Taylor Virden is a lacrosse player first, which for the moment isn’t changing.
The Baltimore Ride held their last of four regular-season games on a muggy mid-July evening in rural Bel Air, flanked by a conservation area and a state forest. Like birds settling in for the night, the players on the field chirped constantly at one another, still learning one another’s names.
Virden crisscrossed the defensive end, trying to stem the eventual 11 goals the Boston Storm unleashed, once slamming her body into a Storm attacker so hard that Virden hit the ground. After time expired, she stalked off the field, frustrated with the loss.
But the game was over, and for the night, so was her job. It was time to put on the other hat, as an aspiring broadcaster, where she would provide commentary for the second game of the evening between the Philadelphia Force and the Long Island Sound, and to prepare for the semifinal game in two weeks, in which third-seeded Baltimore (1-3) wound up edged out by Boston, 8-7.
“If I love what I’m doing, it’ll all work out,” she said.
This is the type of place where I can play and not think about anything else.
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Virden closed out her second season with the Ride, one of four teams in the United Women’s Lacrosse League. At three years old, the UWLX is one of two professional women’s league in America. Virden, drafted the season before, is a pioneer and rolling with the wrinkles that come with that.
The time between her college career at Duke and her selection in the 2017 UWLX draft was the kind of prolonged offseason that left Virden in limbo. She bounced from New York City to Washington as a computer scientist and a freelance filmmaker, all the while pursuing a master’s degree back in Durham, N.C.
All her life, lacrosse had been an unfettered geyser. When she graduated, it was as if someone had plugged it up with gravel.
“I wasn’t thinking so far into the future because so much of the present demanded my attention, so when it ended, it hit me like a brick wall,” she said.
Playing in the UWLX offers a chance to take a step up in terms of talent. With so few teams, the rosters are filled with the world’s top players.
“It’s nice to be her teammate now, so we’re not on the other side of the field [of] each other. She’s such a friend,” said Maggie Auslander, who played for North Carolina against Virden. “She always wants the best for everyone, always cheering me on if something goes wrong.”
For Virden, the Ride is a salve to the ache she’s felt for lacrosse since graduating from Duke in 2014.
“My last year of college we didn’t have this as an opportunity, and it’s really hard to transition into normal life without being so on a routine, on a four-hour-a-day schedule where you’re dedicating your life [to it],” she said. “Your mental state revolves around the sport so heavily for four years, and then it just doesn’t anymore.”
Virden left everlasting marks on the Duke lacrosse program’s defense, anchoring the Blue Devils to four straight NCAA tournament appearances, including a semifinal berth in 2011.
She stood out, and not just because of the thick eye black cutting her cheekbones and jaw; the two-time Tewaaraton Award nominee finished second in program history in draw controls (184) and ninth in caused turnovers (77). Virden was only the 26th player in Duke history to surpass 100 ground balls in her career (121) and the first Blue Devil to earn two straight first-team All-America honors since 2009.
Even before then, with the McDonogh girls lacrosse team, Virden oversaw back-to-back Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference titles and the birth of the Eagles’ 198-game winning streak in 2009.
If she had been a 300-pound male football defensive lineman, she would have likely been selected in the first round of the NFL draft.
Even Major League Lacrosse has existed for 18 seasons, laying a path for male players to extend their careers beyond college. For women, there was nothing like it — and wouldn’t be until 2016, two years after Virden’s senior year.
“Had I started my whole college career knowing there was a professional league to go into, I don’t think I would have tried harder — I think I tried as hard as I could to be the best player in college — but it just would have been awesome to know my sport continues,” Virden said.
“So often they tell youth lacrosse players who go on college visits, ‘When you go on these college visits, you have to look at everything because lacrosse is only the next four years of your life. That’s it.’ ”
When it was gone, Virden tried to shape it back together, leading clinics for children and assistant-coaching at Elon, to keep the sport in her life. Lacrosse had often been a refuge for Virden when her life veered out of her control.
Posing as Buckwheat, Virden painted her whole face black.
A photo of the juniors’ entry was featured on a Duke blog post about the contest but quickly sparked controversy. Virden’s name tagged with her painted face made it to Deadspin, and beyond.
“But that was pure ignorance, and I’m pretty ashamed that even happened,” Virden said. “I think that was a tough time for me because I was completely unaware of what I was doing. And that’s the issue itself, that I was unaware. And that’s my fault. I take full responsibility for my actions.”
The backlash was immediate, online and in the media. Virden said she, at the time, was not allowed to say a word. Coach Kerstin Kimel instead released a statement.
“I think that was probably the biggest mistake I’d ever made in my entire life, and I’ve definitely made a lot of mistakes,” Virden said.
She grew up in a majority white town, educated at a majority white school.
Virden doesn’t want to lay the blame on the sport she plays, which has had a litany of racially charged incidents in the recent past: a simple “lacrosse racism” search will fill a page with stories from high school and college players using slurs, to three primarily Native American lacrosse teams being banned for reporting slurs made against them.
The Atlantic Coast Conference, which Duke participates in, was 91 percent white as of the 2016-17 season, according to the NCAA.
“I have learned from it so much,” Virden said. “The root of the problem was that I didn’t know, and that’s my issue and my problem that I didn’t know. There’s no excuse for that.”
Six years later, Virden can’t hide from that decision — it crops up on the first page of Google results, just by typing in her name — and she doesn’t want to.
When something’s running at her, she handles it head-on.
After her years-long nomadic lifestyle, Virden settled in Ellicott City again this summer. The 2018 UWLX regular season was mostly set in Maryland, so it made sense to stay put and just hop in the car to get to the games.
In April, two months before the season and right before her sister’s wedding, she learned her grandfather was dying — pancreatic cancer. He died two days before Virden’s second game of the season, at Top Flight in Basking Ridge, N.J.
“He deteriorated so quickly,” Virden said.
On a sun-drenched turf lined by trees, Virden and the Ride fell to the Storm, 13-9, that day in their first meeting this past season. Her teammates didn’t understand how she was standing on two feet, let alone battling attackers.
“Obviously, she’s made a commitment,” Ride coach John Sung said. “She’s one of those kids that checks whatever’s happening in her personal life. When she’s on the field, she’s a pro.”
Despite the pall of her grandfather’s death, it was the cheers of her mother, father, three sisters and grandmother in the stands that Virden remembered, making her feel happy.
The loss didn’t matter as much that day.
“This is the type of place where I can play and not think about anything else. Everywhere else I go, everything else I’m doing, it doesn’t zone me out the same way,” Virden said. “It was really awesome to be able to have that as an outlet right away.”
As physically demanding a sport as lacrosse is, Virden sees an open road in front of her.
Virden jump-started her broadcasting career as well, providing commentary for the UWLX’s coverage team for one regular-season game, the semifinal game she didn’t play in and the championship game. Most athletes wait until their careers are over to go on-air, but she isn’t done playing.
Typically, MLL players retire after five seasons or so; with nearly two under her belt, she doesn’t see the end for her UWLX run either, nor the league’s. Sponsors continue to trickle in, as well as fans.
It doesn’t hurt that lacrosse itself is rising.
“The sport itself is growing like crazy. When I first started playing, it was huge in Baltimore. I mean, Baltimore was like the mecca of lacrosse. … But now, it’s spreading, even spreading and spreading to the other coast,” Virden said. “Everybody just needs to be on board.”
There are kinks to iron out still, as with any young league. Virden noticed, after her first season, several of her teammates didn’t show up this summer. Before, UWLX players needed to foot the bill for transportation and hotels; for some, the cost to travel to games was too much.
“If you’re looking at the sport to buy your groceries and pay your rent, it’s not going to be that type of thing,” Virden said. “If you’re realistic about it and you’re all about growing the sport, you make it work.”
Said Sung: “For her, she obviously has a love for the game and that’s why she’s still playing it. I think when you see [on July 11] we had a pretty big win, I remember looking over at her during a timeout and I could see how she’s inspiring her teammates and her defense to step up and make that next play.”
And at the beginning of this season, it was like Christmas.
“We loaded up with gear. It was amazing,” Virden said. “I opened up my backpack and had shorts, spandex, uniform, travel gear, new stick. Goggles. It was all really awesome, Nike, STX, the best brands you could ask for. It was really sweet. We even got shoes and cleats.
“It felt like I was in college again, and that’s what I’m saying. You do those things and those are the things that are going to excite players and make them want to be a part of it.”
Little things irk Virden — identical checks for all players, no matter their abilities or years of service, for instance, or the fact that a second league has cropped up. The Women’s Professional Lacrosse League, which completed its first season in July, purloined players away from the UWLX.