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‘We’ll never take a game for granted anymore’: IAAM teams enthused about return of lacrosse

McDonogh's Kemper Robinson, center, is one of the top returning seniors for the Eagles this season.
McDonogh's Kemper Robinson, center, is one of the top returning seniors for the Eagles this season. (Brian Krista / Carroll County Times)

For St. Paul’s School for Girls, last spring was supposed to be the time to avenge a devastating loss in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference lacrosse finals.

Instead, with play halted just days before the scheduled start of the regular season, it quickly turned into more heartbreak.

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“We were crushed. We had a taste of being in the championship game, and we got so close,” Gators coach Mary Gagnon said. “For the seniors who were freshman when we took over [coaching the team], we wanted one more chance to win the championship. It was devastating. Basically our whole team was back, we were just really excited to play, and then, boom, COVID.”

Twenty-two months after playing their last games, St. Paul’s and the rest of the IAAM are back on the field, ready to try and pull off their 2021 girls lacrosse season in the midst of a pandemic. Sure, there will be limits on fans, requirements for masks and social distancing on the sidelines, and plenty of player testing.

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But the bottom line is lacrosse is back. And for players and coaches, that’s what really matters.

“It’s been rewarding. You kind of see this sense of joy and happiness that they’re back out doing the things they love to do,” Glenelg Country co-coach Brian Reese said. “It’s hard for the kids to follow all the protocols, but this has probably been the most enjoyable preseason I’ve had.”

Said Gagnon: “We’ll never take a game for granted anymore.”

For defending champion McDonogh, winner of 219 of its past 220 games and 10 of the past 11 A Conference titles, the biggest challenge so far has been trying to integrate 17 players who’ve never competed at the varsity level with new team leaders, who were only freshmen and sophomores when the Eagles last played.

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The saving grace for most teams is that the majority of top players competed throughout the pandemic on club teams. The bulk of McDonogh’s players played either for the highly successful M & D or Sky Walkers programs, keeping their skills sharp and their bodies fit.

“We’re very fortunate that a lot of our kids played together on their different club teams, and we’ve had a couple optional workouts throughout the fall and winter to kind of get some gelling back together,” McDonogh coach Taylor Cummings said. “But I think the big challenge is that we’re just super young. It’s just a lot of learning. With a shortened preseason, it’s about getting as much learning in as you can while also making sure we’re giving them enough time to just gel and get that chemistry that they need.”

McDonogh, which entered last season as the nation’s consensus No. 1 team, was one of four A Conference teams that entered 2020 nationally ranked (along with St. Paul’s, Notre Dame Prep and Archbishop Spalding).

With no local or national polls this spring, it’s difficult to evaluate just how good this year’s crop of IAAM teams will be. Coaches are stepping into the unknown, as well, even when it comes to evaluating their own teams.

How will players respond after so much time away from their teammates?

“I feel like it’s kind of like an extra learning curve,” Archbishop Spalding coach Tara Shea said. “Even though these kids have played in indoor leagues, or offseason workouts that they’ve done on their own together, it’s just really different because we missed, essentially, a whole year.”

Look for talented-but-youthful McDonogh to face serious challenges from St. Paul’s, Notre Dame Prep and Glenelg Country.

The Eagles feature 15 Division I signees, led by junior attack Caroline Godine (North Carolina), junior midfielder Kori Edmondson (Maryland) and seniors Kemper Robinson (midfield, Vanderbilt), Devyn Greenfield (defense), Gabby Stapleton (attack, Loyola) and Emma Hoffman (defense, Delaware). At the same time, however, they feature 17 players who enter the season with no varsity experience, including four freshmen and four sophomores.

Their stiffest competition is likely to come from St. Paul’s, which took McDonogh to overtime in the 2019 championship game, and returns what Gagnon believes is her “deepest and most talented team.”

The Gators are led by senior All-Metro goalie Leah Warehime (Georgetown), who averaged eight saves per game as a sophomore and saved 51% of opposing shots on goal. They also return senior Christina Gagnon (USC), who scored 44 goals as a freshmen before missing her sophomore year with a torn ACL, and senior defender Paris Colgain (Johns Hopkins) and senior midfielder Josie Hahn (Florida).

The addition of McDonogh transfer Caitlin McElwee (James Madison), a senior attacker who scored a team-high three goals in a 15-3 season-opening win over John Carroll, also could be a difference-maker.

Notre Dame Prep, the last team to win the conference tournament other than McDonogh (in 2018), also should be tough to beat. The Blazers feature 22 seniors, led by midfielders Annie Marshall (Johns Hopkins) and Kailey Pelkey (USC), attackers Nancy Halleron (Vanderbilt) and Halley Koras (Towson), and defender Brynn Hepting (Hofstra). Maryland-bound junior defenders Olivia Rockstroh and Mae Marshall also will play pivotal roles on an athletic team that figures to be quite aggressive all over the field.

Another experienced squad is Glenelg Country, which graduated only two seniors and figures to be solid at every position. Top players include seniors Celia Pell (midfield, Maryland), Caroline Rehder (midfield, Syracuse) and Sydney Naylor (attack, Pittsburgh), and juniors Neve O’Ferrall (defense, Maryland), Maggie Weisman (attack-midfield, Maryland) and Jaclyn Marszal (attack, Notre Dame).

And, unlike some of their opponents, the Dragons should have no problems quickly gelling, with four sets of sisters on the team, including two sets of twins.

Another team that also could be in the hunt is Archbishop Spalding, which will rely on several new faces after losing about half its starting lineup, but returns a talented core led by senior midfielder Lily Grant (Maryland) and junior midfielder Bella Saviano (Yale). Expect talent-laden teams like Bryn Mawr, Gerstell, Maryvale, Roland Park and St. Mary’s also to be in the mix.

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