In the relentless pursuit of perfection, Zoe Stukenberg is keeping her lacrosse stick close at hand. School's out and the high school season is over, but Stukenberg, a member of the M&D 2013 Black club team, spent last weekend at the 2012 IWLCA Champions Cup tournament in Downingtown, Pa.
With tournaments, it's five or six games a weekend. That's plenty of time to hone lacrosse skills and learn new ones.
"I love having so many games because if I struggle in one area, I have time to work on that skill in the next game," said this year's Columbia Flier/Howard County Times girls lacrosse Player of the Year. It's a repeat honor for Stukenberg, who was also named All-Met, All-Metro, a US Lacrosse Girls High School All-American and an Under Armour Elite Star.
"The only way you can get better is to play," she said. "I try to make sure that my stick skills are improving and that I am more accurate in my shooting."
Stukenberg doesn't limit her lacrosse work to team play. She does wall ball on her own and the dreaded Hector the Rejector waits in the backyard of her Waverly home.
"He's my worst enemy," said the Marriotts Ridge junior of the lacrosse training device that blocks most of an open net.
Against human goalkeepers, Stukenberg scored a county-high 67 goals this season, giving her 145 in three years.
"Coming off of last year, I wasn't sure how much Zoe would improve, but she is just so intense," coach Natalie Gaieski said. "Every practice Zoe expects herself to do her very best and she expects the same from her teammates."
Stukenberg's work ethic stands out, said her coach. "You can tell she goes into her back yard and shoots. She is always looking to improve."
Stukenberg needs to keep improving because as it has become known that she's the key to the Mustang offense, teams have tried defensive tactics like faceguarding her.
"Being faceguarded is not the most fun experience, but I've learned different ways to use it to my advantage," she said.
Sometimes she just pulled away from the goal and let her talented teammates go 6-on-6. Other times, she set picks or used the crease to get free. Sometimes she would purposefully mess up the defensive slides.
"I don't care how many goals I score. I just want my team to win," she said.
"I had great defenders on me all year. After I was faceguarded the first time, we had Molly Fleming guard me in practice. I decided if I could score when Molly was on me, I could score on anyone."
Stukenberg's teammates also had to make adjustments. Because their go-to girl was often closely marked, they had to learn to pass to her when there was only the narrowest of openings.
Stukenberg shared the draw control responsibilities with teammate Taylor Hensh.
"Draw control was tough for us this year," Gaieski said.
One example was when Mt. Hebron faced Marriotts Ridge in the Class 3A/2A East Region finals, and the Vikings' game plan completely stymied the Mustangs. It didn't matter if it was Hensh or Stukenberg who stepped up to take the draw, Mt. Hebron's Sam Brookhart won it, contributing to her team's upset victory.
It was a season-ending loss for Marriotts Ridge, and a role reversal of last year when Marriotts Ridge won the game to end Mt. Hebron's season.
"I'm trying to get Sam to give me her draw tricks, but she's been a fortress," Stukenberg said.
"Zoe is such a student of the game, she figures out her weaknesses and works on them," said Gaieski, who called her midfielder "the team's spark."
The University of Maryland, among other high-profile teams, also noticed that spark and came calling early. Stukenberg has made a verbal commitment to play collegiately at College Park.
"I'm a Marylander. I was born and raised in Maryland. Everyone in my neighborhood bleeds Maryland pride," Stukenberg said. "I grew up watching Jen Adams playing at Maryland. When I was in seventh grade (Glenelg's) Kristy Black decided to go there and then (Glenelg's) Taylor Salandra did too. That's so cool, and the school has so much to offer."
But before Stukenberg dons a Terps jersey, she's got another year of high school to complete. In addition to lacrosse, she plays soccer and basketball for the Mustangs.
Stukenberg is a competitor to her core, but she also has the ability to stand back and put a game, including the loss to Mt. Hebron, in perspective.
"I'm lucky to have such great teammates. …We're a dang good team, and we are the same team we were the day before we lost to Mt. Hebron. We're beatable, but it's just a game. …We all have great lives, and we need to remember that next year. Lacrosse isn't everything."
Named to the all-county first team:
Rachel Benzing, Centennial senior. A four-year varsity player, Benzing was the type of player who could do everything well. She led the Eagles in goals (42) and draw control (46). She was especially effective against River Hill, scoring eight of her team's 19 goals.
"Rachel was the girl that everybody looked to. When they were in trouble, they knew Rachel was there to help out," coach Martie Dyer said.
"She lives for the game. She has been playing lacrosse forever. Her mother was her mentor and has taught her well."
Benzing will play for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Nicole Grote, Marriotts Ridge senior. Grote was the quarterback of the Marriotts Ridge team, and like any good quarterback she was adept at setting her teammates up. Recording 64 assists this season for the county and District V champions, Grote became the first Marriotts Ridge player to surpass 100 career assists.
"And she only played varsity three years," points out coach Natalie Gaieski.
"Nicole was a very unselfish player and she always has been," her coach added.
But when the Mustangs needed a goal, Grote was able to provide. With a crease roll that was nearly unstoppable, she tallied 29 goals on the season.
Grote will play for the University of New Hampshire next year.
Haley Sutton, Mt. Hebron junior. An off-ball creator who is known as Mt. Hebron's "sneaky" attacker, Sutton could find the back of the net quicker than anyone.
"With an explosive first step, her success at the back-door cut has been critical for us this year," coach Trish Derwart-Sullivan said.
Sutton had 45 goals and 57 points as the Vikings, in a building mode, upset Marriotts Ridge to reach the Class 3A/2A state semifinal game.
"Haley has developed her game in a very short time, and she was an instrumental piece of our offense," Derwart-Sullivan said. "Her incredible speed serves us well on the ride and in transition. She is aggressive and feisty and plays with such heart."
Kristen Woolschlager, Howard junior. After last year's leading scorer graduated, Woolschlager stepped up to fill the void. Her scoring ability (53 goals) is one reason why Howard was only held to single digits three times during the season.
"I told her at the beginning of the year that she really had to step up and she did," coach Alleesha Davidson said. "She had a great season. Her confidence grew throughout the year."
Davidson praises Woolschlager's coachability and her great attitude. "I really enjoyed having her on the team."
Sam Brookhart, Mt. Hebron junior. Mt. Hebron's game plan all started with Brookhart. As the team's center, she took the draw and it is well known that the team that wins the draw has the best chance of scoring.
Brookhart got 96 draws and allowed her teammates to capture 67 percent of all the draws taken in their games, which is a tremendous offensive advantage.
Brookhart led the Vikings in scoring with 76 points (40 goals, 36 assists) and in stamina, as she was rarely taken off the field.
"Sam gave us a level of calm or pushed the momentum when we needed it," said coach Trish Derwart-Sullivan. "What I appreciate most about Sam is her incredible work ethic and humble nature. She will do anything asked of her and always gives 110 percent day in and day out. She is a dream to coach."
With Brookhart as their leader, the Vikings reached the state semifinals for a state record 20th time.
Megan Flock, Howard senior. Flock was the workhorse of the Howard midfield. While she didn't take as many draws this year, she was still a big force in getting draw control (34) and ground balls. Plus she was always a threat to score (35 goals).
"I feel like when Megan was getting the ball in transition and passing the ball, it was really speeding up the offense down the field," coach Alleesha Davidson said.
"Megan just really, really wants to win, and that determination in her and that drive is always a great thing to see in a kid," Davidson added. "But she puts a lot of pressure on herself. A lot of times I told her to relax and go out and play and have fun. If you have fun on a lacrosse field it will all fall in place."
Flock, who will play at UMBC, helped the Lions reach the regional final this year.
Meagan Guthrie, Glenelg senior. A starter since her sophomore year, Guthrie began the season as Glenelg's top field player. She was the Gladiators' main draw and the attack started through her.
"We relied on her to dodge, to draw and dump. Everything went through her hands," coach Ginger Kincaid said.
Guthrie led Glenelg in goals (38), ground balls (45) and draw control (65) and would have had higher numbers had she not torn the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee, an injury that cut her season three games short.
"I think there could have been a different outcome to the season if we had her to finish the season," Kincaid said.
Guthrie will play for Hofstra next year.
Taylor Hensh, Marriotts Ridge sophomore. Solid, strong and scrappy describes Hensh, a versatile player who has already made a verbal commitment to the University of Maryland.
Hensh was right behind teammate Zoe Stukenberg in goals scored. She had 55.
"Taylor has a rocket shot that she didn't have last year," said coach Natalie Gaieski.
Hensh scored on a high percentage of her 8-meter free position shots. "We wanted her fouled inside the 8 (meter mark) or for a defender to be in shooting space," Gaieski said.
Defensively, she was also an asset to her team.
Nicole Twardowicz, Oakland Mills senior. Pulled up to the varsity for the postseason her freshman year, Twardowicz developed into a force and a leader this season.
"It was obvious to everyone that she was such a great athlete, but it wasn't obvious to her," coach Megan Gittermann said. "This year, she finally came to the realization that she could compete with the best players in the county."
Tall, lanky, speedy and determined ,Twardowicz scored 60 goals for Oakland Mills this season. That was more than twice what she scored as a junior.
"She embraced the fact that everyone was relying on her more than in the past," her coach said. "She had some very, very concrete goals, and she would do whatever it took to meet them. …We walked away from every game knowing that she belonged out there against the best players in the county. I think she has the capability to go Division I."
Molly Fleming, Marriotts Ridge senior. A natural athlete who can move well — and with speed — Fleming was part of a stingy Marriotts Ridge defense. The Mustangs allowed only 71 goals on the season and scored 323. Fleming is represented in both figures. While defense is her "thing," she sometimes ran midfield and scored 13 goals to go with four assists.
"Molly has very good defensive technique," coach Natalie Gaieski said. "Sometimes she is not noticed (on the field) because she is doing her job and not letting her player score."
Anne Zabel, Marriotts Ridge senior. Numerous accolades were bestowed upon Zabel this year — first team in both the Baltimore and Washington metro areas, Under Armour All-American and US Lacrosse Girls High School All-American. She is also a three-time Howard County first-teamer.
"People say Anne might be one of the best line defenders in the country," coach Natalie Gaieski said. "People are intimidated when they get the ball and know that she is playing defense on them."
Zabel is not of imposing size, but she is aggressive and her defensive skills are impeccable.
"Anne is very coachable. She always bought into our system and she would run into a brick wall for us," Gaieski said.
Zabel, who will play at UMBC, got a few turns at midfield and scored seven goals.
Megan Taylor, Glenelg freshman. In a sport that is stacked against a goalkeeper, Taylor is a standout. With quick hands and feet and a game sense beyond her years, she saved more than 54 percent of the shots she faced.
"Beyond a doubt she is the best high school freshman goalkeeper I have ever seen," longtime Glenelg coach Ginger Kincaid said. "She is the difference that kept us in the game, and when it was a big game, Megan showed up to play.
"I know she frustrated Mt. Hebron in the first meeting and she frustrated Marriotts Ridge as she made big save after big save in those games."
Because Glenelg was so small around the draw circle, which made it hard to get draw control, Glenelg's offense often started with one of Taylor's 116 saves.
"Megan's amazing, and I think she's only going to get better," Kincaid said.