A 36-game losing streak dating to 2005, including an 0-12 season in 2011, had the sophomores on the CCBC-Essex women's lacrosse team considering calling it quits this year.
"Last year we didn't win any games," said sophomore midfielder Paige Orpin (Perry Hall Christian). "I think only maybe two of them were close. I wasn't sure if I wanted to play anymore."
Sophomore attacker Alexandra Breslin-Spinnato (Eastern Tech) was similarly frustrated.
"It was really hard," she said. "It's my freshman year, we are not winning, and everybody is asking how your freshman year [is] going. ... It was hard."
What a difference a year makes. CCBC-Essex is 9-3 this season and has been ranked all season in the National Junior College Athletic Association poll, currently at No. 5.
"It's so, so rewarding," Orpin said. "My love for the sport kind of outweighed the bad season, and it definitely paid off coming back this year. This is what it's supposed to be like."
Things had gotten so bad from 2006 to 2008 that the Knights failed to field a team. Coach Kerri Loechner said competing with CCBC-Catonsville had made it too difficult to get players.
Loechner was hired as coach in 2010 after spending several seasons coaching at Catholic High.
"I knew that it would be tough, especially for the first few years," Loechner said. "It kind of appealed to me because I could make my own traditions, and I could kind of make it the program I wanted it to be.
"There were definitely times I wanted to give up, when I thought that it would never get better. That no matter how hard we tried or how hard we worked, it really wouldn't matter."
Without time to recruit before her first season, Loechner was unable to bring in the players she wanted to right away. In 2012, however, things changed dramatically. Loechner and her Knights began to see the added talent and commitment pay off with each game.
"We won the first one and then we were like, 'OK , well, what if we only win one?'" said Orpin, who has 26 goals and 16 assists this season. "And then we won the second one and it was like, 'What if this was the last one?' And it just kept building and then knew we really had a good team. It feels good."
Said Breslin-Spinnato: "It was totally awesome. Especially just looking at the board to see that we were winning. In our team talk, our coach would say, 'Prove you're not a joke. Everybody thinks that you're a joke, so prove that you're not.' And I think that kind of pushed everybody."
The Knights have done just that, winning nine of their first 12 games this season. One the team's major improvements has been in its offensive play. Beating the team's crosstown rivals in CCBC-Catonsville was a turning point, said Emily McBee (Mercy).
"Beating Catonsville was the nail-in-the-coffin sort of thing. Once we beat them it was just like 'phew, we're actually a good team," McBee said.
Freshman goalie Leanne Bittner (Loch Raven) has been a key addition for the Knights. . The transfer from Division I Robert Morris has helped keep her team in games with her leadership. Her 124 saves are No. 2 in the NJCAA.
"Leanne is huge," Loechner said. "She's an amazing athlete. She's so good in goal, she's so well trained and just so talented that it really takes a lot to score on her."
Added McBee, the NJCAA's fifth-leading goal-scorer with 48: "We have a great, great goalie this year. Leanne has been phenomenal. She's been helping out a lot. … Having Leanne has been a true gift for this team."
The Knights will play host to both No. 10 Catonsville, which they defeated 20-15 earlier this season, and No. 4 Nassau Community College in their next two games. Goalkeeping could determine this team's fate against Catonsville, a team that fields two of the top three scorers in the nation in Shelby Polk (71 goals) and Katelyn Eagan (62).
Loechner credits the play in goal, better stick skill and sophomore leadership for the team's turnaround.
"They are teaching our freshmen about Essex," she said of the sophomores. "They are teaching them the way we play lacrosse and little traditions we've started.
"The best part for me is that they have worked for two years now and they are seeing the fruits of their labor. They're seeing their success."