First-year Howard Community College women's lacrosse coach Brett Ponchione, fresh off helping lead the program to its first-ever Region XX Tournament championship, can't help but chuckle when reflecting on how far this year's group has come since it's first scrimmage in February.
His Dragons have rolled their way to a 14-2 record this season, punctuated by breakthrough victories over Anne Arundel Community College, 13-9, and Harford Community College, 15-12, over the weekend to earn a spot in the NJCAA National Championship tournament. The team, led by freshman Cassidy Delaney (Marriotts Ridge High School) on offense, is outscoring its opposition by an average of more than five goals a game this spring.
Yet, when Ponchione recalls his mindset following that initial scrimmage against Delaware State, a Division I program, he says championships were the last thing on his mind.
"It's funny to joke about it now, but I literally thought after that first scrimmage we might be lucky to just win a game or two. We had such a wide range of players, from a couple of elite-level players to several who had never picked up a stick before, and only a handful had ever played together — that first game was tough," said Ponchione, who inherited a program that featured just four returners from the Dragons' 2015 roster.
"But that's what makes this team so special. They really came together over an incredibly short period of time — even during those weeks between our first and second scrimmages, the growth was tremendous. Every day we got better. It was almost as if the stars aligned and everything fell into place."
HCC is headed to Rochester, New York this weekend to compete for the national championship. The semifinals are scheduled for Saturday, with the Dragons slated to square off against an Onondaga Community College team that they beat on March 19, 7-5.
Ironically enough, that win may just have been the one that changed the course of HCC's season.
"Honestly, I would say that was the turning point in our season, especially because it was pretty early on when we really didn't know what to expect," Delaney said. "They are a great team, a great program, and you could see it in our entire team after that win, we just had a whole different level of confidence."
The Dragons went on to beat Anne Arundel CC by a goal in their next game before suffering their first setback against Harford CC, losing 9-5. That game, along with the 12-11 loss to the same Fighting Owls team in the final game of the regular season, were important learning experiences, though, according to Ponchione.
"Both those games made us better. We were dominated at home against Harford the first time in the draw control and it reflected in the score," he said. "Then I thought we made some great adjustments going into that second match-up that gave us a chance. It was one of those things where even though we lost, we knew we could compete with that team if we saw them again."
As it turned out, HCC would indeed see Harford again and it came with a region tournament championship on the line this past Sunday.
This time, contrary to the previous meetings where the team trailed almost the entire way, it was the Dragons that were the aggressors.
HCC used a five-goal run early in the first half to grab the lead.
"We got up a few goals and I think that allowed everyone to settle down, knowing we weren't going to be fighting from behind the whole game," Ponchione said.
Harford answered with its own spurt to retake the lead, but the Dragons simply were not going to be denied. Between the end of the first half and beginning of the second, HCC scored seven straight goals to create a lead it never lost the rest of the way.
"It was like after one of us would score, the rest of the team got even more hyped up and wanted to score too," said Delaney, who finished with five goals in the game and was named the Region XX tournament offensive MVP. "We either would get a fast break and score easily, or get something off a set play, to get ourselves going and then it kind of just never stopped."
Delaney was joined on the all-tournament team by teammates Ellie Garvey — named the tournament's defensive MVP —, Nicole Cote (Long Reach High School graduate), Rebeka Coughlin, Silvia Kim (River Hill High), Audrey Ford (Glenelg High) and Danielle Spencer.
Garvey was particularly huge in the championship game, finishing with 14 saves.
Going forward, Delaney says the key will be making sure the team doesn't change its mentality.
"We have to just go out there and do exactly what we did this last game, not think about it too much and just have fun," she said. "Hopefully we can enjoy the experience and play our game, and play it well."
Ponchione echoed the sentiment.