The Chatham Cardinals year-round program emphasizes fundamentals and sportsmanship through its motto, ‘compete with class’
By Anna-Rhesa Versola |Photography By John Michael Simpson
When Jason Walden was 3 years old, he would put on a helmet and run with a stick, imitating his 5-year-old brother, Drew Walden, who was learning to play lacrosse.
“I think he felt like he was a character in a Lego video game,” says Leslie Walden, the boys’ mother. “He just really took to it and fell in love with it.”
That same year, in 2007, Northeast Youth Lacrosse was formed by four dads – three were former lacrosse players – Chris Mann, Randy Cox and Jeff Taylor – and one, Jason and Drew’s dad, Jay Walden, was a former wrestler. In 2016, the group rebranded itself as the Chatham Cardinals.
What began as a neighborhood effort with 22 kids is now a volunteerled, registered nonprofit that coaches kindergartners through eighth graders from 100-plus families, most from the eastern half of the county. The Cardinals provide a pipeline to the only two public high schools – Northwood and Seaforth – in Chatham that currently offer lacrosse programs.
Chris, the first head coach for the Cardinals, says he is grateful there were other families who wanted to establish the sport in Chatham. He says the team practiced on a field at The Preserve at Jordan Lake for a year before they were ready to compete, and games were held on “a patch of grass” off of Manns Chapel Road. Matches sometimes had a late start because the opposing team couldn’t find it.
Today, the Cardinals practice and play at The Park at Briar Chapel, Pollard Middle School and Northeast District Park, says Eric Ditter, current Cardinals head coach and a defensive coach for Northwood’s boys lacrosse team.
MORE THAN A GAME
The Cardinals year-round program emphasizes fundamentals and sportsmanship through its motto, “compete with class.” When Jason, now 17, aged out of the youth team, he carried this adage with him to high school where competing against other teams can bring out rude, even offensive behaviors that lacrosse lingo describes as “chippy.”
“Our head coach always tries to keep us calm no matter what, because it’s a good show of character,” Jason says. “If you’re lashing out or you’re acting crazy, then that can definitely get you penalties, and the [referees] will notice.”
The rising senior says his coaches from the Cardinals and at Northwood reinforce the value of teamwork and the importance of supporting one another on and off the field. Taylor Zelhof, another former Cardinal and rising senior lacrosse player at Northwood, says the motto still inspires teammates to hold one another accountable for their own behaviors.
“Some are more verbal than others,” Taylor says. “Some are just yelling. Some are just, ‘Hey, you did this wrong. Fix it. Don’t do it again.’ It just depends on someone’s style. I’ve had [teammates] come to me [with suggestions], so I’ve had to change stuff, too. I think it works better when everyone is comfortable saying [feedback] to one another.”
Chris, who has never had a kid quit the sport during his 10-year tenure as head coach, says building character and respect is highly valued by the Cardinals, and he’s proud of the players who practice sportsmanship.
“I remember sitting down with probably one of the top two players on the team because of an ugly penalty that was completely unnecessary,” Chris says. “He just lost his temper, and we went on to lose that game. But, the lesson was way more important than winning a youth.”
Phoenix Ditter, who chairs the sponsorship committee for the Cardinals, grew up in southern Virginia, where her Filipino family was unfamiliar with lacrosse at first.
“We didn’t even know what it was,” Phoenix says, laughing, because now lacrosse has taken hold of her family’s life in Chatham. She and her husband, Eric, have three kids who are all involved with the sport. Their sons Oscar Ditter, 13, and Grady Ditter, 8, play for the Cardinals and their daughter, Evie Ditter, 11, tracks statistics for the team.
Lacrosse is life, Eric says. It’s a sport that gives him an opportunity to teach kids how to be unafraid of failure and still have loads of fun.
“That is how we learn, just like in life,” Eric says about learning by doing. “The coaching staff allow the players to make mistakes. Think about when you learned to walk. You had to fall – a lot. Lacrosse and life are no different. [Coaches] provide the guidance that allows players the practice drills so players can excel in the environment quickly. … We just speed up the life lessons on the field.”
Leslie, a former softball player and cheerleader, says lacrosse is a fun spectator sport for parents.
“I personally like the speed and action of lacrosse – it’s a fast-moving game,” she says. “It has the physicality of football, but it plays more like soccer or basketball. It’s everything that I like about sports in one sport.”
There’s also a lot of activity off the field before, during and after any game. Parents handle everything from uniform distribution to registration and scheduling. And, as the younger players age out of the Cardinals program, many volunteers follow their kids and help out at the high school level.
“There’s all kinds of things that parents have to come together to get done,” Leslie says. “They give the players a team meal before the games so they are loaded up and can perform their best.”
Leslie and Jay continued volunteering for their sons’ games in high school. Jay runs the scoreboard for every home game at Northwood, and Leslie handles the announcements.
Randy, the head coach of Northwood High School’s boys lacrosse team, attributes the success of the Chatham Cardinals to the people who have supported the program along the way.
“[The parents] need to take credit for what it is today,” he says.
“I’m a big fan of teamwork,” he adds. “It’s all about the team.”