Notre Dame Prep lacrosse coach Mac Ford admits he's studied the McDonogh girls' lacrosse program and its former coaches, Chris and Scott Robinson, for years.
It was a smart decision by Ford. McDonogh entered the 2018 Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland 'A' Conference championship in the midst of a historic run that included 198 straight wins and nine consecutive IAAM league titles.
"I watched Chris and Scott even before I coached at NDP and how they went about everything as coaches, from handling the sidelines, to rotating girls and playing defense," Ford said. "Success leaves clues, and I knew that if I could model a lot of what they do, NDP would get tremendous results."
At the end of his fourth season with the Blazers, Ford and his players finally got the ultimate victory so many programs had coveted. NDP defeated McDonogh, 10-8, in the IAAM championship game May 11, ending the Eagles' dominant run.
To the casual observer, NDP's triumph appears to be a terrific upset, but that isn't true. The Blazers gained ground on McDonogh last season, including a tightly contested 2017 conference title game. NDP got even closer during the 2018 regular season, but ultimately lost to the Eagles, 11-10, in overtime April 30.
Though frustrated by the regular-season result, the Blazers felt as if their time of being far behind McDonogh was over.
"That was a huge stepping stone for us," senior defender Annika Meyer said. "We hadn't played them yet this year, so we didn't know what team we'd be facing. It ended up going to overtime and even though we didn't close it out, we were winning for a good portion of the game. That gave us the confidence that we were even with them and if we played again, we could be the better team."
That confidence carried over to a fast start in the championship, which translated to a quick 2-0 NDP advantage. McDonogh was able to even the score at two, but NDP never trailed in the contest.
McDonogh has long been used to possessing the ball for much of the game thanks in part to the play of senior midfielder Maddie Jenner, who routinely won draw controls for the Eagles. In fact, Jenner dominated the 2017 IAAM championship game with 14 draws.
But Jenner couldn't replicate that performance. She finished with just three draws, as senior Jordyn Sabourin and juniors Lila Knott and Julia Franzoni all put in excellent performances for NDP. Though McDonogh finished with a 10-9 advantage on draws for the game, the Eagles simply didn't have the ball nearly as much as they were used to.
"They can't score if they don't have the ball," NDP senior attacker Hannah Mardiney said. "Once we got the ball, we also did a good job of not forcing anything and waiting for our best possible shot. In that overtime loss, we threw the ball away too often and they took advantage. This game we did a better job of keeping the ball and playing smart."
The Blazers began to realize they would win the game when they were up by two scores with 20 seconds left in the contest. When the final buzzer sounded, it set off a massive celebration both on the team's sidelines and among the NDP fans in the stands.
"It was absolutely crazy, I honestly didn't know what to do," Mardiney said. "So many people came to support us, so it was really loud. It was just a really cool moment with my teammates, some of which I've played with since I was five. There's no better way for a senior to finish their career."
Almost lost in NDP snapping McDonogh's streak was that the win represented the Blazers' first IAAM title since 2003.
"When we got back to our locker room is when it sunk in that we had actually won a championship, not a regular game," Meyer said. "It's been crazy since then, so many people have congratulated us. This was a massive win for our program."
It's been an amazing few days for Ford, but he's already found himself thinking about NDP's future. It was easy to draw motivation for his group when the program had not won a title in so long, but now he'll have to find a new source of inspiration.
Ford recently had a conversation with someone who is all too familiar with that dilemma.
"I actually saw Scott Robinson at a graduation party recently and had a long talk with him. I picked his brain on what do you do after winning a championship," Ford said. "The biggest thing is that each year I've been here we've gotten better, so we should anticipate that to continue. I'm already excited to see how we do."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Michael Johnston