Three women got together for different reasons on a grassy field in Paulsboro in June. Their connection: football.
Sophia Lewin is a high school coach in North Jersey. Jenica Zanes will be a freshman player at West Deptford High School. And Lori Locust is embarking on her first season as an assistant defensive line coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
They met at a five-day summer football camp at Paulsboro High School hosted by Kevin Ross, the cornerbacks coach of the Buccaneers and a Paulsboro alum. Each woman had specific aims for attending.
Locust, 55, was born in Philadelphia, moved to Harrisburg and studied for a time at Temple. She played football in a women’s semipro league and has coached at the high school and semipro levels. She was a coaching intern for the Baltimore Ravens last season and has joined Ross, a Camden native, at several of his annual camps.
For a while, Locust downplayed being a role model for other female coaches and players. But now, after seeing its positive effects, she embraces it.
Lewin, 22, is a special teams and receivers coach at Hudson Catholic High School in Jersey City. She drove more than an hour to Paulsboro and paid for a hotel room out of her own pocket to meet and learn from Locust.
“Coach Lo gives me hope now because I am not the only female football coach," said Lewin, who was invited to the camp by Locust after the two became acquainted on Twitter. “I get to stand next to her and feel like, ‘Hey, we’re building an army, and it’s exciting.’”
Zanes, 14, was the only female player at the camp. She first played football with the neighborhood boys when she was a kid, then joined her middle school team midway through last season. She showed up at the camp to improve her game and disprove the notion that she can’t compete with the boys.
“They don’t think a girl should play,” Zanes said of her critics, many of whom she said are insensitive teammates. “That’s just motivating me to play harder, be tougher and be stronger than them. Prove myself and prove that girls can do it.”
Lewin was introduced to football by her father, a Raiders fan, when she was young. Although she played other sports, Lewin found herself shadowing coaches on her high school football team. There was just something about the game that drew her in.
“The combination of physicality and the strategic nature of the game is what I love most,” Lewin said.
The lure of football grew when she enrolled at Monmouth University as an education major. TJ DiMuzio, the team’s pass-game coordinator and quarterbacks coach, became Lewin’s mentor and showed her about offensive systems and how to evaluate players on film.
“He taught me how to actually coach and took me under his wing," Lewin said. "He taught me how to actually teach people and how to learn it myself.”
Lewin jokes that she spent more time majoring in football than education at Monmouth, but she might be right. She was hired at Hudson Catholic almost immediately after her recent graduation.
Lewin first heard about Locust when Locust was tweeting about her internship with the Ravens last season. After a few direct messages, Locust invited Lewin to Ross’ camp.
“We coach very different positions, but she still finds a way" to share her experience, Lewin said. “I respect and admire her. [Locust] is the standard. I am the future. We get to meet and work through this together.”
Zanes doesn’t just play football: she wrestles, rides horses and competes in beauty pageants. At first, she was reluctant to join her middle school team.
“I came late to the season because I didn’t think I could" play football on a real team, Zanes said.
But, after she gained support from the coaches and her friends and family, she changed her mind.
“I was like, 'OK, so why not make a statement and do it?’ ” she said.
One of the few girls in her neighborhood growing up, Zanes said she felt comfortable playing sports with the boys. That’s why, she said, she is eager to show those who doubt her toughness how wrong they are.
“I’ve been playing football, wrestling with [the boys]. I’ve always been fighting,” said Zanes, who plays tight end and defensive end.
Despite her notoriety as a pioneering female football coach, Locust said she never tried to be the first at anything. The attention she has received, she said, just sort of happened.
But since it did, Locust said she plans to be a resource for young coaches like Lewin and young players like Zanes. So she intends to returned to Ross’ camp as often as she can and mix it up with football enthusiasts -- male and female.
“If I can help out now, and it’s that whole trailblazer thing," she said, "then so be it.”