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Howard County marks 25 years of girls high school lacrosse

The history of a tree is told by its rings. The history of girls lacrosse is told by the rules and equipment.

Were you of the wooden-stick-kilt-no-boundaries era? Or did you wear shorts and use a molded head stick? Were you a first home or an attack player? Was the ball white or yellow? What about goggles and the restraining line? Did a skirt replace your team's kilt or shorts?

"I played with boundaries in college but never with goggles, which is crazy to me now thinking back," said Megan (Greene) Gittermann, who coaches at her alma mater, Oakland Mills. "The evolution of the rules has been interesting. I remember not having a restraining line and that is completely foreign to the girls that I coach."

In 25 years of Howard County girls lacrosse there have been numerous rules changes, but the basis for all is safety. Lacrosse has two different versions — a boys version and a girls version. The name's the same, but the rules are different.

Picking up sticks

Although Howard County boys have had high school teams since 1975, the girls had to fight for their right to play, and Title IX, which turns 40 later this month, played a role in the game finally getting the school system's approval. Title IX is the federal law that requires gender equity for boys and girls in education programs that receive federal funds.

While Gail Purcell and other coaches had been pushing for girls lacrosse for years, they kept being turned down, including in December 1985 when the county sports committee (made up of high school principals and athletic directors) voted 15-1 against a proposal to add girls lacrosse to the sports menu.

"I feel like I'm beating my head against a wall," Purcell said at the time. "I understand there are problems with getting new sports, but I believe if it were a guys' sport, it would be passed."

Field limitation was given as one of the biggest reasons in the rejection. The county offered seven spring high school sports at the time. There was baseball and softball, boys tennis and girls tennis, and boys and girls track teams. But no girls sport was comparable to boys lacrosse.

The interest was there, however.

"P.J. (Kesmodel) and Gail and I were doing what we could to get it going," Glenelg coach Ginger Kincaid said. "We put it wherever we could. The rec council backed clinics and the leagues. I remember taking kids to Howard High and teaching them how to cradle."

By the spring of 1986, 140 girls had joined a league sponsored by the Department of Recreation and Parks.

"The biggest thing was when we put it in the summer leagues and when we got Hero's going," Kincaid said "We worked hard to get Hero's going and show a need in the county" for girls lacrosse.

With a Title IX ace card in their back pocket, Kesmodel, a guidance counselor at Mt. Hebron, and Purcell, a teacher at Centennial, applied pressure on the school board. Adding girls lacrosse would nearly double the number of girls participating in spring sports, they said.

As the 1986-87 school year began, the sports committee voted unanimously to include girls lacrosse as a county sport beginning in the spring of 1988.

A jump start

The first official high school girls lacrosse game was still months away when Howard County's Hero's All-Star team made a definitive statement by winning the 1987 Hero's Summer All-Star Lacrosse Classic. The local girls upset the Baltimore All-Stars, 8-7, and then routed Anne Arundel, 12-7, in the final.

"They were shocked. How could we possibly put together a team that didn't play in the (private school league) and win the game?" Kincaid said. "There were comments that we had corrupted the game."

The Hero's chances were improved by the offensive play of Jennifer Stone, a McDonogh student who scored 12 goals in the two games, and the 35 saves that Mt. Hebron's Jill Marple made. Marple already had a full scholarship to play field hockey and lacrosse at Temple University, but she never played lacrosse in high school.

The first year

All eight public schools fielded varsity and JV teams the spring of 1988.

"The first year we had teams, everything was brand-new — all the coaches, the officials and the players," Kincaid said. "We were trying to get the game off the ground using whatever raw talent we had."

Kincaid recalls one of her players scoring by flicking the ball into the net. "A little hockey took over in her brain. We were going on whatever we had — athleticism. We were trying to take athletes and do stuff."

A girl's lacrosse stick does not have a pocket and it takes a while to learn to throw, catch and cradle, so that first year, there were lots of ground balls and running directly to goal to shoot.

Assisted goals were rare in 1988, when Mt. Hebron, coached by Kesmodel, won the county title behind high-scoring center Erinn Quinn and goalkeeper Linda Ohrin.

When others complained about the Vikings' run-to-goal tactic, Kesmodel taught his players how to dodge — and they won the county title again.

Viking domination

Mt. Hebron quickly established itself as the class of the county. The Vikings had skill, depth and the confidence that they were the best. It became a team thing, a family thing, a we'll-work-harder-than-you thing and a Mt. Hebron thing.

While other teams had to rebuild periodically, Mt. Hebron just reloaded. Sisters followed sisters.

It wasn't unusual that a few weeks into the season, as Mt. Hebron was routing another team, the Vikings' third string was getting playing time against the opponents' starters, and that just made Mt. Hebron stronger.

Mt. Hebron's domination was such that the other county teams felt first place was so far out of reach that they vied for second.

Kesmodel turned the coaching reins over to Chris Robinson in 1996. He handed off to Brooke Kuhl-McClelland in 2002. She was followed by current coach (and former Mt. Hebron player) Trish Derwart-Sullivan, who just completed her second year as head coach.

In 25 years, Mt. Hebron has won 22 county titles, appeared in the state tournament a record 20 times, winning a record 15 championships, including 11 in a row. The Vikings also put together a 103-game win streak and have been ranked No. 1 in the nation seven times.

Of the original eight county teams, only Centennial and Glenelg have ever beaten Mt. Hebron. Of the newcomers, only Marriotts Ridge has. (Glenelg has won two state titles and Marriotts Ridge one.)

A way to college

A friend convinced Gittermann to try lacrosse; she became Oakland Mills' goalkeeper.

"I was a softball catcher and I felt that I had quick hands. There was a need for a goalkeeper on the varsity level and I wanted to play varsity," she said.

What she didn't realize initially was that lacrosse was going to be her ticket to college.

"We didn't have a lot of money so I wouldn't have easily been able to afford college. Lacrosse paid my way," she said.

Gittermann received a partial lacrosse and partial academic scholarship to Hofstra University.

Without lacrosse, she said she would have had to live at home and work her way through school. "No way could I have gone where I went without lacrosse and come out debt free. …I kind of owe all of my success to lacrosse."

County players have received scholarships from schools big (Maryland, University of North Carolina, Virginia and Duke) and small. From New Hampshire to Florida to Denver to Oregon and places in between.

The way it is

Including the two private schools, nearly 300 girls played varsity lacrosse in Howard County this spring. There are multiple club teams for players to choose from, and Hero's still exists.

Girls don't pick up their first lacrosse stick when they reach high school. They start young and come in with skills.

"I do love how athletic the girls have gotten and how creative they can be with the sticks," Kincaid said. "I just love that the girls have picked up so much from the guys and I think the boys have learned (some passing and finesse) from the girls.

"We got lacrosse going and people got excited about it. I don't think anybody dreamed it would be as big as it is now."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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