For nine years, the McDonogh girls lacrosse team was unbeatable. That changed on a Friday night last May, when Notre Dame Prep put a stunning end to the Eagles’ national-record 198-game winning streak.
Now, as the 2019 season begins in earnest, several local teams are hoping to show their programs have gained significant ground on the once-invincible Eagles.
And McDonogh is out to prove that little has changed.
New Eagles coach Taylor Cummings, an assistant last season who played at McDonogh before winning three Tewaaraton Awards at Maryland, said the loss, at least in one way, might have done her girls a favor.
“Nobody wants to lose in a championship, let alone lose for the first time in 10 years in a championship, but I think within minutes it also became a positive,” Cummings said. “You just saw a huge weight lifted off their shoulders. There was a lot of media attention, a lot of outside pressure that had built up. I just feel like they have a little more fun now. They’re able to play a little more free. Having to bear the burden of not being the team to lose — that’s gone now.”
But while McDonogh will get a fresh start, with the end of the streak and a largely new coaching staff, several other teams from the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland’s A Conference also believe they’re now in position to pose the kind of day-in, day-out challenge the Eagles have rarely seen.
The top half of the league includes not only defending champion Notre Dame Prep, but also exceptionally strong squads like Glenelg Country, Archbishop Spalding, St. Mary’s, Roland Park and St. Paul’s. Most played the Eagles tough last season, at least in spurts, and now have the added confidence of knowing that beating McDonogh is more than a pipe dream.
“I think a number of teams in the league have gotten better,” NDP coach Mac Ford said. “McDonogh set the bar at such a level that it certainly took us quite a while to get to a point where we can consistently compete with them. Other teams have to believe they can play with McDonogh and beat them. But until they do, they’re still on that top shelf.”
“McDonogh has definitely helped raise the level for a lot of the other schools in the conference,” Glenelg Country co-coach Brian Reese said. “With them being so strong, it kind of forces everybody else to get better, and look at themselves and improve.”
If the Eagles are to regain their trophy, they must find an adequate replacement for midfielder Maddie Jenner, an Under Armour All-American considered the top draw control specialist in the country.
It’s no secret in girls lacrosse that whichever team controls the draws usually controls the game, and McDonogh has dominated that area in recent years with Cummings (who graduated in 2012), Olivia Jenner (now a senior at Duke) and Maddie Jenner (now a Duke freshman). Cummings has been experimenting with several players in the circle during the preseason.
“They graduated the best draw-control specialist that maybe high school lacrosse has seen in some time,” Ford said. “That will make a significant difference in other teams at least seeing the ball more often than usual against McDonogh.”
Maddie Jenner, a three-time Baltimore Sun first-team All-Metro selection and 2017 Player of the Year, routinely won more than three-quarters of her draws, allowing the Eagles to control the ball on offense most of the game.
“That put a lot of pressure on you to have to almost score and be perfect every time an offense,” Reese said. “You knew if you didn’t, they were probably going to score on the other end, then they might get the ball back. It gives you a little more comfort going into the game [now], because that was just a matchup that sometimes you really had a hard time going against.”
Even with a bit of uncertainty in the circle, however, McDonogh enters the season in a familiar position — the team to beat.
Cummings, a player at McDonogh when the streak started and an assistant coach when it ended, said the loss gave her players an opportunity that many craved — to take a deep breath and reset.
“I think the coaching staff change, the loss and the fresh start is all coming at a great time,” said Cummings, whose staff includes assistants Mary Beth Todd and Eva Winiarski, as well as goalies coach Emily Kift. “It was inevitable that [the streak] was going to become more and more pressing the bigger it got. I think it was a good motivator at points, but I also think, especially in close games, you could see that fear of losing come out. Yeah, those close games are supposed to be challenging and nerve-wracking, but they’re not supposed to be this giant burden where you feel like you’re letting so many people down.”
And if there’s one thing opposing coaches fear, it’s a loose, free-wheeling McDonogh team.
“They’ve kind of been the standard of the A Conference for a while,” Reese said, “and they’re not going away anytime soon, whether we like it or not.”
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“Other teams have to believe they can play with McDonogh and beat them,” Ford said. “But until they do, they’re still on that top shelf.”