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Pioneers for life: How this group of girls helped give birth to a lacrosse program in the heart of a big city

Lacrosse is sometimes seen as a sport for those in suburbs, but these young women are bucking the trend

Courtesy photo (Jeff Burtka)

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As the announcement blared over the school’s PA system, Zahria Liggans became curious.

Two years ago, as sophomore at Detroit Cass Tech High School, Liggans heard an announcement about an informational meeting to see if there was interest among students in starting a girls lacrosse program, which drew an understandable reaction from Liggans, and probably many others in the school.

“What’s that about?” Liggans recalled wondering at the time.

You can’t blame her, or anyone else, for saying that, because it probably seemed akin to trying to sell Coca-Cola at a Pepsi convention.

Girls lacrosse is a sport traditionally played by schools in the suburbs and is dominated by white athletes, while Cass Tech is a school located in the heart of the city of Detroit and has mostly an African-American population of students.

It seemed like an impossible seed to try and plant, but not only did it take root, it blossomed into something that not even the Cass Tech community likely could envision at the time.


Love at first sight

Courtesy photo (Jeff Burtka)

Back in 2019, Summer Aldred found out that Cass Tech was going to start a boys lacrosse program, thanks in large part to the efforts of some parents who moved in from Atlanta and wanted their son to continue playing lacrosse like he did down there.

So Aldred made up a flyer promoting an informational meeting to garner interest in starting a girls lacrosse program, handed it to an assistant principal at Cass Tech, and hoped for the best.

When the meeting took place, 27 girls showed up.

“I didn’t know anything about lacrosse until the first informational meeting,” said Deja Crenshaw, who, like Liggans, was a sophomore at the time and is now a senior. “I knew it was a sport, but I didn’t know anything about it or how to play it.”

Aldred has a background in coaching lacrosse, including with Detroit United Lacrosse, a program outside of high school that has training and travel teams. But even she might not have known what she was in store for when an initial practice on a Saturday was set.

Essentially, it was “Lacrosse 101” or “Lacrosse for Beginners.”

“I just went to the first Saturday practice to see what it was like,” Crenshaw said. “Even though I was terrible when I first touched the stick, it was a good vibe. I kind of fell in love with the sport off of that first practice, and all we did was pass, catch and learn how to cradle. But it was perfect.”

Liggans and the other girls who showed up had similar feelings.

“I was really bad at it,” Liggans said. “It was 10 times harder than I thought it was. I was not the biggest fan, but I’m also not really big on quitting or giving up. So I kept going back and I ended up falling in love with the sport over that summer and really enjoying it.”

And with that, a program was born.


The debut

Courtesy photo (Jeff Burtka)

Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of what would have been Cass Tech’s first season as a program, and so the pioneering season started when practice began this past March.

The team needed some help to get going, but one alumnus donated $10,000, and equipment was donated by the club lacrosse program at the University of Michigan, along with other people and businesses throughout the area.

But there were enough girls on the roster and enough infrastructure to launch -- and not even the expected stretch of losing to start the year could dampen the athletes’ spirits.

Cass Tech lost its first six games, which included a 21-1 defeat at Lake Orion.

The team was going up against suburban teams in which players have been involved in the sport for years, but while that was crushing to the win-loss record, it was instrumental in the team’s development.

“It was definitely hard, but it brought us together as a team,” Liggans said. “It made us the team that we are.”

Then came the breakthrough.

Cass Tech recorded wins over suburban schools Auburn Hills Avondale and Clinton Township Chippewa Valley.

Confidence and happiness was at its peak and the girls were in their element, never wanting the season to end with the relationships being made and lessons being taught.

Unfortunately, there was an ending earlier than the girls hoped.


One door closes, but others might have just opened.

Courtesy photo (Jeff Burtka)

Cass Tech couldn’t have been more excited to play its first playoff game in school history on May 20 at West Bloomfield.

The girls went in expecting to win, which made it all the more disappointing when West Bloomfield came away with a 12-3 victory to end Cass Tech’s pioneering season.

But while the seniors on the team had to say goodbye after just one year of playing for the program, what they gained could last a lifetime.

Not only were they the ones who laid the foundation for the program for others going forward, they might have changed the trajectory of their future athletic endeavors.

Liggans will attend college at Howard University and said she plans on walking on to the lacrosse team there.

Crenshaw is taking it a step further when she begins her college time at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia, which doesn’t have a lacrosse program at the moment.

The key words are “at the moment,” in the eyes of Crenshaw.

“I think I might be the one to talk to the administration to get it started,” she said.

As the Cass Tech girls lacrosse players demonstrated the past two years, don’t put anything past a pioneering spirit.

Courtesy photo (Jeff Burtka)

About the Author:

Keith is a member of Graham Media Group's Digital Content Team, which produces content for all the company's news websites.