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Building a foundation at Williamstown

Maddie Dowd was walking to practice last week, and without much thought, she grabbed the team's water jug and brought it along.

Williamstown's Michael Malseed tries to work past Cherry Hill West's Cullen Patterson. (David M Warren/Staff Photographer)
Williamstown's Michael Malseed tries to work past Cherry Hill West's Cullen Patterson. (David M Warren/Staff Photographer)Read more

Maddie Dowd was walking to practice last week, and without much thought, she grabbed the team's water jug and brought it along.

"Some of the younger girls stopped me," Dowd said. "And they said, 'Wait, you're a senior. You shouldn't be carrying out the water. Shouldn't we be doing that?'

"So they actually took it from me and carried it."

And that is how tradition is born.

The oldest lacrosse programs in South Jersey have strikingly deep roots. Programs such as Moorestown and Shawnee have songs and chants and traditions they've carried on for so long that they've forgotten why and how they started.

That's what makes this season so special for the Williamstown boys' and girls' teams, both in their first years.

The teams are blank slates. Every positive step they take is a building block. Every team activity, such as not letting Dowd carry the water, is a potential tradition they can lay claim to.

"My goal is to get the program pointed in the right direction, to help start it from the ground up," said Matt Gooden, a senior midfielder on the Braves boys' team. "To be given the opportunity to initiate a program. And to be a leader and to set that tone is special to me.

"I want to be able to come back to this program on its 20-year anniversary, hear about all the success they've had, and be able to say, 'I was on the first team. I helped get this started.' "

Williamstown's feeder system is in just its third season. So virtually the only players on the boys' and girls' teams with experience in lacrosse are underclassmen.

The upperclassmen, such as Dowd and Gooden, have never played before this season. They joined the team for the chance to try something new and be part of something special.

It's not exactly a recipe for wins, and both teams are still seeking their first victories. But that's not the point of this season.

"Watching them grow from practice to practice has been so great," boys' coach Harry Sankey said. "They've improved so much, and the biggest thing is just stressing fundamentals, creating a good base of fundamentals. So it's challenging, but it's also been a lot of fun."

Sankey brings a tremendous lacrosse pedigree to Williamstown. His father started the program at Central Bucks South High School in Bucks County. He himself was a standout player at Germantown Academy and a four-year starter at Widener, and he has spent time coaching youth lacrosse since.

His brother Joey is a star attackman for North Carolina, and one of the top players in the country. Joey Sankey stands just 5-foot-5, weighing just 150 pounds.

It's an example, Harry Sankey said, of how anyone can succeed in the sport.

"In lacrosse, you can pick and choose how you want to play. You can find your own style," the coach said. "You can be more physical. You can focus on finesse. . . .

"It's about going out and playing with heart."

That's an ideal stressed by girls' coach Jenna Lombardo. Like her players, Lombardo is still learning the intricacies of lacrosse. She never played the sport, and coached it for just one year before this, as an assistant at Southern Regional. She has experience coaching other sports, including field hockey at Williamstown. Learning, she said, has been a key to the team's success.

"They've been so eager to learn, and that's been great," Lombardo said. "And we started with the extreme basics: how to cradle the ball, how to catch it, how to pass. And then we had to introduce the rules of the game.

"But we're piecing it together. And, really, we've improved from game to game, which is great to see."

Both coaches lauded the support they've received from the Williamstown community, administration, and youth programs - which were instrumental in making the push to get the high school program off the ground.

It has helped give them faith in the future.

But more than that, the players have made both coaches believe in Williamstown lacrosse.

Williamstown is known as an athletic town. Its Gloucester County rivals, including Kingsway and West Deptford and Washington Township, have histories of success in the sport.

With players already showing leadership and dedication and hard work in Year 1, it's likely only a matter of time until Williamstown is among those teams.

"It's something we think about all the time," Dowd said. "One day, people will look back and say that all of this started with the team in 2014. And I think it's really neat to be able to say that."