When Ram Natarajan was in eighth grade, his physical education teacher spent a day or two introducing students to lacrosse.
“I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know what this is,’” Natarajan said. “I thought I would never play it again.”
The senior wanted badly to play basketball at Springbrook, and he did. But as a sophomore, boys lacrosse coach Darren Murray spoke with Natarajan, a natural athlete with tremendous speed and size, and convinced him to join the team.
“It’s definitely a passion of mine now,” Natarajan said. “I actually stopped playing basketball. I played soccer and year-round lacrosse.”
Natarajan is one of a handful of talented and motivated seniors who were at the forefront of Springbrook’s remarkable turnaround this season. The Blue Devils won 11 games and earned a first-round bye in the playoffs for the second time in school history. Springbrook won four games in 2011.
The athletic midfielder at the center of the transition began playing in the summer and urged his teammates to do the same. They bonded over optional workouts and practices, which made things easier once real games began in the spring.
“When you spend an extensive amount of time with each other, it’s going to happen,” Murray said. “Off the field becomes on the field. They get on a roll and it seems like they click. They’re positive with each other.
“It also helps that Ram always has the stick in his hand and played a lot of offseason lacrosse. I can only tell them so much. Sometimes they have to see it. In the middle of winter, the kids realized, ‘I need to do this, I need to pick my stick up. I need to get more game experience.’”
Senior midfielder Brion Robinson and senior goalkeeper Mark Orebiyi also played pivotal roles in changing the team’s mentality this year. The Blue Devils kick-started their season with a 7-6 victory against Bethesda-Chevy Chase, a team they traditionally struggle against. That win led to a six-game winning streak to begin the year before a 10-5 loss against Sherwood on April 16.
“The biggest thing I’ll remember is our B-CC game,” Orebiyi said. “After the game, everybody ran on the field toward me and that made me so proud after a victory against a team that was pretty solid.”
Despite the 11-win campaign, the Blue Devils still struggled against many of Montgomery County’s perennial powerhouses, including a 15-4 loss that ended their season against Wootton last Friday. Two weeks earlier, Springbrook dropped back-to-back games against Walter Johnson and Winston Churchill.
Murray said the biggest difference can be found not in the athleticism of the players, but the age at which many of the region’s top performers pick up a stick.
“That’s how we’re going to stay competitive with that side of the county,” Murray said. “We have to start tapping into the youth programs. Once you become exposed to this sport, you can take something from lacrosse and relate it to whatever you play. You play defense like basketball, hit like football, the field is spread out like soccer. You need to make the kids realize they can step out of their comfort zone and try this.”
It’s something that Murray, who also coaches football at Springbrook, has been fairly successful in accomplishing. Just look at his star player, Natarajan, who didn’t know what lacrosse was in eighth grade and now hopes to walk-on to the University of Maryland-College Park team next season.
“We have so many athletes at Springbrook. I know if I played lacrosse a lot earlier, everything would be different,” Natarajan said. “We have so many who don’t know what lacrosse is coming into high school, I feel like if they had more years in the county they’d be really good. But slowly, they’re picking it up. Hopefully it continues that way.”
The Blue Devils, who also notched victories against James H. Blake, Montgomery Blair and Paint Branch this season, boasted one of the more diverse groups in the county with players of African American, Caucasian, Hispanic and Indian decent.
“Oh yeah, that’s a big positive,” Orebiyi said. “Some of my friends are from different schools, and when I say I play lacrosse, they’d say that lacrosse is a white sport. I’d just be like, ‘Look at my team.’ A lot of different people on our team are from different places. They all have the same heart and drive to be better. It doesn’t make a difference what they look like.”
Murray plans to run a lacrosse camp this summer at Springbrook for players in fourth through eighth grades. He’ll also lead Springbrook in local summer league competition — all in an attempt to improve the lacrosse culture at the Silver Spring school.
“Then we’ll play fall, then indoor winter,” Murray said. “We’re trying to get them exposed to as much lacrosse as possible. We’re trying to get as much lacrosse experience in as we can until March 1 of next year.”