.”
He’s also doing his best to keep up with his practice schedule by playing wall-ball and keeping in shape with his home weights in his garage every day. He also goes running, but he hasn’t been able to go to the park and shoot on a goal during the outbreak.
Regardless of what happens in terms of this season, there’s definitely still lacrosse in Cummings’ future. Taking his talents to a historically black college, he wants to see the game grow for black kids and the universities that they attend.
“It’s become more popular among black people and not just white kids,” Cummings said. “And now because of Baltimore City, we’ve got kids that want to play in college, but aren’t getting the recruiting to play at Hopkins or Maryland and anything like that."