Patterson’s girls lacrosse players like to call their coach a showoff.
Zoe Stukenberg says she has to show off sometimes. After all, she led Maryland to the NCAA championship last spring and won the Tewaaraton Award as the best player in women’s college lacrosse.
For her, the stick tricks and fancy shots aren’t really about showing off. They’re about showing the Clippers the possibilities of the sport most of them had not played until a few weeks ago.
“It was a huge part of my high school and my college experience,” said Stukenberg, in her first year at Patterson with Teach for America. “I just was pumped at the idea of having a team here and letting the girls fall in love with the sport that meant so much to me and still means so much to me.”
Stukenberg, the 2013 All-Metro Player of the Year as a senior at Marriotts Ridge, knew she’d be starting with the basics in Baltimore City, where only a few schools had fielded teams. The city league has eight teams this spring — up from five a year ago. This is the first Clippers team in five years.
The Patterson girls had no idea of Stukenberg’s stature until they Googled her. They were just drawn to her enthusiasm and energy.
When preseason started, Tamiera Brown only wanted to be the team manager. She had never played a sport, but pretty soon Stukenberg put a stick in her hand and shortly after, told her she was too good not to play. The sophomore was hooked.
“Seeing her at practice makes us want to be like her,” Brown said. “When she does her tricks, I’m like ‘I’m going to learn how to do that. I’m going to be like you.’ I’m going to be better than her so I can go against her and I can win.”
Stukenberg, who will play this summer with the New York Flight in the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League, had coached before at camps and with the M&D Lacrosse Club. When she committed to teach ninth- and 10th-grade biology in Baltimore City, she hoped for the chance to coach lacrosse, too.
Patterson came close to fielding a team last year after Janiya Dunbar, then a freshman, recruited enough girls, but athletic director Damon Bomar couldn’t find anyone to coach.
He was thrilled when Stukenberg walked through the door last summer.
Although it could be difficult for someone playing at the highest level to break the sport down and teach it at the basic level, Bomar said that’s not a problem for Stukenberg.
“First of all I love the fact — I don’t like, I love the fact — that she knows the game and she utilizes her teaching techniques to teach the game,” Bomar said. “A lot of coaches who know the game can’t teach it. These kids are eager to learn and she’s willing to put in the time and effort to teach these kids the proper way to play.
“The girls are like sponges. They’re soaking it up and they’re so excited and, of course, Zoe’s going 100 percent all the time with excitement, so it’s contagious to her team.”
Monday afternoon, 10 of about 13 girls on the team joined Stukenberg and assistant coaches Adam Sokolski and Allison Greco on the practice field. Just three Clippers had played lacrosse before practice started March 1. Some wore jeans or Uggs. None of that bothered Stukenberg.
They worked on dodges, draw controls and eight-meter shots while Stukenberg, always positive, complimented every success, praised every effort and gently corrected each mistake. She laughed and joked with the girls, keeping them constantly engaged as she drilled them on basic skills while enticing them with stick tricks they’re eager to try.
“She’s a really, really good motivator,” said Sokolski, a social studies teacher who played high school lacrosse in New Jersey.
“All the girls really want to try hard for her and she’s awesome at explaining stuff to them in really simple ways. I think the most important thing is she really makes it fun every day at practice so they want to keep coming back.”
Not only do they look forward to practice, but the Clippers work on their own. They take sticks home so they can spend time on wall ball to hone their catching and throwing skills.
“I like to take the stick home. I go right out back and I use my brother as a catch dog,” Brown said with a laugh.
Stukenberg couldn’t ask for more.
“I love hearing, ‘Can I take my stick home? Oh, I played wall ball this weekend with my brother,’ It’s funny because that’s what I did all of high school. I was always shooting around,” she said. “That’s how I kind of fell in love with lacrosse and it’s been really cool to see some of the girls fall in love with it, too.”
The Clippers are scheduled to open their season at home Friday afternoon against defending city champion City. Stukenberg puts no pressure on the Clippers to do anything more than their best. She stresses the value of being part of a team, working hard toward a common goal and competing while having a good time and making new friends.
Dunbar said the players understand that.
“She always says, ‘It’s not about winning. As long as you guys are on the field and you do your best and you make sure that we stick together as a team, we win regardless, no matter whether we lose or win [the game].’ That’s what I like about my girls. We so close. I’ve never liked a group of girls so much in my life,” said Dunbar, who had transferred to another school so she could play lacrosse but came back to Patterson when she heard about the new coach.
Stukenberg is working toward her teaching certification at Johns Hopkins and plans to return next year to Patterson, where her first head coaching experience has already been rewarding.
“These practices and this upcoming opening game are very meaningful to me,” she said. “I’ve played in a lot of super competitive games, high-profile games that I’ve had the privilege to play with a bunch of incredible players and under a bunch of incredible coaches, and this group of people is by far the most special group that I’ve been a part of.”