McDonogh's girls lacrosse players returned Saturday from spring break in Florida with smiles on their faces. Their winning streak remained intact.
Wins over seven-time state champions from Florida and Georgia extended the Eagles' streak to 71 straight victories, dating back nearly four years. Tuesday's 12-7 win at No. 15 St. Paul's, in their Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference opener, made it 72 in a row.
"It was a big test, and we responded really well," senior attacker Sammi Burgess said of the Florida trip in which a revamped team picked up where last year's Eagles left off.
No other girls high school lacrosse team in the country has played the game better in recent years. Coach Chris Robinson's Eagles have won four straight championships in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference — arguably the nation's toughest conference — and been ranked No. 1 in the country the last three years.
Not surprisingly, The Baltimore Sun's No. 1 team started the 2013 season atop the Nike/US Lacrosse National High School Girls' Top 25. They've already beaten No. 11 Vero Beach (Fla.), 12-6, and No. 19 Milton (Ga.), 11-8. The Eagles haven't lost a game since 2009 and haven't lost to a Maryland team since falling to John Carroll in the IAAM A Conference final in 2008.
Trying to live up to that history puts a lot of pressure on a team, especially one regrouping from significant turnover, including the graduation of two-time All-Metro Player of the Year Taylor Cummings.
To help offset being the team circled in red on every opponent's calendar, Robinson and the veterans stress concentrating only on what lies directly ahead — the next practice, the next game.
"Chris has always made it very clear that it's not really about the streak or anything like that," Burgess said. "It's about game-by-game situations. He wants the pressure to be off of us. Obviously, we would love to continue the streak, but it's really about focusing on the opponents that we play and playing good lacrosse rather than on keeping the dynasty going."
With the competition in the IAAM A Conference and a challenging nonconference schedule, the Eagles don't have time to think about much beyond their next opponent.
They could play as many as eight teams ranked in The Sun's preseason Top 15, and they have six nationally ranked teams listed on their 19-game schedule. In addition, on April 3, they host the last team to beat them — Canandaigua Academy from the Finger Lakes region of New York, which won, 12-11, on April 11, 2009.
"Just because we win a lot doesn't mean we take this lightly," junior attacker Megan Whittle said. "I think playing in the league that we do prepares us for our out-of conference games and we have the mentality of one game at a time and improving after every game. There's really no chance for us to get cocky because we've got to wake up the next morning and play another really hard team."
Robinson keeps the team focused on what they can control.
"I think it's less about what the other team does and more about what you do," he said. "You don't have much time to prepare for your opponent in this league. Every time you go out, you could lose [because] this conference is so good. For us, it's really about what we run, what we do well."
When he took over the Eagles in 2005, Robinson brought the same philosophy he used to win five state championships and earn two national No. 1 rankings in six years at Mount Hebron. His Vikings, who went 107-8-1 during his tenure, had a 54-game winning streak and went 63 games without a loss.
The Eagles now excel at the Vikings' signature defense — a quick-sliding, high pressure approach that few others have been able to duplicate. They also play with the same speedy transition and creative, multidimensional crease attack.
One of the critical components to Robinson's repeated success has been building an ensemble cast. Not only do the Eagles typically wear opponents down in the second half, but 18 or 19 players regularly see significant playing time.
This year's team includes 14 seniors headed to play college lacrosse, including the Florida-bound Burgess. Several younger players also have committed, including Whittle, who is headed to Maryland. With that kind of depth, Robinson never has to start from scratch despite graduating significant talent every year.
"They definitely have the best athletes across the board," John Carroll coach Krystin Porcella said, "and their kids buy into Chris' philosophy. He does a great job and winning breeds winning. And there's that intimidation factor. The mind game with that caliber program gets them wins because everybody else is intimidated and scared."
Robinson, who has a 150-9 record at McDonogh, has a couple advantages in building a program that most other coaches don't. He runs and coaches one of the premier lacrosse clubs in the country, Howard County-based M&D Lacrosse, and he can bring players into the McDonogh program for high school.
While some top-notch players, including Burgess and Whittle, have transferred into McDonogh, most players grew up at the Owings Mills private school.
"The fallacy out there is that this is the best team money can buy," Robinson said. "You've got 15 or 20 kids out there who would love to come to McDonogh every year. We might be able to get one or two through the admissions process and those are pretty special athletes, but 70 to 80 percent of our kids come from in-house, K through sixth grade."
As the regular season picks up speed this week, the Eagles certainly will try to extend their streak and, as successful as they've been, they still have a long way to go to match the Baltimore area's longest girls lacrosse winning streak. Loch Raven set the record of 103 in 1982 and Mount Hebron tied it in 2007. Loch Raven also has a 104-game unbeaten streak.
While they try not to worry about it, the players know the streak will eventually end.
"It is a sport. You can't always win. Somebody has to lose," Burgess said. "If that's us one day, that's what it is and it will be OK if we put everything we have out there. That's exactly how Chris feels. He's not going to be upset if we lose, but everybody's heart and soul was put into the game, and that's how we try to play every day."
Baltimore area's longest girls lacrosse winning streaks
104*: Loch Raven (1973-82)
103: Loch Raven (1973-82)
103: Mount Hebron (2001-2007)
72: McDonogh (2009-present)
67: Loch Raven (1987-92)
63*: Mount Hebron (1998-2001)
57: Severna Park (1988-91)
54: Mount Hebron (1998-2001)
*denotes unbeaten streak