St. Mary's girls lacrosse coach Kate Hickman said the veterans on her team have just had enough of losing.
After two years without a win in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference, the Saints are off to a 3-0 start, an opening run that may surprise some but not Hickman, a former All-Metro midfielder at Severna Park.
The second-year coach saw the transition beginning last year.
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"The first half of the season was about me realizing that the mentality that was the product of years of losing was something I had to address before I could even start addressing the other issues on the field," said Hickman, who had come from a powerhouse Severna Park program where players always took the field expecting to win.
Even though the Saints finished 2-13 last year without a conference win, they got a whole lot better as the season went on. They lost their first five conference games by a margin of 11.4 goals. Then, they came within 8-7 against Bryn Mawr before falling to Maryvale 16-7. After that, they lost their final five conference games by an average of 3.8 goals.
"The Bryn Mawr game was that breakthrough where the girls started believing in themselves and trusting me," Hickman said. "They trusted the game plan and they were trusting that kind of blindly because we hadn't had a win off of it yet, so the second half of the season the mentality was getting there, but it wasn't quite there. We would always lose these close games, because we didn't know how to dig it out, but we've always had the talent. The talent was starting show through because the attitude started to change."
This year, the No. 9 Saints have not only won, but they've won close games -- 16-14 over Mount de Sales, 16-15 in double overtime over then-No. 2 Maryvale and 11-10 in overtime over Garrison Forest.
They're back in The Baltimore Sun's Top 15 for the first time since 2010 when they reached the A Conference semifinals.
After graduating 13 seniors from that 2010 team, the Saints went into a two-year tailspin before Hickman started pulling them out of it. Although this is her first head coaching job, she spent six years assisting Carin Peterson at Severna Park and has coached with the Bay Area Lacrosse Club since 2006. The Anne Arundel County Player of the Year her senior year at Severna Park, Hickman led Vanderbilt in scoring her junior and senior years.
While the Saints are winning with a team attitude and show a tough-to-defend balanced attack, seniors Tara Siefert and Natalie Modly have been key to the turn around. Siefert, an attacker headed to Navy, leads with 13 goals while midfielder Modly, who is headed to Oregon, is the "heartbeat of the team," according to Hickman.
The defensive unit is young with only one senior, Kelly Brogan, along with juniors Amelia Maurer and Elizabeth Adams, sophomore Meredith Dillon and junior goalie Haelle Chomo, who won the starting spot in the middle of last season, helping spark the turnaround.
"I really give a lot of credit to the character of the girls last year," Hickman said. "They were able to get better every game despite losing. That's a very hard thing to do for players. Eventually a lot of teams begin to plateau because they're like, 'The heck with it, we're going to lose every game,' but these girls never checked out mentally.
"We had a small senior class last year, so a lot of those girls who were so close returned this year. The senior and junior starters are over it, they're over the losing. They finally trusted me and we're just ready to make a statement. This is a surprise to a lot of people, but to me and to my players this is the expectation."
The Saints will face their toughest opponent so far Friday afternoon at No. 4 St. Paul's, last season's A Conference runner up to No. 1 McDonogh. The Gators are 2-1, having beaten Garrison Forest, 15-9, and No. 8 John Carroll, 8-7. They lost to nationally-ranked Vero Beach (Fla.).
Hickman would like nothing more than to return the Saints to the great success they enjoyed in the late 1990s and early 2000s when they were regular contenders. They won the A Conference title in 2005.
Success to her, however, doesn't always come with a title.
"I define success based on where I feel as a coach is our level of potential," she said. "So, if we go into [the St. Paul's game] and we play to our potential and we lose, then we're successful. If we go into a game and we win but we don't play to our potential, that's not successful, so I never try to overvalue winning and losing. I always try to remind the girls, it's about us and our potential."