BY MARCUS MITCHELL
When taking a look at the women’s lacrosse team it’s easy to see that they proudly fit the label of Spartans. Although a young program in just its third year, the women’s lacrosse players are willing to fight tooth and nail and aren’t afraid when it’s time to give it their all. They’re fighters, through and through. But the toughest fighter on the team isn’t 2015 Spartan ground-ball leader Amanda Parker, nor is it goal-scoring phenom Shannon Sweeney. No, the toughest fighter on the Spartans is eight-year-old Rowan Santos.
Although having never formally taken the field, Rowan has proven that behind her blonde hair and blue eyes is a Spartan who has fought through more adversity in her young life than most people will ever face. Before her first birthday, Rowan was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, an eye cancer most common in children. After three cycles of chemotherapy the tumor had grown so large that one of her eyes had to be removed, resulting in a prosthetic eye. Despite three more cycles of chemotherapy and five different surgeries from complications with the prosthetic, Rowan hasn’t let her hardships change her energetic and fun-loving personality.
The Riverview native found herself at the University of Tampa thanks to an organization known as Team IMPACT. Since its inception in 2011, Team IMPACT has paired up children with life-threatening and chronic illnesses with local collegiate teams in an effort to improve the quality of life for all participants. When the organization captured the UT athletic department’s attention in the fall of 2013, women’s lacrosse coach Kelly Gallagher jumped at the opportunity. That fall was Gallagher’s team’s inaugural season and she has known people who have partnered with Friends of Jaclyn, a similar organization that works with the UT baseball, women’s basketball, and cheerleading teams.
“I’ve had coaching friends who have kids that have unfortunately passed away, and I have had coaching friends who have been with teams with kids that have lived full vibrant lives.” Gallagher said. “So when this was brought to me, I figured I knew enough about this that I could bring it to the team.”
Not wanting to put her player’s in a position where this was sprung upon them, Gallagher presented the idea to the team after a fall practice. Before even five minutes had passed, the team was chasing Gallagher down telling her that they were all in.
“It was such a long time ago because Rowan has been with us since our program started, but I just remember being super excited to meet Rowan,” junior midfielder Kelly Austin said.
After “drafting” Rowan, age five at the time, onto the team, Gallagher and the rest of the team met their newest recruit in December during their holiday party. Since then, Rowan has grown up alongside the young women’s lacrosse program.
She attends all of the team’s home games and makes sure to wear her lacrosse jersey to show full support for her teammates. For away games, Rowan fully embraces her role with the team and rides the team bus whenever possible. Her presence on the sideline during games is certainly felt by freshman attacker Megan Sengelmann.
“A great part about having Rowan as a part of the team is she is an uplifting spirit on the sidelines,” Sengelmann said. “She struggles with all 35 names, but she is really good at trying to get to know us and cheer us on.”
When the game gets intense and the player’s nerves are on edge, Rowan is there to bring the fun and humanity back into the sport. In their inaugural season when they faced off against a third-ranked Limestone team, Division II runner-ups that year, the team faced arguably their toughest opponent in program history. Before the game, Rowan told Gallagher that there was something she had to tell the whole team and the players were quickly gathered. Rowan told them that she had lost a tooth the night before and was visited by the tooth fairy, which earned a laugh from her teammates and eased their nerves before the game.
“For a young program like ours, having Rowan on the sideline has been really good for us,” Gallagher said. “I know in the long run we are a very competitive group of people and we want to win games, but Rowan has been a really good reminder for all of us that tomorrow’s not always promised. At the end of the day, if the worse thing that happened to us is that we lost a lacrosse game then let’s be appreciative and thankful for that.”
During winter break after first meeting Rowan, all the girls on the team and the coaching staff sent Rowan postcards of their hometowns. Last summer, Gallagher and assistant coach Kelly Ryan created together “Flat Rowans,” small plastic cutouts of Rowan that players were to take home with them over break and take pictures and write stories of their adventures with Flat Rowan. Players took this miniature Rowan everywhere ranging from the Firefly Music Festival in Delaware, the Colorado Springs Zoo, the Jersey Shore, and even as far as Russia. Eventually Rowan had an entire wall filled with the stories from her “adventures”.
The relationship between Rowan and the team has paid great dividends for both parties involved. Because of Rowan, the Spartans have become a tighter and more cohesive group of athletes. From decorating pumpkins with her this past October to having a pasta party before their home-opener last weekend, the team has become a stronger unit. On their instagram, #RowansTeam is proudly added to their posts and Rowan herself refers to the girls as “sisters” and the team as “my team”.
But new sisters aren’t the only thing that has changed for Rowan since joining the team. And when asked who her favorite athlete was at school, Rowan answered with Natalie Carraway, Spartan sophomore attacker. This past August, Rowan asked her parents to join a 3v3 soccer league, a challenge for a young girl with a complicated medical background, but a challenge Rowan was eager to take on nonetheless. With handmade posters in tow, the team travelled to Rowan’s soccer game to cheer her on. And Rowan’s love for her team goes beyond cheering just for the lacrosse team.
“We went to the UT women’s soccer team to support as a team and Rowan wanted to be the fan of the game,” Ryan said. “She was trying hard to cheer and then the cheerleading coach invited her down to hold up the signs during cheers.”
Rowan is everything that makes sports great. It’s easy to get caught up in wins and losses and forget that sometimes it’s just a game. After every game, Gallagher has her team fill out a post-game reflection sheet with the question: Five years from now what will you always remember about the game? It’s easy to forget scores and formations and plays, but an eight-year-old smiling and cheering from the sideline will last a lifetime.