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When Stealing’s Not A Crime

On April 13, a post-victory bus ride back to school for the Staples boys’ volleyball team was interrupted by Ridgefield Police sirens.

The police had been called by Ridgefield volleyball coaches, who wanted to retrieve several Ridgefield High School volleyball warm-up jerseys that had disappeared during the game. The culprits, the coaches suspected, were the Wreckers.

After a search of the players’ bags on the bus, police found three jerseys. Soon after, the player who stole the jerseys was suspended from the team for 20 days by head coach Jon Shepro. Since then, the school administration has described the incident as a single individual’s isolated act.

However, numerous interviews with athletes representing a variety of girls and boys teams alike reveals that stealing opponents’ gear after a victory is a more common practice that not only includes the volleyball team, and not only other Staples teams, but many throughout the region. Athletes characterized the actions as a mischievous tradition, not a felony.

“If I were to liken this kind of stealing to anything, it’s like the concept of souvenirs. Win or lose, some people want memorabilia from the game. There’s no malice in it,” said Emily Garber ’13, a girls’ water polo captain.

In boys’ volleyball’s case, the practice of swiping something from a rival is nothing new.

“In all the years I’ve played volleyball for Staples, not last year’s class, but every class before that – ’10, ’09, ’08, ’06 – stealing jerseys has been a part of a tradition,” said a varsity boys’ team member.

According to former volleyball player Danny Hlawitschka ’10, the tradition dates back even further than that.

“It started way before I was a freshman,” he said. “Every team and coach knows about it and, including us, everyone knows to keep an eye on their stuff.”

Both the anonymous player and Hl witschka individually went on to say that the typical targets are a warm-up jersey or a volleyball bearing the other team’s name. As former captain Tom Prenderville ’10 put it, “In the volleyball community, jerseys are the equivalent of trading cards.”

In perhaps the most high-profile case of stealing prior than the Ridgefield incident, the flag of the Greenwich Marching Band was stolen prior to the 2009 Thanksgiving football game.

It’s not uncommon – and is actually expected – that the other team will try and reciprocate the gesture by taking something for themselves. The Ridgefield incident on April 13 was not the first time this had occurred between the two rivals.

“At one practice at my club team two years ago, a Ridgefield player strolled in to practice in a Staples warm-up,” the current player said. “Everyone laughed, maybe a little anger behind that laugh, but it’s been a thing that goes on. People look the other way.”

Hlawitschka also was familiar with instances of theft on Ridgefield’s part.

“They  actually stole some of our jerseys back when I was a senior,” he said. “However, we didn’t make a big deal about it because we probably had a couple of their warmups as we were leaving the gym.”

The long history of back-and-forth thefts between the two programs made both Prenderville and Hlawitschka question why the police were involved on the night of April 13.

“This type of stuff goes on year in and year out, not just at the high school level but at the regional and national level as well, and should hardly ever result in police involvement,” Prenderville said.

Calls to the office of Ridgefield Athletic Director Carl Charles on the subject were not returned.

Staples Athletic Director Marty Lisevick describes the concept of rival teams defacing each other’s property or stealing equipment as a “ridiculous ‘tradition’” between sports teams of high schools in towns of similar socioeconomic standing to Westport. However, he holds that the larger issue with theft is, and was in the past, students from less advantaged schools attempting to seize equipment from the locker rooms in wealthier districts.

“For two or three years running, there was a school that competed with Staples that, whenever they showed up, I would tell our coaches to tell their players to lock all of their possessions in the locker room. It’s just that it can be very tempting for some kids to take something that they could really use when it’s out in the open and not even locked. Crime like that has been reduced as of present, but it was extremely serious,” Lisevick said.

Hlawitschka clarified that the tradition was never for economic gain, but rather for the sentimental value that the other team’s equipment provided and the increased camaraderie that it creates.

“It’s a team-building activity because of the high risk. However, everyone knew to never get caught, and there were unwritten rules – such as not stealing from inner city schools.”

The custom exists in a number of other sports. A varsity girls’ swimmer reported that in that sport, like boys’ volleyball, the stealing of other teams’ paraphernalia occurs throughout the FCIAC. Given the nature of the sport, there isn’t as much equipment for the taking in swimming. Thus, the stealing is generally limited to one item: swim caps.

“I think people take caps because they always have the team logo on them, so they’re kind of like mementos of all the meets you’ve been too,” she said. “They’re also not as expensive, compared to suits and goggles, and most swimmers have more than one, so I think people don’t feel as bad taking them.”

According to team captain Garber, captured swim caps and various apparel decorate an entire wall at Staples.

One boys’ water polo player related the story of when he and a fellow teammate stole jerseys after an away game. On the way into the pool, the player had spotted a box of uniforms. The two teammates decided that if they were to win the game, they would take a few.

“There was a box of pinnies and a box of t-shirts,” he said. “My fellow teammate went in and grabbed two of each, one for me and one for him, and quickly stuffed them into his bag.”

He went on to echo the girls’ swimmer’s notion that the stolen items act as a keepsake of sorts.

“It serves the same purpose as a trophy, except instead of an organization or independent group giving you the trophy, you take it from the other team yourself,” he said. “I wouldn’t liken it to kicking someone when they’re down, but the idea is kind of close. You just beat a team, and you want something to show for it.”

The practice isn’t observed in all sports. Darryle Wiggins ’14, a starting varsity basketball player, said that he has never seen any theft occur between teams in his time playing the sport. And boys’ soccer Head Coach Dan Woog said stealing does not happen in Staples soccer.

Other Staples coaches approached for comment declined interviews.

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