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Australian family helps to define Mercer Island lacrosse
By Linda Williams Rorem
Special to the Reporter
When Liz Game was growing up in Western Australia, she never thought much about a future beyond the Perth suburb of Bayswater, where she lived, and enjoyed family time in and around a lacrosse clubhouse, either playing, coaching, refereeing, or watching her dad, brothers and sister do the same.
In her wildest dreams, she couldn’t have imagined that one day she would move to the Seattle area, where she would work as a high school girls’ lacrosse coach while her husband, Rob, coached boys’ lacrosse and worked for a lacrosse equipment store. She never envisioned having sons that would attend a high school as rigorous as MIHS, and go on to college in North Carolina, on lacrosse scholarships.
Life was different when the young girl, now known as Mercer Island resident Liz Shields, was young. While friends and neighbors sailed, played soccer and football and dabbled in cricket, her family’s fall and winter weekends (March through September on that side of the world) were spent in and around that lacrosse clubhouse. Most who played for the club didn’t have the option of playing college lacrosse, so either attended university or went straight into trades while working toward futures in Perth that involved recreational lacrosse.
For Rob Shields, coach of Mercer Island’s infamous seventh- and eighth-grade select “Black Team” since 2008, life was similar. Although Shields’ family was not involved in lacrosse, a good buddy got him hooked on the sport when he was about 8 years old. And while he and Liz took part in a rather small lacrosse community, they didn’t meet until after Rob had finished high school.
Rob was engaged in an apprenticeship as a heavy-duty mechanic, when he broke his arm, and — after a decade of living and breathing lacrosse — had to take a break from the sport. His club teammates continued on without him.
After Rob’s arm had recovered, a work friend invited him to play lacrosse with his club in Bayswater. It was a “seniors” team for anyone over the age of 18, and that’s where Rob met Liz’s dad and two brothers. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Liz and Rob eventually married and later made sure their two sons, Daniel and Matthew, learned to play lacrosse. As Rob recalls, “They could both catch and throw when they were 2 or 3 years old.” The boys quickly moved on from “mod-cross,” which employs a soft rubber ball and forbids equipment and checking. “Daniel was 7 when he played in his first U-13 game; Matthew was 6,” Rob says.
Because lacrosse in Perth lacks the popularity it enjoys here, Liz and Rob, along with a small group of dedicated parents, did all the work: setting up fields, organizing games, coaching and umpiring.
Here, Liz says, “There is so much more parental involvement.” Rob adds, “With the Black Team, in terms of logistics, parents are willing to do anything you ask. If I say, ‘Let’s try to get this organized,’ it happens. Parents take care of all the details because they want it to move smoothly for their own kids.”
In Perth, one of Liz and Rob’s fellow lacrosse club members was Glen Morley, who would eventually serve as their ticket to the United States.
In 2001, Ian O’Hearn — then a young college graduate — moved to Perth to play on a Bayswater team. He struck up a friendship with Morley and the Shields family, and eventually enticed Morley to move to Mercer Island, where he would inaugurate the now-infamous Black Team.
Morley enjoyed our small Island community so much, he talked Rob and Liz into sending their elder son, Daniel, across the world for a high school “junior year abroad.”
“Glen said that Daniel would really benefit from being here — in terms of both academics and lacrosse — so we found an exchange program for him.” Dave Anderson — the guy who sells Dave’s Famous BBQ at football and lacrosse games (and now serves as a JV assistant coach) — offered to house Daniel.
“The idea was for him to go to Mercer Island for just one year,” Liz says with a smile. That was in 2007.
The following May, Rob made a trip to Mercer Island to see his son, visit with old friends Morley and O’Hearn, and take stock of the local lacrosse community. He learned that after two years, Morley was ready to return home, and by the time his visit had ended, Shields had agreed to replace him.
“Daniel wanted to stay and finish high school on Mercer Island, and Matt was just fine with moving,” Rob says. The last hold-out was Liz, who had just started a new job and was not anxious to leave her family and friends behind. However, she gave Rob a tentative “yes” over the phone, and the family began plans for a two-year stint on Mercer Island. That was four years ago.
In September 2008, Rob and Daniel returned in time for the school year’s start — and on the day of tryouts for the Black Team, which Rob would be coaching. “I arrived that morning and went straight to tryouts. Then, I started working at Breakaway Lacrosse [a lacrosse gear store] the next morning.”
Back in Perth, Daniel finished the lacrosse season — playing on the country’s winning U-15 team — and Liz continued to fill the 40-foot sea container that still sits on her dad’s property. She and Daniel filled a few suitcases and headed to the airport that October.
“I had always lived in Perth, and the house we lived in, we had bought from my dad,” says Liz. “It was really hard” to leave friends and family behind, she recalls.
However, the fact that Daniel had already spent a year on the Island made the move easier for the family. “He was already part of the lacrosse community, and the team was an amazing experience for him.”
Community members welcomed the rest of the Shields family with open arms. “People here were amazing,” Liz says. “They were really welcoming. They really helped with the transition and so many other ways, and we [all] made good friends [quickly]. Some people even gave us furniture for our home, because we left all of ours behind in Perth.”
The move dramatically changed the course of Daniel’s and Matthew’s lives.
“At home, Daniel had already started a pre-apprenticeship as a plumber,” says Rob; college was not in the picture for either boy.
As an MIHS senior in the spring of 2009, Daniel was — quite ironically — named a U.S. Lacrosse “All American” and the All-State First Team. But, less than a week before the State Championship game against Issaquah, Daniel’s ankle snapped during practice. The break kept him out of the game, and the team lost by one point.
The following fall, Daniel entered Onandaga Community College in Syracuse, N.Y. That team went on to win the junior college National Championship. Then, in the fall of 2010, Daniel moved to St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, N.C., and, as a sophomore, made the All Conference team.
Matthew enjoyed three years on Mercer Island’s varsity lacrosse team; in his senior year (2011 season), he was named to the All-State First Team and helped the Islanders win the state championship.
Last fall, he joined Daniel at St. Andrews, but because the school lost its NCAA status, the team’s coach and several players – including the Shields brothers – moved to North Carolina’s Mount Olive College. The school’s fledgling lacrosse program will officially gain NCAA Division II status in the 2013 season, and the Shields boys are looking forward to helping the team succeed.
Meanwhile, Rob’s Black Team has enjoyed several successful seasons, and the team has become so popular, eighth-grade boys wear the regulation shorts to school as badges of honor.
“Rob has done a great job with the Black Team for the past four years, helping the boys develop and transition into good high school players,” says MIHS boys lacrosse head coach Ian O’Hearn.
Rob also heads up the lacrosse “Fall Ball” program, which includes kids from kindergarten through high school seniors. During the regular spring season, he oversees the elementary school program, running scrimmages for kids as young as 5 every Sunday.
While Liz had found local work as a smoking-cessation counselor, she continued to be drawn to lacrosse – first as a sidelines photographer and eventually, starting with the 2011 season, as the MIHS Varsity Girls Lacrosse coach. The team is enjoying a stellar season, and stands to enter the state playoffs this week.
“Liz has single-handedly turned around the girls’ program,” says O’Hearn. Liz also oversees the youth program, which includes 42 girls in first and second grade alone.
“Back home, we had to visit schools and hold lacrosse [demonstrations], and then maybe one or two kids would show up for the team,” Liz recalls. “Here, the enthusiasm is great. People want to come out and play.”
“A lot of families on the Island do a lot for lacrosse, but the Shields family is 100 percent invested and does it full time,” adds O’Hearn. “As an entire family, they’ve had a great impact.”
Although they love Mercer Island and enjoy being part of such a supportive lacrosse community, the Shields’ never forget that their “real” home remains nearly 10,000 miles away. They will probably renew their visas for another two years, but at some point, they will head back to Perth.
“Nearly all of the boys’ friends that would come to our house have said that when we do go home, they’ll come and stay with us and play summer lacrosse [in Perth]” – just as O’Hearn and former MIHS players Luke Larson, Chris Taylor and AJ Ellis did in the past, Rob says.
“Everyone’s welcome,” says Liz.