She possesses the lightning-fast speed to routinely beat defenders, the wherewithal to make smart split-second decisions with the ball and the ability to shoot equally well with either hand.
By all accounts, Fallston resident Hannah Leubecker is one of the nation’s top high school seniors in girls lacrosse. But unless you’re an unabashed student of the sport, you’ve likely never heard of her.
That’s because Leubecker is homeschooled, honing her craft largely at the club level while spurning offers from several traditional lacrosse powerhouses. Last summer, she became one of 36 players chosen for the 2019 United States Women’s Under-19 national training team, and is ranked as the No. 7 senior in the nation by Inside Lacrosse.
Next season, she will become the first homeschooled recruit for Maryland under 13th-year coach Cathy Reese.
So off the radar was Leubecker earlier in her career that her first days at the prestigious Sky Walkers lacrosse club before eighth grade took even the most well-informed coaches by surprise.
“She came in, and we were like, `Who in the world is this girl?’ She was the best player on our team right off the bat,” recalled club coach Molly Fernandez, a former standout at McDonogh and Penn State. “When she said she was homeschooled, we were like, `How in the world are you that talented?’ ”
Leubecker, whose parents and three siblings are devout Christians, has been homeschooled since the age of 5.
Her earliest days on the field were spent playing soccer and lacrosse at the recreation level. Once she became a teenager, however, she realized her true passion for lacrosse, where she could put her natural abilities to best use.
“I love the pace of the game, I love the strategy, I love how you’re just constantly moving,” Leubecker said. “It’s the sprinting, it’s the quick movement, it’s the in and out, the dodging. I just love the speed.”
Though her father, Ron, stayed active in sports at the intramural and club level, Leubecker soon found she possessed a level of speed and coordination that outpaced most kids her age, as well as her siblings. She calls her abilities “a gift from God,” and it’s a gift she doesn’t take for granted.
So when she opted to remain homeschooled past elementary school, her parents realized they’d need to find her the kind of training neither they nor local rec programs could provide.
“We knew that with her not going to a McDonogh or [Notre Dame Prep] or one of these traditional powerhouse high schools for lacrosse, where you’re really going to develop because you’re practicing against the best. … she was going to need to go to a club where she would be challenged,” Ron Leubecker said.
After an initial stop at the Elite Lacrosse Club under former U.S. under-19 women’s coach Krystin Porcella, Leubecker opted to try out for Sky Walkers — a club known for producing Division I college players — before her eighth-grade year. It took a follow-up phone call from founder Michael McLaughlin to make her father realize the extent of her potential.
“He said to me, ‘Ron, a year from now every top Division I college in this country that has lacrosse is going to try to sign Hannah,’ ” Ron Leubecker recalled. “My first thought was, ‘This guy is either totally full of BS or he really knows what he’s talking about.’ I really didn’t know the sport that well, so I was going to trust him.”
That’s when her lacrosse career took off. Playing in a series of club showcases, Leubecker quickly took center stage, catching the eye of several college coaches.
She still was in eighth grade when a coach from Southern California asked her to fly to Los Angeles for a campus visit, and by end of that school year, she had heard from most of the top programs.
“I think what was impressive was, in the summer when she came in, how her skill level and the speed of her game was just right there with the girls who were playing all the time with their high school teams,” Molly McLaughlin, the director of Sky Walkers said. “Her speed, her accuracy, the fluidity of her stick was just so top notch.”
Virtually none of the college coaches ever had recruited a homeschooled player, and many had concerns about whether she even would qualify under NCAA rules. The family already had been going through the college application process with Hannah’s older siblings, and was well-acquainted with the meticulous record-keeping needed to meet admissions standards.
After visiting several potential options, Leubecker narrowed her list to Maryland and North Carolina. She made her commitment to Maryland as a high school freshman.
“It just came down to distance for me, because I knew my family wanted to come to a lot of games,” Leubecker said. “I believe that’s where God wants me, and that’s where I need to be.”
Combination of skills
What makes the 5-foot-5 attacker so dangerous is her combination of skills. While she’s not physically imposing, her sprinter’s speed lets her win foot-races downfield, her quick first step lets her dodge defenders and her ability to shoot with either hand makes her a nightmare to guard.
She also has developed a keen sense of what to do with the ball.
“What makes Hannah the total package is that she’s able to keep her head up and make the best decision in a split second,” Fernandez said. “She can drive and get a shot, but she can still drive on a defender and hit the open feed because her head is up. She’s that comfortable with the stick.”
Comparing her to the players on Maryland’s roster, Fernandez thinks she’s a combination of attackers Caroline Steele and Brindi Griffin, both former Under Armour All-Americans. While Leubecker is comfortable playing behind the net and feeding to cutters, a strength of Griffin’s, she also can drive and fire off a strong shot, like Steele.
“I think my biggest strength is probably dodging,” Leubecker said. “I’ve been really blessed to be fast. That’s what I love the most — being able to take people one-on-one.”
And she does that quite frequently during her spring seasons with the Northern Maryland chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, an international sports ministry that caters to homeschooled athletes and those from smaller Christian schools without athletic program. Going up against a schedule that includes several members of the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland B and C conferences, Leubecker has amassed huge numbers.
Playing midfielder, she has racked up 344 goals and 84 assists over her four years, making her the state’s all-time leading scorer, according to the Lacrosse in Maryland website. Through 12 games this season, she’s had 99 goals and 38 assists, scoring 13 in a game against Park and finishing with eight goals and eight assists against Calverton.
“Hannah likes to score from out front,” FCA coach Tim Hines said. “She likes to drive to the 12-meter most of the time, or breaks away from a defender and cuts, receives a feed and scores. She’s got a very hard shot. She’s got great placement, great control and sometimes she’s more accurate left, although she doesn’t shoot as hard, then she is with her dominant right hand. She goes both ways equally.”
Out of the shadows
As of 2017, just 0.73% of the approximately 180,000 Division I student-athletes were identified as having been homeschooled, according to the NCAA. There was not a single one among the nearly 7,000 men’s and women’s lacrosse players who either were on scholarship or had been recruited.
That makes the emergence of homeschooled sports stars such as Tim Tebow or Jason Taylor exceptionally rare, and practically nonexistent in lacrosse.
“I have never heard of one, and I have never seen a homeschooled player as good as she is,” Fernandez said. “You don’t expect them to be that good because the competition isn’t that great.”
Leubecker said she initially wondered if opting to not attend one of the traditional private school powers would affect her development as a player. She has since found ways to compensate.
“In high school, I definitely am not training all the time at the level of the McDonoghs and the top private high schools,” she said. “I’m still training a lot outside of practices. I’m in the gym a couple times a week, and I just train on my own.”
Her ability to shoot equally well with either hand, for instance, has come from countless hours of wall ball, taking twice as many shots with her left hand than her dominant right. She also has worked with personal trainers for the past year in a bid to improve her athletic performance.
In recent months, all that training has paid off.
Last summer, Leubecker was one of 36 players selected for the training squad of the 2019 U.S. Women’s Under-19 national team, from an initial pool of more than 500 applicants. She was one of five Maryland residents to make the cut, and the only one from a homeschooled background.
She also was picked to represent Baltimore in the Under Armour All-American Lacrosse Classic Underclass Tournament, where, once again, she was the lone homeschooler out of more than 1,000 players selected.
Leubecker said she cherished the notoriety, particularly the notion of representing her country. It was the unquestionable highlight of a high school career often spent in the shadows.
“There’s a lot of coaches and lacrosse people who still don’t know who I am,” Leubecker said. “Sometimes I feel like it’s an advantage because, if I’m playing against a team, they don’t know my strengths or my weaknesses. But as far as making teams and evaluations, sometimes it’s definitely a disadvantage because they don’t know who you are, they don’t know what you’ve done.”
Now the challenge for the 18-year-old turns to college, where she knows she will face a tricky adjustment living on a bustling College Park campus with 30,000 undergraduates. She already has taken several classes at Harford Community College, which she believes will help with the transition.
As for her game, she knows there’s always room for improvement. Working on her stamina is one goal, as is shaping up her defense.
“I’ve been training really hard to prepare for college, because it’s going to be a huge adjustment,” Leubecker said. “I want to be able to control as much as I can.”
Even if everyone doesn’t yet know her name.