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For Lawrence kids, a soccer mom and daughter

Ellen and Stephanie McArdle run Lawrence girls and boys through drills at a recent soccer practice. Ellen and Stephanie McArdle run Lawrence girls and boys through drills at a recent soccer practice. (Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe)
By Brion O’Connor
Globe Correspondent / June 24, 2010

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Ellen McArdle is lugging a twine sack filled with green-and-white soccer balls across the Iron Rail Fields in Wenham when her cellphone chirps.

“It’s my daughter,’’ she said, laughing. “They’re trying to find this place.’’

Fifteen minutes later, just before game time, Stephanie McArdle and a dozen Under-12 girls’ soccer players, resplendent in their light blue Lawrence jerseys, pile out of a passenger van. The younger McArdle, with a bright smile and a hint of weariness in her eyes, apologizes.

“It’s an adventure some days,’’ she said.

The McArdles have logged countless miles motoring around the North Shore in the past 18 months. Along with the Youth Development Organization of Lawrence, where Stephanie is the program coordinator, this mother-daughter tandem is the driving force — literally and figuratively — behind an inspiring youth soccer program. With the help of Michael Goodwin, who oversees the sole boys’ squad, the McArdles spend much time chauffeuring roughly 45 Lawrence youngsters to and from practices and games, in addition to organizing and coaching.

The U-12 Lawrence Bulldogs are the third team launched by the McArdles since last spring. Howard Sticklor, the executive director of the Youth Development Organization, said the program faced long odds.

“In Lawrence, you notice how fractured everything is,’’ he said. “Everything is an immediate experience, day to day. It’s very hard for anything to take root. There are just too many revolving doors. The kids here aren’t used to being scheduled. These are these kids without a lot of commitment in their lives.’’

The barriers, including language, culture, and finances, are many. But, one by one, most have fallen. “Our soccer approach is like all our programs,’’ Stephanie McArdle said of the Youth Development Organization. “We try to find the right kids for the right program. We keep them engaged.’’

Stephanie McArdle was born in Swampscott, but her father, Michael McArdle, a Salem lawyer, moved the family to Boxford. When she started playing soccer, her mom started coaching. Stephanie took to the sport, and was a Globe All-Scholastic by the time she graduated from Masconomet Regional High School in 1996. She went on to play four years at the University of Michigan. When she went to work at the Youth Development Organization in 2006, she was stunned to learn that the Lawrence High School complex had day-care centers for teenage mothers, but no girls’ soccer team.

“We live in America,’’ said Ellen McArdle, 62, who now sits on the Youth Development Organization board of directors. “How can we have kids in the inner city not playing sports?’’

The McArdles teamed with Eric Lundquist to help run soccer clinics at the Sons of Italy fields and eventually the Lawrence Boys & Girls Club, with the idea of establishing a youth team.

“Sports had a huge impact in my life,’’ said Stephanie, now 31. “Not only the physical aspect, but being part of a team is phenomenal, the bonds you form. I want these kids to have the same experience.’’

Candice Jimerson-Johnson, a Youth Development Organization board member and an assistant principal at Lawrence International High School, saw the same possibilities.

“Stephanie has been able to fill a gap for these young men and women,’’ she said. “As a woman and a former athlete myself, I’m even more excited to see the opportunity that this gives these young women. Lawrence doesn’t have anything for women in sports. This is the start of that.’’

“Think of all the benefits this has for women, to build confidence and transform all they learn as part of a team and carry that over into life,’’ said Jimerson-Johnson. “These girls need that.’’

McArdle persuaded the Essex County Youth Soccer Association to admit a single Lawrence travel team last spring, instead of the requisite three. The early games weren’t very attractive, said Alfredo Sanchez, who has a daughter, son, and stepson playing.

“That first season was pretty tough to watch,’’ he said. “But watching them now is amazing. It’s a 180-degree difference. The progression is unbelievable.’’

Part of the program’s success is tied to McArdle’s decision to field a travel team, giving Lawrence children a chance to measure themselves against players from other communities. Backed by the Youth Development Organization, the Lawrence youth soccer program covers all local and association fees, and even transportation.

“There’s no excuses’’ for players to miss practice or games, said Sticklor. “They have a ride.’’

“The other secret ingredient is Steph’s affection for the kids,’’ said Sticklor. “Soccer was the hook. But for Stephanie, soccer is family. Early on, there was a tremendous amount of drama, anger, and these immediate emotional crises. Once everyone settled down, they lost that unnecessary drama, and accepted the idea of supporting one another.’’

McArdle also made soccer a year-round sport, getting playing time at indoor facilities.

“Those first few months, we got absolutely trounced,’’ said Ellen McArdle. “It was interesting.’’

Lawrence teams rarely get trounced anymore. Both the girls’ Wolves and boys’ Lightning teams qualified for the playoffs at the Pingree School in Hamilton last weekend.

For the McArdles, sports are a metaphor for life, teaching the joys and rewards of hard work, conviction, camaraderie, and commitment. Playing in the league gives the youths the opportunity to see a world outside Lawrence, while giving people in surrounding communities a chance to see Lawrence in a different light.

“There is a lot of concern among the Lawrence parents and kids about how they’ll be perceived,’’ said Jimerson-Johnson. “The city can be a cocoon. This is an eye-opening experience. We don’t want them to lose their sense of self. We want them to know who they are, and what assets they bring.’’

The North Shore soccer community has rallied behind the Lawrence program. Swampscott and Danvers programs have held equipment drives, while others, such as Andover, have helped secure fields. Private schools, including Brooks Academy, Phillips Andover, and Pingree, provide camp spots for the Lawrence players, and Stephanie McArdle has persuaded the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association to sponsor a two-week summertime GOALS camp in the city.

The Lawrence players have responded.

“These girls hunger for this sport. Some girls, in three years, never missed a practice or a game, and wouldn’t unless they were on their death bed,’’ said Ellen McArdle. “Soccer defines them right now. It gives them something to grow with.’’

At a recent rain-soaked practice, two dozen girls and boys dutifully showed up, despite the inclement weather. Few complained; most laughed as they ran through their drills.

Among the new faces was a young volunteer coach from Haverhill named Keshia Devoe, a sophomore forward on the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts soccer team. Devoe, recruited by Jimerson-Johnson, is a shining example of the redeeming qualities of sport.

“When I was younger, soccer is what got me through,’’ said Devoe. “I wasn’t going in the right way, but soccer helped me get to where I am today. This allowed me to go to school.’’

The McArdles said they hope to add more youth teams, and reestablish a girls’ soccer team at the high school. Another goal is to maintain a supportive environment where youths can thrive, on and off the field.

Oriagna Inirio, 12, who will be a seventh-grader at the Lawrence Family Development Charter School, said she enjoys meeting girls from other schools, and loves being with her teammates. “When I make mistakes, they let me know. But they’re always there when I feel down.’’

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