By Laurie Los, The Standard Times (New Bedford)
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. -- When Grace Gamache was in high school, her options for local lacrosse training were limited.
The 2016 Dartmouth High graduate would travel 45 minutes to Portsmouth, Rhode Island, to compete on a club team.
In hopes of providing more opportunities to girls in Greater New Bedford, Gamache has teamed up with former Bridgewater State University lacrosse player Melissa Renauld to start the South Coast Girls Lacrosse clinic this summer.
"I had nothing like this," said Gamache, who is entering her third year at Framingham State University and is a two-time MASCAC All-Star. "When I was in high school and middle school, I played on a club team, but I had to drive to Rhode Island. It didn't make sense, especially in the summer. It was a lot."
The clinic, which is held weekly on the Andrea McCoy turf field, goes for eight weeks and costs $100 for the entire summer.
"Club teams can get expensive," Gamache said. "It's something that is reasonable and close by and it helps them."
Each week, the clinic features two sessions — one for middle schoolers and the other for high schoolers. Both last 1½ hours and include conditioning, skill work and scrimmaging.
"This is a place where they can come, be comfortable and try new things," said Renauld, a physical education teacher at New Bedford High. "Some of these girls haven't played lacrosse before, so to bring it to them and have them experience it is very important."
"We knew that this area needed a little pick-me-up for lacrosse, so we just thought why not?" Gamache said.
Between the two sessions, more than 50 girls showed up for the first night and it's been steady attendance ever since.
"The first day I wasn't expecting to see that many kids," admitted Renauld. "I was so happy to see there was going to be growth here. It just made me so happy that we were here and we were making a change."
Tim Curry knows how far girls lacrosse in SouthCoast has come over the past 15 years.
As New Bedford's varsity head coach from 2003-08, he vividly remembers how the Whalers couldn't measure up against teams outside the area.
"I remember getting beat pretty badly," Curry said. "The thought was if we had a feeder program, maybe we could be better."
So six years ago, Curry and Peter Blanchard started the GNB Breakers, a club based out of New Bedford.
It's grown and so has interest in the sport among female athletes in the area.
But the SouthCoast is still not there yet.
Of the area's four teams to qualify for the playoffs this spring, only Old Rochester made it out of the first round. The Bulldogs won two games, but lost 14-3 to eventual state champion Wellesley in the Div. 1 South quarterfinals.
"In the past, we've thought, 'Oh if only we had a feeder team,' but a feeder team is not enough," said Curry. "Dartmouth has it. We have it now. ORR and Lakeville have it, but it's not enough. This year we see whoever made it to the tournament couldn't go that far, so we knew the next step was playing more, finding girls who really love it and playing year round."
Girls from across SouthCoast are taking advantage of this summer-long clinic.
"It's awesome because we have girls from New Bedford, Fairhaven, (GNB Voc-Tech), Old Rochester and Dartmouth, so they're meeting different girls," Gamache said.
Renauld added, "We wanted to give them more opportunities. A big part of this is playing with your teammates. It was awesome to see us have so many girls that are teammates so they can bring this to their high school teams."
The training middle schoolers are getting now will help high school teams in years to come.
"Helping the high school teams get better is starting with the youth and keeping them playing so when they do get to the high school, they already have that experience and they're ready to go," Gamache said. "Every week we see improvement from these girls. It's once a week, so we keep telling them to play at home and it seems like they're playing at home because they come back every week and they're getting better. It's really beneficial for the high schools."
Gamache and Renauld were rivals in college, playing against each other in the MASCAC. Both received postseason honors in 2017, with Gamache being named Rookie of the Year and Renauld earning Player of the Year.
Curry thought the pair would be the perfect match to direct the summer clinic.
"I said, 'Oh my God, we've got to get them together,'" he said. "What's better than having two girls who played and are so close to it to have for young girls in the area? It all came together."
Learning from two collegiate athletes has been exciting for GNB Voc-Tech sophomore Kaitlyn Winterson.
"This has helped me learn how to push myself," she said. "It's helps so much because they know what they're doing and they know what they're talking about. They motivate me to become a better lacrosse player and person all around. It's just nice to be able to play lacrosse."
GNB Voc-Tech enjoyed a program-best seven wins and made the State Vocational Large School Tournament for the first time this spring, and Winterson had a lot to do with it, scoring a team-high 40 goals to earn South Coast Conference All-Star honors.
"My coach told my whole team about this clinic and said it was good because it would renew our skills and get us familiar with other girls from other teams," Winterson said. "It would help us become better lacrosse players. I wasn't really serious about lacrosse until this past season and now I want to push myself and challenge myself as a lacrosse player."
New Bedford sophomore Raquel Reis is playing for a tournament team out of Newport, Rhode Island, this summer, but still jumped at the opportunity to spend more time working on her lacrosse skills. She said she's noticed steady improvement.
"A lot of camps I've done previously were only one or two days, but this is continuous as a weekly program so the coaches get to know us and learn what our strengths are and our weaknesses are and they capitalize on those two different things," she said. "I think it helps tremendously."
Reis started at midfield on New Bedford's varsity team this spring as a freshman. She said she's enjoyed getting to know players from other area teams while also learning from them.
"I was super excited," Reis said. "It's very easily accessible for girls in the area and I thought it was going to be a fun way to meet girls from different teams. We play against each other and see each other, but it's a good way for us to get together and learn from each other while also learning from two great coaches who have played the game for a long time and know what they're doing. It's so fun."
While Gamache and Renauld have taken what they've learned over the years and tried to pass it on to up-and-coming players, they are focused on keeping it fun.
"It's a fun group and a fun atmosphere," Gamache said. "It's fun to be here. It's not too intense so they can work on their skills and get better and not be worried about messing up."
Renauld said many of the girls at the clinic do take it seriously.
"I love these girls. They always bring it their all every week," she said. "It's been an amazing. We love it. Grace and I work great together. I'm so happy we went from rivals to really close friends."
For Gamache and Renauld, the hope is that this is just the beginning.
Both have aspirations of coaching, and possibly building this summer clinic into much more.
"I'm learning a lot about how to coach and teach and everything," Gamache said.
"My ultimate goal is to coach, whether it is high school or college," said Renauld, who won a state championship with Framingham High in 2010. "Grace and I were even talking about making some kind of club team out of this so we could show off this area's level of skill because we bring a lot to the table."
Curry said this has gone better than even he expected.
"It was great to find them and they hit it off really well," he said. "It started off well this year and who knows where it can go."