April 17, 2014

Born Deaf, Schlitt Tunes Kutztown's Lacrosse IQ

By Mark Macyk | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Kutztown's Lauren Schlitt - born deaf but able to hear due to a cochlear implant, has become a defensive lynchpin for the Golden Bears. (Jeff Uleau)

Every team has that one pregame song that gets its players really pumped up. For Lauren Schlitt and her Kutztown teammates, it’s “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey.

Maybe that isn’t all that notable. You can find a group that loves “Don’t Stop Believing” on every college campus in America. It’s a very popular song. But for Schlitt it’s also a very fitting song. Schlitt was born deaf, but never stopped believing that she could make it as a lacrosse player, not even after she tore her ACL last season.

Schlitt is able to hear her favorite songs and her teammates on the field, thanks the cochlear implant -- a surgically implanted electronic device that helps provide a sense of sound to those who are profoundly deaf or hard of hearing -- that sits behind her right ear. Schlitt’s parents opted to have the implant put in when she was a baby. She spent her life in mainstream schools and speaks clearly and confidently, without any hint of a speech impediment.

In fact, when she arrived at Kutztown, it took a month before her teammates even knew she was deaf. The implant is typically hidden by her hair. Not that she was keeping it a secret. Schlitt wanted then-coach Sarah Greer to know that if she didn’t answer her, it didn’t mean she was ignoring her. She figured the team would find out from there.

“I just assumed my coach had told them,” Schlitt said.

But it wasn’t an issue and has not really been an issue since. Schlitt has been a key member of Kutztown’s midfield from Day 1. As a sophomore, she started 13 games. There are obstacles, sure, but the Golden Bears work around them.

This year, they have started holding up pink posters to help relay plays onto the field, which actually helps everyone know what’s going on. Often teammates will have to run up and tell Schlitt to come out of the game, and it can be tough to hear the whistle and coaches on windy days. Occasionally, Schlitt won’t hear the whistle go off and she’ll keep on playing right on through but, as Kutztown coach Kate Scattergood said, “Other players do that, too.” The Golden Bears tell the refs about it beforehand.

And although it hasn’t happened this season (“I don’t want to jinx it,” Schlitt said), her implant has turned off during games in the past. When that happens, Schlitt is left unable to hear, and has to leave the game.

“It’s definitely just frustrating,” Schlitt said. “It’s not scary at all. It’s just, ‘Why now? Let me play. Why couldn’t it happen tomorrow during practice?’”

Schlitt has played sports her entire life and and picked up lacrosse in seventh grade, before becoming a standout player at Oceanside High School on Long Island. She had opportunites to play Division I, but knew she wanted to go to Kutztown after visiting the campus. While she wasn’t worried about being accepted as a deaf player on her new team, she did worry about leaving everything she knew for the first time. Schlitt fit right in. Now she can’t believe that her time at Kutztown is almost up.

“She’s very open to helping her teammates understand,” Scattergood said. “She has a very smart mind. She’s a sweet girl with a good heart. I don’t think there are ever any problems with her clicking with her teammates.”

And, of course, Schlitt can play. A defensive-minded midfielder, Schlitt has compiled 22 ground balls and 10 caused turnovers for this year for the Golden Bears, who play in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, one of Division II’s toughest.

“Lauren is an extremely smart player,” said Scattergood, who took over at KU before Schlitt’s junior season. “I saw that immediately when I got here. She was one of the girls who would be in my office looking at different offenses and defenses. She’s just extremely strategically smart.”

None of that could help last January, when Schlitt tore her ACL in the gym during the first practice of the season. Things looked bleak. Though she wanted to cry, she predictably tried not to let the injury slow her down.

“I just kept playing,” Schlitt said. “I said, ‘I can play. There’s nothing wrong.’ Athletes are like that. I waited. I said, ‘I’m playing. Everything’s OK. There’s no proof.’”

There really was no proof, because the implant hindered the use of an MRI machine. But, on the advice of doctors, she had surgery in April, and they confirmed that the ACL had indeed been torn. She missed her entire junior season.

In the end, the injury may have made Schlitt an even better player. Scattergood said a season on the sidelines improved her already vast lacrosse IQ. And Schlitt was running with Scattergood four days a week in the offseason to build her strength back up.

“I think I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in,” Schlitt said.

But Schlitt's college career will end this month, a finale she said is coming way too quickly. Her next step sounds great. Schlitt is planning on attending graduate school to get a master’s in education for the deaf and hard of hearing. One thing she plans to do while there is brush up on her sign language, which she knows a little of, but does not typically use.

“Growing up, all I knew is that I wanted to help others,” Schlitt said. “I have been so fortunate to have such a great support system. Because I have been given all these opportunities I want to give back to deaf and hard of hearing students. I also feel like I would be able to relate to my students.”

She also hopes to coach, because athletics have played such a part in her journey, specifically in growing her confidence to communicate.

“It’s just made me a stronger person,” Schlitt added. “I want other kids to have the same experience. I want them to look up to me.”

Basically, Schlitt just wants to make sure others in the deaf community never stop believing.

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