When it was built in in 1917, Detroit’s Southeastern High School was located in a recently annexed rural part of town — hence the name for its sports teams, “The Jungaleers.” Nearly 100 years later, the school still operates in the fringes, so to speak: In 2012, it was one of 15 taken over by the state’s Education Achievement Authority, an attempt to improve the lowest performing 5 percent of schools in the city.
That’s when Brent Petrone started as a math teacher — he now teaches classes like geometry, algebra II, personal finance, and pre-calculus — and before he got involved outside of the classroom. See, Petrone played lacrosse in high school, and he and some colleagues thought it would make a fun alternative to football, basketball, and track, the only other sports the school offers. The only problem was Petrone didn’t know where to start, especially in a cash-strapped district under state control. There was also the perception struggle of bringing lacrosse — traditionally a suburban, East Coast sport — to the outskirts of urban Detroit.
“I reached out to different lacrosse organizations … with a lot of pessimism thrown my way — that it wouldn’t work, that people have already tried it before and it was never successful,” he says. “There wasn’t a lot of support.”
Eventually, Petrone found a grant through U.S. Lacrosse, the sport’s national governing body. Called the “First Stick” program, the two-year grant provided the school with full equipment and insurance for a team of 24 players.
That makes the Southeastern Jungaleers Detroit’s first — and so far only — public school lacrosse team (the city’s only other team is at the private University of Detroit Jesuit). While the team has yet to notch a win since its first game in April 2014, Petrone is nonetheless proud of his players’ accomplishments.
“A lot of the kids are really athletic, they just haven’t had many athletic opportunities,” he says. “This gave them an opportunity to try something new.”
For Petrone, it’s less about winning and more about growing lacrosse in Detroit. “Winning games would be great, but they’ve got to grow first in order to do that,” he says. “The goal was to just build a foundation to get kids excited about the game — which they are — and just getting it known throughout the area.”
Forming a Detroit team has helped expose students to each other who wouldn’t get to meet otherwise, and vice versa, since the Jungaleers play teams throughout the tri-county area.
Petrone says he does not get paid for the gig — it’s a labor of love. To cover expenses, the team has resorted to fundraising, and takes donations from checks written out to the school. Fans can also show support by turning up to games during the season throughout metro Detroit, which lasts from March through May.
“It’s been difficult, but it’s worth it in the end,” Petrone says. “The kids are happy, and they love the game, and that’s all that matters.”