From its humble beginnings as a non-profit summer league more than 30 years ago, Hero's Lacrosse has developed into one of the best tournament girls lacrosse clubs in the country.
"The game of lacrosse has grown significantly over the last five or six years where there are a handful of teams that are the elite, and we're absolutely one of that handful," said Hero's Tournament Lacrosse Club (HTLC) president Tierney Ahearn. "Are we the best club in the country? Well there are other clubs on the field I think matchup. There are other clubs that are exceptional in the other tournaments that we go to across the country. I don't think there are others who have the balance that we have."
The club traveled to Vail, Co., for the Vail Shootout girls lacrosse tournament earlier this summer, and on June 29 the Hero's 2017 team was on the brink of pulling off a huge upset over Team HLA — a handpicked team of some of the best seniors from across the country.
Tied at 8 with 15 seconds left, defender Caroline Kwon — a rising senior at Glenelg — pushed the ball up the field to Glenelg Country School's Julia Sheehan, who was then fouled around the opposition's restraining line. With seven seconds to spare, Sheehan fed high school teammate Alyssa Arnold wrapping around the crease. Arnold secured the pass, buried her shot and clinched the shootout tournament title.
"That was right up there with the state championship," said '17 coach Alex Pagnotta, an assistant coach for the state champion Gladiators girls lacrosse team this past spring. "I took a little different path this summer, because I wanted to expose this team to other teams and other programs that they have not seen. ... It was such an awesome trip, on and off the field there. It was just fantastic."
It was a fitting end for the '17's, which is made up of a variety of athletes from around Howard County, in addition to players from Mount de Sales, Century, Bryn Mawr, Blessed Trinity and Liberty. All 23 players are major contributors on their respective high school squads, and many earned postseason accolades.
"I think it was a gradual process. We all just improved and evolved together," Pagnotta said. "By the time you get to that point — I'd like to think our group as a unit was kind of unique to have 23 girls at the end still together, still practicing, already being committed and also still so committed to learning more and developing. This might be our largest group to follow all the way through with 23 kids."
Ahearn is a former Hero's player who joined Hero's Summer League when she was in high school. The organization did not have tournament teams back then like they do now. It first began in the late '90s when Hero's all-stars were chosen to represent a team in summer tournaments. The tournament teams started getting so popular that it conflicted with actual summer league, so in 2001 HTLC became its own entity and hosted a couple club teams at the high school level.
She said the philosophy was to have one team for each age group and take the elite players, but as the sport grew so did the number of players.
"We had 70 girls that would come to the try out and from the 70 girls we thought about half of them were very talented and with teams starting at a younger age group," Ahearn explained. "It seemed crazy to turn away kids that we thought had potential. Our goals sort of started to change and we wanted to make sure we were offering as many quality club level kids the opportunity to play for us. I'd say six years ago is when we had that big tryout and we started getting serious."
Ahearn took over as president of the club in 2001 and returned as a coach in 2003, heading the 2007 team until graduation, and then proceeded with the 2012 team. When Ahearn first came back, HTLC hosted just four teams. Now the organization has 13 teams with the potential of expanding to 15 this year.
"We have fun. Our vision and mission are so balanced. We have a certain community outreach part of it where we provide opportunities for kids to give back to the game, but give back to other things," Ahearn said. "We make sure kids have quality experience where they're growing as people, growing as players and really enjoying themselves in the process."
"We try not to be 100 percent lacrosse," Pagnotta added. "There's a lot of community efforts and different charity type things and off the field stuff, which is just as important because you have to spend just as much time with these guys. So trying to mix it, if you can make it fun and competitive at the same time you have a recipe for success, but it's not the easiest thing to do."
Davia Williams, who is the head coach of the 2019 White team, just finished up her fifth year with HTLC. After spending a year coaching at M&D Lacrosse Club, Williams made the transition over to Hero's after friend and coach Kelly McGrath — who is the head coach of the 2021 White team — suggested joining the program.
"I never played club lacrosse or anything, but I really liked the atmosphere of the program. I love Tierney and Kelly, so it was a way for me to coach and be able to stay with a group of girls as they age and progress. It's been awesome," said Williams, who also coached varsity girls lacrosse at Oakland Mills this past spring. "I take so much stuff from here and use it when I used to coach high school and even in my team."
Although HTLC has become its own entity from the original Hero's Summer League, it still remains a non-profit organization. The priority of the organization is development, which Williams says helps bring in more players interested in club lacrosse despite how expensive the sport can be.
"I think that's why sometimes we struggle in certain areas of Columbia or Howard County, so taking away that aspect of paying to play I think helps out with a lot of hesitation to play club," she said. "I think we definitely pride ourselves on that."
The players on Ahearn and Williams' 2019 teams concluded their freshman year of high school, and most were on their respective varsity teams. Jane Ridgell, a rising sophomore who played varsity for a Hammond team that won more games this season than the last four years combined, said her experience playing Hero's helped her tremendously during the spring.
"Since I've played rec before I came here, I learned so much more and it's definitely going to help just getting recruited and stuff," she said. "High school coaching is one thing, but this helps you more than just normally playing in high school would."
Hero's has established itself as a successful club program, but at its core coaching and the philosophy of sharing the love of the sport with the players is what drives the organization.
"The best thing that we do is instill a love for the game," Ahearn said. "So not only do the Hero's kids have a great playing experience and great college experience, but a large number of our coaches are kids who have come back and give back to the game. They don't burn out. They love the game and they love the experience that Hero's has provided for them."
More local families and players want to get involved with Hero's lacrosse, but Ahearn and the Hero's family are hesitant to deter from the brand they have created by getting too big.
However, she doesn't rule out the possibility of growing the club in other ways in the future.
"There's been a few different areas in the country that have asked us if we would consider letting them create clubs that can offer our product and our philosophy to their area, and that's definitely something that the board and I are considering strongly," she said. "But again, we have to be able to maintain the same quality."
In addition to Ahearn's daughters, Ryleigh (2017's and Centennial High School) and Shaylan (2019 Green and Glenelg Country School), who have committed to Mercer University and the University of Maryland, respectively, many other Hero's players will play at the next level.
Every member of Pagnotta's '17 team is committed to a Division I program, while more than half of the players on the 2018's and 2019's have committed.
"We believe as an organization it's our job to develop kids from the day they enter our program to the day they leave our program," Ahearn said. "That's something, with all the early commitment stuff going on lately, that I think some programs are starting to lose."
Ultimately, however, Ahearn said the goal is not to have all their players commit to play college lacrosse. It's for the players to excel at the next level on and off the field.
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"Our program does a very good job of helping our kids understand that we are going to push them to get better until the day they graduate from high school. That's our job. They are not committing to the level of talent today, they are committing to the level of talent by the time they leave our program," she said. "And we're very dedicated to developing kids the entire time they are a part of Hero's lacrosse club. It would be a disservice also to the kids who aren't committed to playing in college. The level of colleges that our kids are able to commit to, we have to work hard until they leave. That's a mission of ours and that's an approach of ours, and I definitely think that that is a draw-in factor."