As McDonogh's girls lacrosse winning streak ballooned toward a record-tying 103 games, the top programs along the East Coast wanted a crack at ending the Eagles' run. Coach Chris Robinson gave as many of them a shot as possible.
For the third straight year, the Eagles opened their season at Vero Beach, Fla., beating three nationally-ranked teams — including Vero Beach, which was ranked second behind the Eagles in one national preseason poll. Then, the Eagles came home to go after their sixth straight title in what is widely considered the toughest conference in the country, the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference.
"Every team that we see has six or seven Division I players," Robinson said, "and some teams, like [Notre Dame Prep], have 15 of them. We haven't been a team that's dodged any competition. We've played the best from New York and Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida and Georgia, wherever. Over the last five years, we've played everybody we could get on our schedule and fit in by league rules, so it's been kind amazing we've been able to [win 103 straight] with the competition we've played.
"There's not really any [top] team out there that we haven't played at some point."
With Monday's 16-9 win at No. 2 Marriotts Ridge, the Eagles reached the 103 milestone, tying what is widely believed to be the national record for consecutive girls lacrosse victories, although no organization keeps such records for public and private schools. Loch Raven set the record between 1973 and 1982 and Mount Hebron matched it from 2001 to 2007.
Under Robinson — a 1986 Loch Raven graduate who coached six years at Mount Hebron including the first year of the Vikings' streak — McDonogh hasn't lost since falling to Canandaigua (N.Y.) on April 11, 2009 and has been ranked No. 1 in the country for four straight years.
To many, the Eagles' run against such top-notch competition makes their streak the most impressive of the three, but in a sport that has changed so much over 41 years — in everything from numbers to equipment to rules to style — that's not an easy assessment.
"Obviously, any time you win that many games in a row, as much as people want to say it happened for this reason or it happened for that reason, when it's 103 in a row, that's a lot of games and a lot of talent," said Jackie Doherty, who played for Mount Hebron through the final year of its streak.
The changing landscape
Loch Raven and Mount Hebron also played top-level competition — there just wasn't as much of it.
That was especially true during Loch Raven's run when only private schools and a few Maryland counties played the game. The Raiders' streak started in 1973 — 15 years before Mount Hebron and the rest of Howard County added girls lacrosse, and three years before McDonogh began admitting girls.
Coach Joy Nuttall's Raiders, who had a 104-game unbeaten streak that included a tie, played with wooden sticks and without hard boundaries, restraining lines or protective eyewear.
There were no club teams. Recreation-level lacrosse was just getting started. Loch Raven star Sandy Lanahan, who went on to play for Maryland's first national champion team, was the first Baltimore County player to get a lacrosse scholarship.
Notre Dame Prep coach Mary Bartel was the goalie for Perry Hall when it lost to Loch Raven in the 1977 Baltimore County championship. She also coached against Mount Hebron and McDonogh during their streaks.
"To me, Loch Raven's streak is the most unique," Bartel said. "Those girls and coaches accomplished those wins before people lived and died for lacrosse. Many of the kids who played for Joy Nuttall played three sports. There were no clubs. Kids today are playing lacrosse all year round and that's the only sport they play."
The Raiders played fewer games in a season, but they kept their streak going for a decade. That's twice as long as McDonogh's run and four years longer than Mount Hebron's.
"A decade of not losing, regardless of where the game was [in its evolution] or anything like that — it was still an even playing field — is very impressive," Robinson said. "The game has changed immensely since then, but 10 years? That's crazy."
By the time Mount Hebron's streak began in 2001, girls lacrosse was practically a different sport. Not only had the sticks, the field and many rules changed, but club lacrosse was starting to take hold.
Mount Hebron's first coach, P.J. Kesmodel, started the Hero's club lacrosse program in Howard County in the late 1990s and the Vikings' 2007 seniors were playing for the M&D Lacrosse Club founded by Robinson, who began his coaching career as Kesmodel's assistant at Mount Hebron. Brooke Kuhl-McClelland, who succeeded Robinson as Vikings coach from 2002 to 2010, also coached in M&D.
Unlike the Raiders, who played lacrosse for a few months a year, the Vikings were starting to play year round.
With that experience fueling their success, they were eager to challenge other top teams as the sport exploded throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. In 2005, Mount Hebron defeated IAAM A Conference champion St. Mary's, Moorestown (N.J.) and St. Stephen's and St. Agnes (Va.) and were ranked No. 1 in the country, something they would earn five straight times during their streak.
Club lacrosse helped fuel a 126.6 percent jump in the number of high school players over the last 10 years, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
US Lacrosse's annual participation surveys show the number of girls high school players rose from 74,550 to 120,951 between 2007 and last spring. No statistics are available for Loch Raven's heyday, but the earliest US Lacrosse survey in 2001 counted 35,030 girls playing high school lacrosse.
While Robinson's club system certainly has contributed to the Eagles' success — along with McDonogh being a private school with the ability to recruit players from outside the area — about 75 percent of his players, all of whom are from the Baltimore area, started at McDonogh in elementary school.
Last season's team included 17 seniors, and many of their spots were filled with freshmen and sophomores, including freshman defender Margaret Donovan, a basketball and soccer player who had never played lacrosse before.
"At the end of last May, I brought our underclassmen out [to the field] and I said, 'Guys, here's our team for next year.'" There were 10 of us," Robinson said. "We looked at each other and laughed. I said, 'This is the McDonogh tradition living on, and you guys have a lot of work to do.' We knew our young kids would have to make contributions."
Robinson, whose brother, Scott Robinson, has been his long-time assistant coach, said he and his players never worked harder to mold a team than they did in preseason. The result has been the extension of the streak, which can reach 104 games Thursday when No. 1 McDonogh (12-0) hosts No. 12 St. Paul's at 4 p.m.
The Eagles have a chance to break Loch Raven's unbeaten streak Saturday and could boost their winning streak as high as 106 that day.
Getting there, however, means winning two games in Saturday's tournament — hosted by Mount Hebron.