More than a lacrosse player, Maryland's Zoe Stukenberg a learner in all facets

Maryland's Zoe Stukenberg has always been known as a smart lacrosse player.

As a high school midfielder at Marriotts Ridge, she took an officiating class and refereed youth games so she could better understand the sport.

No matter how much she knows as a Tewaaraton Award finalist and the centerpiece of the undefeated, top-seeded Terps, Stukenberg always wants to learn more. It's the same approach she takes in the classroom, where the biology major is a 4.0 student who has twice earned the NCAA Elite 90 award as the player with the highest GPA in the women's lacrosse final four.

If Maryland (20-0) advances past Sunday's NCAA tournament quarterfinal against eighth-seeded Stony Brook (20-1), she could be a rare three-time Elite 90 winner.

"I love learning," said Stukenberg, who received Maryland's Big Ten Medal of Honor as the female senior who has "attained the greatest proficiency in athletics and scholastic work."

It's easy to envision her enthusiastically soaking up the toughest biology lab the same way she tirelessly prepares for a challenging opponent on the lacrosse field.

"She works so hard in everything that she does, but she's very coachable," Maryland coach Cathy Reese said. "She listens, she learns and ... she can translate what she learns into her play and she makes everybody else around her better, which is something that we've seen at a whole other level this year."

Stukenberg takes to heart words she heard at the recent Honors College conclusion ceremony.

"The speaker said, 'When you're staying up all night studying for that chemistry exam and cursing school, keep in mind that there are literally hundreds of thousands of people who would kill to be in your position — and just enjoy it,'" Stukenberg recalled.

"I think that really is true on the field and off, having the opportunity to be in college and learn about what I love and to play lacrosse for Maryland. There are so many little girls who dream of playing lacrosse for Maryland."

Once one of those little girls, Stukenberg is now one of the most idolized Terps by the next generation of lacrosse players.

At one home game, she noticed a young girl in the stands with a sign that said, "I drove all the way from MN to see No. 15 play." After the game, Stukenberg sought out the girl for a chat and a photo.

Reese's 9-year-old daughter, Cayden, also a lefty lacrosse player, idolizes Stukenberg, a choice her mother couldn't be happier about.

"I'm like, 'If that's who you want to be, you go girl,'" Reese said. "Zoe's talked to Cayden before about school and lacrosse and making sure she's putting in the extra effort and energy. I tell Cayden all the time, Zoe's a great person to look up to."

This year, Stukenberg stepped into the major leadership role she seems born to fill. On the field, she has emerged as the glue that holds the Terps together. She's confident in what she does and that rubs off on her teammates.

"She's definitely a leader by example," said Terps midfielder Jen Giles, a high school rival of Stukenberg's at Mount Hebron. "I'm so lucky to have had the chance to play with her. She leads in every kind of way. She's easily the hardest worker on the team, giving 100 percent all the time. Everyone wants to be like her. She keeps everyone together."

The Big Ten Midfielder of the Year, Stukenberg makes key plays in big games all over the field, ranking in the Terps' top three in almost every statistical category, with 47 goals, 24 assists, 64 draw controls, 42 ground balls and 18 caused turnovers.

In the Terps closest recent game, the 19-16 win over Johns Hopkins in the Big Ten tournament semifinal, she scored twice to stop a four-goal Blue Jays run late in the first half and boost the Terps' lead to four. Hopkins wouldn't get closer than within three the rest of the game.

"She, to me, is just like the energizer bunny. The kid just has one speed and it's 1,000 miles an hour," Johns Hopkins coach Janine Tucker said. "She looks like she's just getting after it with such joy and having so much fun, but with an immeasurable intensity and that has always impressed me."

Tucker also recruited her out of Marriotts Ridge, where Stukenberg led the Mustangs to two state championships and was The Baltimore Sun's 2013 All-Metro Player of the Year.

Even back then, Stukenberg had a larger-than-life personality and a confidence about her that her high school coach, Natalie Gaieski, had never seen.

"What's interesting about her and her personality is she's never trying to be anything but herself," Gaieski said. "We all have self-doubt, but it doesn't seem like she has any. She was never somebody who feared failure. She believes in herself and her abilities and she'll try anything."

At times, her jammed schedule has brought about conflicts, but Stukenberg, who hasn't gotten a B since middle school, has always been a student first — something she said has never been a problem with Reese.

"Sometimes I'll miss a practice, an important practice, too, because I need to make up a lab or go to [a professor's] office hours," Stukenberg said. "They know I'm driven to do the best I can in these classes and my coaches never think twice about my request to put academics first. I've never had to choose between lacrosse and school. I can do both."

Although she said her tentative long-term plan is to become a doctor, she will spend next year with Teach For America, teaching 10th grade biology in a Baltimore City public school.

Spending a semester as a teaching assistant for an organic chemistry class and a couple of semesters as an undergraduate learning assistant in biology piqued her interest in education. When a Teach For America recruiter came to campus, she wanted to learn more about the program.

"All the people that I've met in the Teach For America organization have been super interesting and driven and passionate," Stukenberg said. "They're just trying to make the world a better place and doing so through teaching and learning, and that really aligns well with my ideals and my values."

While she'll take classes to earn her first-year teaching certification, she's also considering starting a master's degree in secondary education at Johns Hopkins.

Now that her academic future is well on its way, all she has to do is find something to fill the athletic hole in her life when the Terps' season comes to an end — she hopes with the third national championship of her career next weekend at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.

She and her friends hope to find a summer league — in any sport — to keep active, but Stukenberg is ready to move on to the next stage of her life. She might turn to coaching when she finds out which school she'll teach at in the fall.

"I'm so thankful for everything that lacrosse has given me," Stukenberg said. "I really don't think I would be the person I am today without lacrosse ... but I'm kind of excited to have a new identity that's not based so much on my performance on the field. It's exciting to maybe be able to coach and give back to other people and be more of the person Zoe instead of the athlete Zoe."

katherine.dunn@baltsun.com

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