September 19, 2012

New England Lax: South Berwick/Eliot, Maine

The expansion of the Marshwood Youth Lacrosse program has greatly benefited the Marshwood High School teams.

Before you can “keep up with the Joneses,” you first have to move into the same neighborhood.

That’s precisely the current mission for the Marshwood lacrosse community, which at the high school and youth level is comprised of the neighboring towns of South Berwick and Eliot in southern Maine.

Although Marshwood had seasoned youth and high school programs in place for a number of years, both levels were failing to compete against the dominant teams from the Portland area.

That’s when two men, Dan Hale and Shawn Benedetto, decided that the solution would come from expanding the youth program beyond any reasonable expectations.

“When we first took over the youth program a few years ago, we really weren’t winning many games,” Benedetto said. “We realized it was because we had seventh- and eighth-graders playing for the first time against kids who had been playing lacrosse for five or six years.

"There’s just no way you can compete against that, so we instituted the earlier grade-level teams in response to that, eventually all the way down to the second- and third-grade level.”

As a first step, Benedetto and Hale put together a new board of directors with parents who were deeply committed to the idea of expanding the league. The problem, however, was that very few of them had any lacrosse experience.

To rectify that, frequent informational sessions were offered and were heavily promoted to both parents and potential players alike.

“We put up fliers everywhere around town and all around the schools,” Benedetto said. “We also sent out notices and made announcements regularly, all in an effort to get people to come to the informational sessions.”

As part of the presentation, a DVD provided by US Lacrosse was shown, after which Hale and Benedetto gave their spin on the game and showed people all of the necessary equipment.

“We did that for the first two or three years, but over time, we didn’t even need to do that anymore because of the wide spread of interest by word of mouth,” Benedetto said. “It’s taken on a life of its own. We started out with maybe 20 kids on each side, the boys and girls, to where we’re at about 150 now.”

As the expansion of Marshwood Youth Lacrosse began to gain some traction, it occurred to Benedetto that he needed to communicate with the high school.

“I remember calling (athletic director) Rich Buzzell at the high school and saying, ‘Make sure you’re aware of what we’re doing down here at the youth league level, because you’ve got a wave of kids coming your way.’”

That wave arrived as predicted three years ago, and the positive impact on both the boys’ and girls’ programs has been meaningful.

“The beefing up the youth lacrosse program has been huge for us,” Buzzell said. “We had 70 kids who came out for boys’ lacrosse last year, whereas in years past we had maybe 35.”

Of course, it takes a lot more than just numbers to succeed against bigger schools with longer histories in the sport.

Buzzell primarily credits the coaches of both programs for bringing their respective teams to the next level.

When Ralph Ruocco was hired three years ago, he inherited a team that had gone winless the season before, finishing at 0-12 in 2009. To Ruocco, his first duty went beyond teaching the fundamentals. He had to erase a culture of defeat.

“The players were so used to losing that they kind of got dejected in games when they got down in the score,” Ruocco recalled. “I had to keep telling them, ‘You guys deserve to win. You work hard and you’re better than those guys.’ That mindset has really progressed.”

Although progress was initially slow (the team went 1-11 in Ruocco’s first season), the team steadily has improved, going 8-6 in 2011 and then 12-3 this past spring, reaching the Southern Maine Athletic Association semifinals in both years.

The girls’ program has achieved similar success during that period. Under the guidance of coach Bernie Marvin, the team steadily has improved its win totals in each of the past three seasons and reached new heights in 2012 with an 11-4 record and a first-time appearance in the Western Maine Class A championship game.

“I think the feeder program has helped out a lot, but the increased success of the team has helped out too,” Marvin said. “We got a fair amount of attention from going into the playoffs. Some of the kids who may or may not have played, obviously if you have a team that’s winning, it’s more attractive for players to join up.”

Reflecting on the progress of his program in recent years, Marvin said: “With some of your more affluent communities like your Yarmouths, Falmouths, Cape Elizabeths and your private schools like Waynflete in Portland, it’s been a challenge competing against them. But by competing against them, we’ve had a lot of good examples for our kids to model themselves after.

“And playing against all that good competition has just made us stronger,” he added. “Where a few years ago we wouldn’t have even been able to compete, now we’re right there with them.”

Now that the program has gotten close to the big-name programs, Marshwood’s next mission isn’t to keep up with the Joneses, but to surpass them.

Location

Both South Berwick and Eliot are located in the southern tip of Maine, wedged on the border between Portsmouth, N.H., and Kittery, Maine.

Population

South Berwick has roughly 7,200 residents, Eliot some 6,200

History

Both communities were settled in the 1630s, originally as part of the Piscataqua Plantation, which was renamed Kittery in 1647.

Local trivia

The author Nicholson Baker (“Vox,” “The Fermata”) is a native of South Berwick. America’s first documented maker of weather vanes, Shem Drowne — who crafted the grasshopper weather vane that sits atop Boston’s Faneuil Hall — was a native of Eliot.

Lacrosse program

The Marshwood Youth Lacrosse program has entry-level teams for third- and fourth-graders as well as another team for fifth- and sixth-graders, then separate squads for seventh- and eighth-graders. The boys side of the program also accepts second-graders on its beginners squad. Marshwood High School’s teams enjoy an informal relationship with nearby prep school Berwick Academy, which lends its turf fields for practice during the early spring, when weather conditions are poor for outdoor play.

This article originally appeared in the September-October 2012 issue of New England Lacrosse Journal.

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