LACROSSE, FRIENDSHIPS, AND SORE KNEES by Sara Courtney
Local moms get off the sidelines and into the game.
The Facebook post started out simply enough. “Who’s up for playing lacrosse?” Dani Geraci and Kelly Lombardi asked on a community group back in February, thereby sending out a broad-based summons on social media to all the local athletes, moms, and women ages 35-plus who were looking to connect over their love of lacrosse. As one enthusiastic response rolled in after another, it occurred to Lombardi and Geraci that there was an entire community of women eager to recapture that competitive spirit of their youth, and, with any luck, make some new friends in the process. After the eager comments piled up, women interested in playing filled out a survey to share their own lacrosse experience and possible availability for practices. The post became overwhelmed with excited comment. It became the genesis of reLAX Women’s Lacrosse, the league founded by Geraci and Lombardi for local women.
Lombardi and Geraci, both Maplewood residents and moms, first connected after their daughters became friends at school. They quickly discovered they had a lot in common. For starters, they both used to be athletes, and had even played the same sports growing up: field hockey, basketball, and their favorite, lacrosse, which they played in college. When their own daughters took up lacrosse, they spent time together, sitting on the sidelines cheering them on. But along with those enthusiastic cheers was a kernel of frustration: They wanted to be out there too.
“We were sitting in the bleachers, watching our first graders play,” Lombardi recalls. “And we were sitting there thinking, ‘We run our kids to activities. We sign them up for activities. We drive them to activities. We sit and watch them do activities. And we are just sort of facilitators in their joy.’”
Geraci felt the same itch. “Sports were always a part of my life,” she said. “When I was young it was about learning the values of teams. As I got into my adult years, there was just something about it that I really missed.” Lombardi echoed this sentiment, pointing out the connection to mental health. “I’ve always noticed and believe there is a direct connection between mental health and exercise,” she said.
Geraci’s previous attempts to join a league had been unsuccessful. “I tried to revisit lacrosse when I was 30, when I still lived in Philadelphia,” she said. “I attempted to join an established league. The problem with established leagues is they tend to attract people that are 24 years old, they just got out of college, they actually played on division teams. They’re good,” she admitted. “When you’ve been 10 years out of it…you still know what you are doing, but you don’t quite have the speed, the stamina, the sticks have already evolved…. So this go-around, I knew I wasn’t interested in joining something established.”
Then last spring, Lombardi began exploring the idea of joining a lacrosse league in earnest. “I did some searching,” she says, “but they were in areas like Princeton or New York City.” Geraci and Lombardi put their heads together and started discussing the possibility of starting a league themselves, batting around the idea as they watched from the sidelines while their kids played. This past fall, they felt ready to organize one in earnest.
“I reached out to Kelly in the fall,” said Geraci, “And I was like, ‘Life does not just happen. I have to create what I want.’” She told Lombardi that they should go for it, and Lombardi responded with enthusiasm. “I was like, ‘Okay. Let’s do it. Let’s start it ourselves!” Lombardi said.
Geraci designed the website and a survey for potential new members. Then, what began as a rallying cry on social media, quickly grew into a community of women that had grown tired of standing on the sidelines too.
Women such as Jessica Bateman, who showed up at a recent practice with a stick, mouth guard, and her 15-month-old baby: She had grown up playing lacrosse, and even played Division 3 athletics at Stevens. When she saw Geraci and Lombardi’s post, she responded immediately.
“I saw their Facebook post and I was like, ‘Yes!’” Bateman said, noting that she used to play in her alumni game, but that fell by the wayside as her life got busy. When it comes to finding the time, “It’s just hard,” she says, before looking around at the other women practicing and adding, “If you don’t ask for it, it doesn’t happen.”
Latha Youngren played in middle school, high school and college. “I missed it,” she says. “A lot.” She was thrilled that Geraci and Lombardi took the initiative. “Somebody needed to start it. I’m so happy they did.”
Another Maplewood local who joined the league is Halyn Moses, who was surprised and delighted to discover that her former college teammate, Amanda Gardiner, had signed up to play. “I had no idea she lived here,” Moses recalled. “Then when we saw each other at the first practice, even though it had been 25 years, it was like no time had passed.”
It was especially challenging to meet new people for Moses, who had moved here during the pandemic. Now she has a community of moms she plays with every week and has reconnected with her old friend too. “It can be hard to make friends when you are older, especially in a new town. But everyone has been so welcoming and nice.”
Geraci and Lombardi put together a weekly schedule that built in flexible times to meet everyone’s needs. The first time they got together for practice was a giddy experience that left them with sore muscles. “I felt like a dorky 20-year-old college kid being so excited tossing the ball around!” said Geraci. “Some of us knew each other, some of us were just meeting each other, but we were all just proud of ourselves for being able to throw and catch.”
Lombardi raved about the experience. “Just getting on the field and being the one to get the ball and actually try to score – versus being on the sidelines and cheering on your kid to do it – but to be the one to actually physically realize what you are trying to accomplish in a sport, I was absolutely giddy by the end of our first practice,” she said. “We were all a little rickety, a lot slower, I definitely pulled something behind my knee. And I was thinking, so this is how it’s going to go? I’m going to injure things? But it was still just the most pure, wholesome joy, in the best way possible, in a way, I think, that we as adults and parents don’t really get to experience.”
And the name of their league – reLAX – says it all. “We don’t need to prove that we are 22 and have the same physical capabilities,” says Geraci. “It felt like we were all on equal footing, revisiting things, having fun with no pressure. It’s laid back. There are no refs. We’re just a bunch of ladies getting together for a pickup game to have fun.”
On Mother’s Day they played a game at Underhill Field, and this time they were playing while their families cheered them on enthusiastically from the sidelines. Geraci’s son even served as their ref and scorekeeper.
It was just the kind of competitive spirit they had been longing to recapture when they pitched the idea to each other last spring, and then to the wider community at large. Sure enough: They found a reservoir of women yearning to reclaim something for themselves, and make some new friends too. Finding the time can be a challenge for anyone – especially moms – but if you ask any of the players on reLAX Women’s Lacrosse, they will tell you it’s worth it.
“You just have to do it,” says Moses. “You just have to put yourself first.” Then she pauses to consider another thought. “And also, it’s just nice for the kids to see you doing something that makes you happy.”
Sara Courtney is a writer and clumsy athlete. She encourages everyone to get
off the sidelines and jump into the game of life.