Delaware State University’s southern swing to close its women’s lacrosse season was a bit of a homecoming for freshman Brianne Johanson.
The Naples, Florida, resident relished the chance to play games in her home state. She’d cracked the starting lineup late in the year and scored one of just five Hornets goals in their last three games on the trip.
She’d traveled far from home to attend Delaware State, among the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. She coveted the cultural opportunities Johanson believed she’d missed attending at a private high school, Community School of Naples, and the chance to play a sport she loved.
“We’re still a growing program,” she said, “but we did make a lot of progress … I was very excited to go back home for games. We had a great time, even on the bus, a 12-hour ride back. We were kinda dreading it but everything was going good until that happened and it was just, very honestly, scary. And it was just something that none of us expected.”
At 10:30 a.m. on April 20, driving along Interstate 95 near Savannah, Georgia, the DSU bus was pulled over by Liberty County Sheriff’s Office deputies. They told driver Tim Jones that he’d illegally traveled in the far left lane, despite Jones telling them the signs only said trucks couldn’t travel there.
While a deputy spoke with Jones, colleagues arrived with a narcotic-sniffing dog. It picked up a scent, and the next thing DSU players knew, their belongings were being searched.
“It was very nerve-wracking,” Johanson said, “because we didn’t really know what was going to happen next or what they would try and say because we already knew they were able to come on the bus and tell us that we were being searched.”
Other team members said they weren’t surprised that they had encountered such a situation in the South.
DSU coach Pamella Jenkins had said it was the first encounter most of the women on the team ever had with law enforcement. Johanson was one of those people, which added to her anxiety.
It didn’t help that when a deputy began speaking to the team about the search, saying “If there is anything in y’all’s luggage, we’re probably gonna find it, OK?,” his tone was accusatory.
“The infuriating thing was the assumption of guilt on their behalf,” Jenkins said.
In Johanson’s view, and those of her teammates, she said, “He was asking us, but it really wasn’t asking. He was basically almost threatening us … All of us knew we didn’t have anything on us. We’re Division I lacrosse players.”
Johanson didn’t see her luggage outside the bus and doesn’t know if it was searched.
Later, when deputies found a wrapped package in a gift bag, they brought it on board and summoned the player whose name was on it – senior captain Aniya Aiken. Even though it was a gift, the deputy acted surprised that Aiken didn’t know what was inside.
“You see that kinda seems like, ‘What’s going on?’ … This is the type of stuff we look for,” he said.
Johanson said seeing how composed and respectful Aiken was, even asking the deputy if he’d like her to open the package right there, was uplifting.
“She’s known on our team for being a great leader,” Johanson said. “She’s very mature … So it didn’t really surprise me that she handled it the way she did and it did definitely give us all some comfort.”
The incident was a stark reminder, Johanson said, of the experiences people of color too frequently encounter, calling it, “another thing that we were going to have to come to terms with.”
She has even noticed it on the lacrosse field, where most of the teams DSU faces are predominantly white and the Hornets have a tendency to be treated as “the more aggressive team” by referees, though game film may show otherwise.
The bus incident came to light last week in a story by Sydney Anderson, a sophomore lacrosse player who was on the bus, in DSU’s student publication The Hornet Newspaper and its website thehornetonline.com.
Johanson said most players had posted comments and/or photos on social media as the stop and search happened. She was surprised it hadn’t received public attention sooner but is glad it has now.
“Something has to happen about this because it was just something that no one should go through, let alone a Division I sports team,” she said “ … Basically we were violated.”
Have an idea for a compelling local sports story or is there an issue that needs public scrutiny? Contact Kevin Tresolini at [email protected] and follow on Twitter @kevintresolini. Support local journalism by subscribing to delawareonline.com.