Sam Innes is a tall, handsome 28-year-old man who spends his free time driving around New York City in a 2000 Dodge Caravan with 180,000 miles under the hood. Such a ride isn't necessarily unusual for high-school coaches, but Innes's team is: He's the coach of a public-school girls' lacrosse team from a hard-luck slice of the Rockaways — and tomorrow at Floyd Bennet Field his Beach Channel Dolphins are looking for a second-straight improbable city championship.
Despite having already won a title, Innes's predominately African-American team of Rockaway girls are in just their fourth year of exposure to the polka-white sport of lacrosse. The narrow Rockaway peninsula is home to 26 percent of Queens' public-housing tenants. And some of these girls have lived through hard times: Cynithia Smalls, a senior and the city's top player, has certainly had more than her fair share in 17 years. Last October, weeks before she attended a female athletes' gala with three teammates at the Waldorf Astoria, she'd played spades with her brother Andrew upstate in Clinton prison (twelve years on weapons charges). And while in high school, she's buried two more brothers, Ronnie and Cedric, in All Saints Cemetery, both wearing bullet wounds to their graves (Ronnie's came from a police officer's gun).
Those three brothers of hers, alleged members of a local gang, got swallowed by the Hammel projects they grew up in. But Cynithia lives across the street now with her grandmother. She's reading Richard Wright's Native Son in AP English on her way to a 3.0 GPA and waiting for her financial aid to come through so she can play lacrosse at Howard in the fall. "I'm just trying to make them proud of me," Cynithia says of her brothers. This year, she's scored 48 goals in fourteen games (including nine goals in Beach Channel's two playoff games, which they won by a combined 29–3 score to reach Saturday's showdown with Tottenville, a rematch of last year's championship).
"Just another day at the office," coach Innes told his team Thursday before their 11–2 semifinal win. The office is their home field on the ocean, littered with shards of clam shells, Manhattan's skyline eight miles away as the crow flies, an hour as the A train rides. Gulls soared below jets departing from JFK that looked close enough to touch.
Students chanted "Chan-nel! Chan-nel!" from the concrete bleachers and gasped "Kobe!" at Cynithia's spin moves. Cynithia's grandmother, Algia Young, paced the sideline in her white Nikes, hollering and hugging. As the clock wound down, title-game berth clinched, she said, "Ohhh, I'mma be there Saturday!" After the horn, Innes gathered his girls. "I'm so proud of you," he said. "Now we've got one more to take care of." The girls broke the huddle, "One-two-three: One more!"
In the postgame handshake line, a Midwood High School player on the losing end delivered a greeting with each high five on down the way: "Beat Tottenville! Beat Tottenville! Beat Tottenville!" she told each Dolphin. Even opponents root for Beach Channel.