When Johns Hopkins women's lacrosse coach Janine Tucker talks about attacker Taylor D'Amore, she doesn't point to numbers in a record book or read a list of postseason awards. She reaches for a framed photo on a shelf in her office.
D'Amore is hugging teammate Sammy Cermak after a win over Penn State at the American Lacrosse Conference tournament two years ago. Those moments of joy used to be fleeting for D'Amore, quickly replaced by a fierce intensity and businesslike approach.
As a senior, she still has that intensity, but it's been tempered a bit.
"Winning helps," D'Amore said with a laugh.
The ALC Offensive Player of the Year has had a lot to do with the No. 7 Blue Jays (15-4) improving from 10-7 last season to earn their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2007. Hopkins earned its most wins in a season since it became a Division I program in 1999.
"My senior year has been a lot of fun," said D'Amore, who could be announced as a Tewaaraton Award finalist today. "I'm done with my [pre-med biology] major, so I'm just taking [classes] that looked interesting or that I don't have to miss practice for, but the biggest thing for me is that lacrosse is kind of release from everything. You go out there for a couple hours every day and just really enjoy it. It's not more pressure. It's not more stress in my life. It's kind of like a release from everything and a break from the academic rigors of Hopkins."
Now, Tucker could choose from plenty of recent photos to update the one on her desk.
"My favorite thing about Taylor this year is how much she has smiled," Tucker said, "because when Taylor got to us, she was one intense little cookie. There was not a whole lot of loosening up and genuine smiling and joy. She was on a mission.
"Watching her be able to still have that same level of intensity, but seeing the genuine joy that she has derived by just letting certain things go and smiling her face off and being so happy for her teammates, she's just at the top of everything right now, and the best part is she's enjoying it."
The Canandaigua, N.Y., native, has stamped her name all over the Blue Jays' record book, including becoming the all-time career leader in assists (155) and draw controls (238).
This season, she leads Division I in points per game with 5.21 and is second in assists per game with 2.47. She needs one point in Friday's NCAA tournament opener vs. Georgetown to have only the third 100-point season in school history; Mary Key (St. Mary's), who led the Blue Jays to their last NCAA tournament, had two.
For D'Amore, a second-team All-American last season, the individual records are nice, but winning as a team is better.
"For our senior class, as a group we've really done something special, and that's been our focus from the get-go. I think that's why we've been so successful, because we haven't focused on statistics or anything like that. I think [the records] kind of come with the success of the team," she said.
Her success at Homewood Field came with some adjustment.
A three-time All-America midfielder in high school, she switched to attack her sophomore year at Hopkins and continued to hone her offensive skills and strategies this spring with new assistant coach Steele Stanwick, Virginia's all-time leading scorer and the 2011 Tewaaraton winner.
"The biggest thing for me is my understanding of the game," she said. "I think I've always had a pretty high lacrosse IQ, but especially having Coach Stanwick and my experience this summer playing with the U.S. team, just [helped] my ability to manage different situations. I think I've done a better job of that this year, especially in closer games."
Concentrating on attack allows D'Amore to better use her stellar stick skills. Four-year teammate Cermak said she's ambidextrous to the point that opposing teams' scouting reports sometimes have her listed as a lefty when she's right-handed.
"Taylor has the best stick skills of anyone on our team, and if you slide to her and take away her goal-scoring ability, she comes out of the game with seven assists, so I think it's so awesome that she's able to be so dynamic with both hands and be a dodger, a shooter and a feeder all at the same time," said Cermak, who frequently works with D'Amore in the two-man game.
While D'Amore's offensive records pile up, Loyola coach Jen Adams, whose team fell to the Blue Jays, 6-5, early in the season, said her defensive game also stands out.
"She's just got this incredible ability to put herself around the ball and come up with it," Adams said. "It's not just her ability to put the ball in the back of the net or create for her teammates, it's her ability to get the ball in her stick in whatever way possible — off a draw, off a check, off a re-defend, off just a bouncing ball. She's got that magnetic stick."
With the end of her college career just weeks away at the most, D'Amore doesn't plan to give up lacrosse. After backpacking through Norway this summer and coaching a club team back home in New York, the 3.88 GPA student will defer her acceptance to medical school at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland and coach college lacrosse for a year.
She wants to keep playing for the U.S. national team, aiming for a berth on the 2017 World Cup team after just missing last summer's team as an alternate.
In the meantime, she will try to lead the Blue Jays past Georgetown in Friday's NCAA opener at North Carolina and on to a quarterfinal date with the defending national champion Tar Heels. She would love to cap her career with Hopkins' first trip to the Division I Final Four.
D'Amore's teammates have one other goal driving their desire to make it to championship weekend.
"If you ask anyone on our team, she's one of the hardest-working people on the field every single day," Cermak said. "I think it's cool that she's not only getting these records in scoring and assists, but she's getting them in draw controls, too, so it shows that she works hard all over the field. We all want to go really far in the NCAAs so she can win the Tewaaraton."