When Ali Brennan finished her soccer career at Miami, she wasn't quite ready to give up college sports.
"My mom brought up the idea about a fifth year," Brennan said, "and when I was a freshman, there was a senior at Miami, Jimmy Graham, who was a four-year basketball player and he played a fifth year for the football team, and now he plays for the Saints in the NFL. That really intrigued me."
The McDonogh graduate planned to earn an MBA, so she decided to take advantage of the NCAA rule that allows athletes five consecutive years of eligibility, but only four in any one sport. She found the perfect fit in Jacksonville's lacrosse program.
"I just love being on a team. I love competing," Brennan said. "I don't know exactly what I want to do yet as a career, so I wanted to take advantage of this year and have lacrosse pay for some of my master's, so why not go ahead and get a master's if I can?"
At McDonogh, Brennan was primarily a soccer and basketball player, though she did play lacrosse. Despite being a bit rusty, especially with her stick skills when she arrived at Jacksonville at the end of last summer, she emerged as a key midfielder with 10 goals and four assists. She has 24 draw controls, the fifth-most on the team.
Dophins coach Mindy McCord, a Westminster native and former McDaniel coach, was eager to add Brennan to her lineup, citing her athleticism and her Division I soccer experience.
"She just has uncanny ability with her strength and her hand-eye coordination to adapt to situations quickly," McCord said. "Her stick was a little raw. I knew that would take a little work, but she dominated on the field in fitness tests.
"In lacrosse, you need a stick for certain things, but for a defender, it's athleticism and awareness. And I think when you're a multisport athlete growing up, you really can pick up different facets, so it was an easy adjustment for her. On the draw, she's been an integral player for us. It's that physicality, her body position, her strength and her quickness that makes a big difference."
Speedy and 5 feet 11, Brennan has always been versatile and adaptable. As a sophomore, she made the All-Metro soccer team as a defender, the position she played at Miami. As a senior, she was an All-Metro goalie with 20 shutouts.
Lacrosse always came third. She played junior varsity her freshman and sophomore years at McDonogh because commitments to Olympic Development Program soccer and Amateur Athletic Union basketball meant she couldn't make every lacrosse game — a requirement for coach Chris Robinson.
By her senior year, she was an All-Metro midfielder.
"She really didn't put much time into lacrosse," Robinson said, "but in our championship game against NDP, we won, 13-10, and she had five of the goals. She was just that strong of a presence. She wasn't a lifelong laxer like a lot of the kids around here, but she was just a phenomenal athlete who, when she put her mind to it, could totally dominate."
Robinson wasn't surprised that Brennan's competitive nature would drive her to a fifth year and perhaps a second NCAA tournament experience.
Miami made it her senior year, and the defending Atlantic Sun champion Dophins (13-5) are favored to earn a second straight conference title and automatic NCAA tournament berth. They face Detroit in Sunday's Atlantic Sun final after beating Stetson, 20-4, in Friday's semifinals.
In Brennan's search to match the right MBA program with the right fifth-year athletics program, she considered staying at Miami for basketball or crew. She and her boyfriend, high school sweetheart Alex Pagnotta, also looked for a school that would meet her MBA and sports goals and his law school needs, but that didn't work out, so Brennan contacted several lacrosse coaches. She visited just one.
"On my first visit to JU, I fell in love with the program," Brennan said. "I liked the coaches, and the team was like a family. I wanted to be part of something like that."
Dolphins senior Kaitlin Stewart, a St. Mary's graduate and one of 16 Marylanders on the Dolphins roster, said Brennan fit in easily.
"Almost immediately, it seemed like she had been there all four years," Stewart said. "On the field and off, she connected with us so well, and I think that's due partly to her amazing personality. She was willing to do anything it took to be part of our team, so she worked super hard when she first got here. She knew that to compete on the level we were competing on, she had to work hard and do extra reps to get caught up."
Stewart said Brennan pushed her teammates with her athleticism and speed and other players started looking up to her because she worked so hard. Brennan pushed through many hours of wall ball to hone her stick skills, but that was just that beginning of adjusting to a sport she hadn't played in years.
"In soccer, we don't watch too much film or do too much detail on players like in basketball and lacrosse, so I think that was the most challenging part and at the beginning, just reading the game. I hadn't played it in so long and it was at a high level, so it took a little adjusting."
She has also been challenged by injury for the first time in her career. A nagging injury at the back of one knee has kept her out of several games, including Friday's. However, Brennan hopes to be back on the field Sunday and, she hopes, an NCAA tournament game this week.
She'll remain in her beachfront home until she completes her MBA in August, but this week Brennan is savoring her final days of college sports.
"I really like to enjoy every moment when I'm out there, because I know it's going to end soon," she said. "I like being on a team, and when this is over, I'll never have 20-some best friends to be with every day ... and just being part of something bigger than yourself."
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