It’s not uncommon for Caitlynn Szarko’s Liberty High School field hockey teammates to meet at her house for some extra practice sessions.
When your backyard features a patch of artificial turf designed for skills and drills, it’s a natural gathering place for field hockey aficionados. Count Szarko as one of them, always seeking improvement and enjoying the team atmosphere. Szarko found plenty of time over the last several months to work on her game, and the work paid off when Carroll County’s spring season for fall sports took place in March and April.
Szarko shined for the Lions and led them to another county championship en route to being named Times Player of the Year. The junior midfielder led Carroll in scoring and helped Liberty post an 8-0 record this spring.
Szarko had 10 goals and five assists for 25 points, and that’s with missing one game because she was following COVID-19 quarantine protocol. But Szarko said time spent on her backyard turf, and with her Hymax Field Hockey Club squad, helped her stay sharp and focused.
“We thought that this was kind of going to be a rebuilding year because we lost so many starters [from 2019] who were seniors,” Szarko said. “We took it seriously. We knew that it wasn’t just time to mess around. We didn’t take it as a rebuilding year, and we practiced hard. We worked hard and that made the difference.”
The entirety of Carroll’s field hockey schedule took place at Western Regional Park in Woodbine. That meant playing away from home, but the Howard County facility’s turf fields gave county players an even surface on which to compete.
Szarko credited senior and captain Kayleigh Ward for taking the lead in motivating the Lions to seize the opportunity of getting turf time and keeping alive Liberty’s winning streak. The Lions did both in winning a third consecutive Carroll County title, and pushing that streak to 35 games in a row.
“It’s stressful in a way because we don’t know what’s going to happen next, and every game could end that winning streak,” Szarko said. “But I think if we just keep going how we were this year, build it into next year, we can totally keep that winning streak up.”
The season finale was a thriller against rival Century, with Liberty scoring on a penalty corner play with no time remaining to secure a 2-1 victory. Szarko scored a goal in that second game with the Knights, who went 7-2 this spring, and had two assists in Liberty’s first win against them in March.
“It was so exciting to get those seniors a win and go out on a strong point,” Szarko said. “Those seniors are my best friends, especially Kayleigh. We’ve been together since the beginning. She has coached me, she has trained me all the way up. ... Kayleigh kind of took the lead [this spring] because she was the returning captain. And then we all just had to stand up, and I’m so proud of us for doing it.”
Szarko said the pandemic down time gave her chances to use her backyard turf more than she normally would. If a friend, family member or teammate wasn’t available, Szarko had the family dog stand in as a defender so she could hone her dribbling skills and stickwork.
She’s a fan of the reverse chip shot, and recalls scoring a goal with it for the first time in the Class 1A state championship game back in 2019. Szarko’s goal helped Liberty clip Washington 2-1 and claim a third state title in for seasons.
This spring, Szarko used the reverse chip when she spied the chance and said she scored twice with it.
“If you think you can stop her, then she does something funky and gets around you,” said Liberty coach Brenda Strohmer, who praised her midfielder for being a team player. “She could easily take the ball from one end of the field and probably score, but she does what’s right. Give-and-gos, and she’ll do a move when she needs to. She just knows the game. It’s her knowledge that makes her such a good player.”
Szarko said she expects to stay busy during the high school offseason playing with Hymax, but she’s excited knowing her senior year begins in three months. Not long after she’ll make official her college commitment to West Chester University. The Golden Rams went 20-1 and won the NCAA Division II national title in 2019.
It’s likely Szarko will be in her backyard doing what she can to be prepared.
“It’s so stress-relieving,” she said about having her college choice nailed down. “I know where I’m going and I know it’s a good fit for me, and I’m so excited to get into it.”