As McDonogh's girls lacrosse team aims for a ninth straight undefeated season beginning Wednesday on its spring break trip in Florida, the usual questions arise.
Can the Eagles overcome significant turnover from graduation to extend their national-record 177-game winning streak? Can they rebuild their defense? Will new leadership emerge? Do they have the right chemistry?
This season there's a new question: Will a new coaching staff, led by longtime assistant Nancy Love, be able to keep the Eagles on the winning path in the most competitive league in the country, the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference, and against a strong nonleague schedule?
Eagles senior midfielder Maddie Jenner, last year's All-Metro Player of the Year, and her teammates have heard the all doubts about the streak before.
"Every year there's been that question and we've been able to play successfully each season after each senior class graduates," Jenner said. "I'm not really questioning how we can do this year. In the past, we've felt like we really had to step up after my freshman year and then after my sophomore year. I think that experience from past years builds a lot of confidence to keep the success going."
The streak began April 13, 2009, and has included nine straight IAAM A Conference championships and eight years as the No. 1 team in the country. At 177, the streak is 73 games longer than the previous national high school girls lacrosse record.
Chris Robinson guided the Eagles to all of that success before leaving in January to focus on the expansion of his National Girls Lacrosse League. In his 13 years as coach, the Eagles won 10 IAAM championships, including the A2 Conference title in 2005.
Now interim coach Love, a McDonogh graduate and an assistant coach since 2003, aims to carry on the legacy with a staff that includes Taylor Cummings, the former Eagle who won three Tewaaraton Awards and two national championships at Maryland.
Love makes it clear that she's not really concerned about the streak.
"I told them on the first day of practice I was going to say the word once and they were never going to hear it come out of my mouth again, because you can't put that on a shelf and I don't care about it. I do care about winning the championship. That pressure — we don't need it. I told them from the get go, 'I don't care.' "
While players have said that they can't escape the streak, they try to keep it in the back of their minds.
"I don't think about any of this," Jenner said. "I don't really think about the possibility [of the streak ending]. You'd just get so anxious thinking about all the hypotheticals."
The streak has never been something the Eagles focused on. Robinson tried to take as much pressure off the Eagles as he could, concentrating on the short term so they wouldn't be overwhelmed.
"Chris and I've been coaching a long time together," Love said, "and I feel like the focus that we had throughout our time has really been focusing on the next game and that's what we will continue to do."
While the Eagles graduated four All-Metro players — midfielder Andie Aldave, attacker Catie May and defenders Margaret Donovan and Nicole Alecce — and lost junior Julia Dorsey, a strong two-way player and a key component on the defense, to an ACL tear during soccer season, they return everyone else.
Jenner, All-Metro attacker Julia Hoffman and goalie Julia Cooper are among the key returning players while many who started or had significant playing time are ready to step into lead roles, including attackers Rachel Anderson, Anna Robinson, Megan Mix and midfielders Emma Schettig, Blair Pearre and Kayla Abernathy.
Defense needs the most rebuilding with Ava Class and Hannah Rothe the only returning starters. The Eagles have to make up for the loss of Donovan, Alecce, Aldave and Dorsey, as well as defensive coach Scott Robinson, whose game plan kept every opponent off balance.
Love said the players and new coaches, including Mary Beth Todd and Eva Winiarski, have done a good job putting everything back together. Now, the Eagles just need to play.
Wednesday night, they'll take on Vero Beach (Fla.), a team they've met five times in six years. The Indians (7-0) have come no closer than within 12-8 of the McDonogh in 2014. Last season, the Eagles won, 19-3.
Thursday, they'll play The Hill Academy from Ontario, Canada, which they defeated 17-3 last year. Saturday, the Eagles face their first nationally ranked opponent, Novato (Calif.), No. 22 in the US Lacrosse National Girls Top 25 in which the Eagles are No. 1.
While the Florida trip gives the Eagles a chance to work out the kinks before they open their A Conference schedule against Roland Park on March 21, it also does much more to build a foundation for the season.
"On any trip when you're spending time with people, that's where relationships develop," Love said. "That's what's important to us as part of this trip in addition to training and playing some games while we're there. For me, if the girls are getting along in the locker room, chances are lot better that they're playing together on the on the field. That's an important part of what we do."