The way Mac Ford sees it, Gillian Eby was simply a bit too advanced for her age.
When Ford, the varsity girls lacrosse coach at Notre Dame Prep in Towson, met Eby as a sophomore, the midfielder-attacker was a relentless, whirling dervish who used her physicality to outmuscle opponents for the ball.
That playing style, however, did not jibe well at the high school level, where the slightest contact was liable to draw a foul.
“She was so aggressive on the field that she would routinely get multiple yellow cards per game,” Ford recalled, chuckling. “So we had to pull her back a little bit. We had to tell her, ‘If you get one yellow card, we have to pull you out of the game.’ … I always knew she was going to be a great college player because of the rules and physicality of the college game. She was just a little bit ahead of herself in high school because she was so physical, and we just had to pull her back a little bit, which is tough to do.”
Eby (pronounced EE-bee), a Towson resident who has shortened her first name to Gil (pronounced Jill), called her sophomore season “an interesting year.”
“I remember it got to the point where my mom was like, ‘I will get you Chipotle after the game if you do not get a yellow card,’” she said. “It was really funny. Frustrating, but looking back now, it was funny.”
Eby’s tenacity and combativeness have suited her well as a member of the Navy women’s lacrosse program, where as a starting defender as a sophomore, she ranks second on the team in caused turnovers (five) and ground balls (six). The No. 13 Midshipmen (2-1) will welcome Villanova (1-1) to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis on Saturday at noon.
Eby — who finished with 72 goals, 12 assists and 75 draw controls in three years with the Blazers — was recruited as a midfielder, but Navy coach Cindy Timchal said the idea of shifting Eby to defense took root in the fall of 2018.
“We really needed some help on the defensive end, and she certainly has pure athleticism and speed,” she said. “Combine that with the ability to carry through the midfield and join in on the attack, she’s really grown into being our top-line defender. We always look to sprinkle her into the midfield. She’s a big midfield connector from the defensive end to the midfield.”
Eby said she suspected she might be a candidate when Timchal surveyed several midfielders, inquiring if they had experience playing basketball — a sport that emphasizes footwork, a wide stance and a squat-like positioning on defense that lacrosse does.
And playing defense runs in the family. Older sister Genevieve was a defender at New Hampshire, and older brother Sam was a short-stick defensive midfielder for one season with the Midshipmen.
Asked if she preferred remaining on offense, Eby said, “I just wanted to get on the field. I just would do anything to get on the field and play. If Cindy asked me to do anything, I would do it.”
Eby acknowledged that it took her a few games to stop thinking and just play defense. She said the first time she truly felt comfortable as a defender was when she face-guarded Florida senior midfielder Sydney Pirreca, who had only one goal on one shot and three turnovers in a 14-13 Navy win on March 2.
“I just remember her not getting the ball, and she was really frustrated,” Eby said. “I was stuck on her like glue, and attackers usually don’t like that. I knew that frustrated her.”
Junior defender Caroline Kwon said Eby has a knack for energizing her teammates.
“Gil’s one of those players that comes up with those big plays, big stops — whether it’s an interception or a ground ball or she’s clearing the ball,” said Kwon, a Cooksville resident and Glenelg graduate. “It’s something that’s fun and really exciting to watch. She’s come a long way. She’s been an impact player able to make those plays. She’s really just grown into a solid defender that we can really count on. She’s becoming that go-to defender, and that’s fun to watch.”
Soon, Eby was asked to mark opponents’ top offensive players, such as former Boston College attacker and 2018 Tewaaraton Award winner Sam Apuzzo and Lehigh senior midfielder Sondra Dickey. The top-flight assignments were mind-boggling at times.
“I remember [former defender] Marie Valenti telling me, ‘They chose you because they believe in you,’” Eby said. “So that was really reassuring. I’m not going to say that I wasn’t nervous because I was. But it’s cool to say that I was able to do that in my freshman year, that they gave me the opportunity to do that.”
This season, Eby has already limited Virginia senior midfielder Sammy Mueller to one goal on five shots in a Cavaliers’ 14-13 overtime win on Feb. 8 and Saint Joseph’s junior attacker Sam McGee to three goals on five shots and one turnover in a Hawks’ 19-12 loss on Feb. 12. She said she is more comfortable in her second season as a defender.
“When people are taking me on one-v-one, I definitely feel more confident with stepping up,” she said. “And it’s not even just stopping them, but making them turn the ball over.”
Because of her offensive skills as a midfielder and attacker, Eby has the green light from Timchal to test opposing goalies. But she took only three shots last spring and has yet to attempt one so far.
“I feel like I definitely value possession more because I know how hard all the defenders around me have worked to get the ball back,” she said. “So if I was the one turning the ball over on offense, I would feel so bad.”
As well as Eby has played on defense, Timchal left open the door for a return to the offense.
“As coaches, we all try to think outside the box,” she said. “Certainly to have Gil who spent a lot of her time being face-guarded in high school in her senior year because of her scoring ability, that might be something down the road for us.”
As the lone returning starting defender from last season, Eby is one of the more experienced players on that unit. As such, she came up with “The Big Blue Wrecking Crew” moniker for the defense that breaks every huddle with a “Lights Out!” slogan.