Weaver Girls’ Cultural Exchange On Practice Field Promotes Sportsmanship, Understanding at Special Soccer Practice.
SPOTLIGHT on EXCELLENCE Issue 19 November 9, 2012
Weaver Girls' Cultural Exchange On Practice Field Promotes Sportsmanship, Understanding at Special Soccer Practice.
(Photo from The Hartford Courant.)
Members of the East Catholic Girls' Varsity Soccer team and the Weaver High Girls Varsity drill during a joint practice aimed at fostering cultural relations and good sportsmanship. (MARK MIRKO | email@example.com, Hartford Courant / October 25, 2012)
By PAUL DOYLE The Hartford Courant
9:23 p.m. EDT, October 25, 2012
Almost an hour after practice ended Thursday, the players formed a cluster on the periphery of the Weaver High soccer field.
On the left, the girls on the Weaver soccer team danced and told one story after another, trading lines and barbs like a well-rehearsed comedy troupe. On the right, the girls from East Catholic formed a semicircle and acted as the captive audience, some literally falling to the muddy ground in laughter.
"Think they're getting along?" East Catholic coach Liz Palmer said as she began to gather her team's belongings.
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For one afternoon, players from all over Greater Hartford merged into one unit and became teammates. After a few years of working out the logistics, Palmer and Weaver coach Kellie Wagner brought their teams together for a practice in hopes of exposing their players to kids from other backgrounds.
As a soccer practice, it was an opportunity for the less experienced kids from Weaver to see how the more polished players from suburban towns practice and hone their skills. It was even a learning experience for Wagner, a fourth-year coach who caught a behind-the-scenes view of how Palmer — in her 21st year — runs a practice.
But the few hours together transcended soccer for both teams. Wagner, who teaches at the Hartford Journalism and Media Academy housed at Weaver, has worked at improving the overall commitment and level of sportsmanship on her team and exposing her players to peers from outside of their immediate community is one way to alter their view of their opponents.
So the joint practice was planned for Thursday, a day before the teams were set to face each other at Weaver. The East Catholic players arrived around 3 p.m. and the Weaver players were waiting to greet them on the field, introducing themselves and shaking hands before Palmer began the organized drills.
As East Catholic captains Kylie Lynch and Kelly McKenna led the players through stretching, there was lots of chatting and chuckling from the circle of kids.
"Did you hear that? Laughing," Wagner said. "I like that sound."
Of the 29 players on the field, nine were from Weaver's roster of 20. On any given day, Wagner deals with players missing practice for various reasons — demands at home, jobs or just teenage apathy. Weaver is home to two academies (culinary arts and journalism/media), and the soccer team includes four players from other schools who must travel to the school on Granby Street.
But this season, the overall team attitude has improved and opposing coaches have commended Wagner's players on their sportsmanship. The team is winless, but it's a group of improving players and joyful personalities.
Wagner, though, saw kids who could benefit from mingling with kids who live different lives.
"From my end of it, it's a social thing," Wagner said. "These guys have expectations about white girls from suburban communities and I don't think they get a lot of chances to make friends outside of Hartford. There's been a lot of sportsmanship issues in past years and we've been working on that. … I think it's just great to get them together and let them see what other kids are like."
Weaver's roster comprises African-Americans, Hispanics, Jamaicans and a girl of Nepalese descent. The East Catholic roster is mostly Caucasian, with kids from Manchester, Vernon, Tolland, East Hartford, Suffield, South Windsor, Marlborough and Wethersfield.
"They don't get outside of their neighborhood," Wagner said. "It's just good for them to see who they play. I want them to just be girls and have fun and know no racial boundaries. They don't know kids from suburban towns."
Palmer held similar joint practices with Hartford Public HIgh School seven or eight years ago. When she discussed resurrecting the plan with Wagner, it seemed ideal.
"I thought it would be a nice thing to bring it back, go over some basic stuff and run a practice," Palmer said. "And I thought my kids would get as much out of it as her girls. My expectation was just for my girls to make friends and maybe to teach [the Weaver] girls some skills, to let them see what kind of drills that we go through and see that hard work can really pay off."
And sure enough, the players joked and talked throughout the various drills Palmer ran. As players peppered Weaver goalkeeper Shanice McKenzie with shot after shot, the East Catholic players cheered and continually yelled "Nice, Shanice, nice."
The players on Wagner's team had little to no experience when they began playing varsity soccer, so the skill level was obvious during the drills. Some Weaver players playfully picked up the ball during dribbling drills ("We've got our new backup goalkeeper," Palmer yelled) while many East Catholic players ran through the drills almost seamlessly.
But Wagner sensed that her players were deriving some confidence from practicing with skilled players.
"The girls feel inferior a lot," Wagner said. "But watching them do these drills … I think they think, we've so got this."
The play on the field, though, was only part of the experience. The players shared pizza and other snacks after practice, at first sitting in groups apart from one another.
After East Catholic players presented Weaver players with gift "psych boxes" decorated on the outside and full of candy and an array of treats, the players hugged and posed for pictures.
"The soccer is secondary," Palmer said. "The most important thing is that they got to know other kids, they're not in their own little area, in their own little group. They get to know different people from different cultures."
As the teams formed a circle after pizza time, they steadily drew closer over the course of about 45 minutes of chatting. Weaver captain Natalie Ruff was the group leader, showing her guests various dances and instructing her teammates to share stories and dance moves.
And the stories flowed as the kids bonded. Amber Copeland of Weaver approached Katie Regan of East Catholic and said she looked forward to lining up against her, just as she has in previous games.
"But now I can't push you. … We're friends now," Copeland said, grinning. "We can talk [during the game], right?"
As the kids traded stories about fans at opposing schools or various game officials, Palmer suggested they connect on Facebook to keep the conversation going. By the end, the coaches were talking about a reunion next year.
"Maybe a slumber party," Palmer said as the girls cheered.
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