When it came time to choose her college lacrosse path, Shannon Aikens initially steered away from the place that had been her second home for half her life.
Loyola appealed to the Mercy senior, but she wasn't sure she could forge her own identity playing in the program her mother built into a national power. Diane Geppi-Aikens' idomitable spirit remains with the team nine years after her death following a long and public battle with brain cancer.
"Ever since I was little, I've been introduced as Diane's youngest," Aikens said. "At first there was a thought that if I came to Loyola, I would only be known because of my mom, and I did kind of want to make a name for myself. I did seriously look at other schools, but when I stepped back, I realized I really want to make a name for myself following my mom. I want to be known as me, but I can still carry on her legacy."
Aikens considered Rutgers, Louisville, Johns Hopkins, Florida, James Madison and a few other schools that recruited her. Carrying a 3.6 GPA and planning to become a speech pathologist, she looked as much at the academic programs as the athletics, but she kept coming back to the same realization.
"Loyola has always been in my heart," she said.
Born during lacrosse season — she celebrated her 18th birthday last week — Aikens spent her early years playing with dolls and crayons under her mother's desk, climbing on the bleachers during games and exploring the Evergreen campus with her sisters Jessica and Melissa.
She left an indelible mark — literally. Moving Geppi-Aikens' desk once revealed the children's drawings on the wall behind it, said her grandfather John Geppi Jr.
In addition to having fun, Aikens learned a lot about lacrosse from being around the team and watching her mother coach. She said she was more interested in all the attention she got from the players, but by the time she was 7 or 8, she got into the action at her mother's summer camps.
Mercy coach Marye Kellermann went to the Loyola camp when she was in high school and remembers how eager Aikens was to play.
"Shannon would run up with her stick and tug on her mom's shirt. Diane would be like, 'You want to play?' and she would send Shannon out there," Kellermann said. "She would play with 16 and 17 year olds. She was so fearless, and she's still like that."
Aikens, who also ran cross country and played basketball at Mercy, started playing lacrosse at 5 and played for the Sky Walkers club team. She developed a feel for the game that is still well beyond her years. One that Loyola coach Jen Adams said should make the transition to college easier.
Both Adams and Kellermann say Aikens is a mature player, expecially in her ability to orchestrate the attack. She leads the defending Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland B Conference champion Magic (11-5) with 57 goals and 24 assists as they head into Tuesday's league quarterfinals.
"Shannon's got such great field awareness," Adams said. "She makes smart, calculated decisions. When she decides to take a shot, she puts it in the back of the net, and when she decides to feed a ball in, she sees something there. She has a lot of lacrosse smarts about her. It's an interesting trait, because it's very difficult to teach and one thing a lot of people get lost in between high school and college. If you don't have that game IQ, the game kind of passes you by."
Aikens' Magic teammates are comfortable with the ball in her hands. In last week's game at Garrison Forest, the Magic trailed by a goal with 20 seconds left and Kellerman said, "You could feel almost a collective sigh of relief that the ball was in Shannon's stick, because she's so reliable."
Aikens took the last shot of the game, but the Garrison goalie saved it as the Magic fell, 7-6, in a test against an A Conference foe.
While Aikens is a strong finisher, she excels at feeding.
"I like creating plays," she said. "I would prefer to get someone else open and make that pass, because I think it takes a little bit more skill to feed it in at the right time right when that person's open, even before she knows she's open. That's one of my favorite parts of the game."
Aikens is also highly competitive, another trait she inherited from her mother, who was an All-America goalie for the Greyhounds.
Kerri O'Day, who played at Loyola and coached the Greyhounds for five years after Geppi-Aikens, remembers mother and daughter trying to one-up each other even in silly games on the team bus.
"She and Shannon would play Punch Buggy and it was the most vicious game that I've ever seen," O'Day said with a laugh. "Not that they were hitting each other hard, but they were so competitive to win. Diane didn't take it easy on her at all, and Shannon would get so excited like, 'I won!' Diane would be, 'I'm going to get you next time.' She enjoyed obviously playing with Shannon, but she also got it that Shannon was very similar to her in that sense."
Aikens relishes the comparisons to the mother she adored. With her blond hair and outgoing personality, it's easy to see her mother in her. Her sister Jessica also played lacrosse at Loyola and broher Michael is a graduate, but she said even her siblings tell her she's the one who most resembles their mom.
And she never feels closer to her than when she's on the lacrosse field.
"It's a connection — her passion for lacrosse and my love for it," Aikens said. "Out on the field before a big game, I do a little kiss to her. I kiss my hand and then I bring it to my heart and I point up, just kind of for myself like, 'Mom, can you get me through this game and help me work hard?' I definitely feel her out there."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun