Lauren McDonald, an attacker on the UMBC women's lacrosse team, is a budding expert in environmental science. She understands the factors that come into play in different environments to allow life to thrive.
And McDonald herself is thriving in her longtime environment of Catonsville, Md. The leading scorer on what looks like another solid Retrievers team, McDonald had 11 goals through the first six matches of the season and is part of a nine-member senior class who all have local roots.
"Having great teammates is No. 1," McDonald said. "Having teammates that help get me open, that get me the ball, it makes me look good. It starts with the draw, too. If we don't have the ball, we can't score goals. Our defense making stops, it's all those pieces."
McDonald is modest. She's ninth all time in program history with 124 goals as of March 12, and she set the UMBC single-season scoring record with 62 tallies in 2017. The 5-foot-6 McDonald is most of all a competitor, a trait that also shows up in the classroom. McDonald graduated in three years with a bachelor's degree in environmental science and is now a graduate student at UMBC. She has been a fixture on the America East All-Academic Team and works part time at Versar, an environmental consulting company in Columbia, Md., when her schedule allows.
It's a full plate, but McDonald is used to challenging herself. She took so many advanced placement courses at Catonsville High School she came to UMBC as a sophomore academically. Her athletic career has been on a fast track, too, though there was a glitch when she injured her knee as a sophomore in high school.
"I tore my ACL right in an important part of the recruiting process," she recalled. "I made it back halfway through lacrosse [season]."
So as many colleges were making decisions about which players to pursue, McDonald missed a lot of time and many schools may have missed out, too. Not UMBC, though.
Head coach Amy Slade took advantage of her proximity to keep tabs on McDonald, and kept recruiting even when others weren't willing to take a chance.
"That was one of my first [recruiting] classes," Slade said. "When we offered we didn't know exactly what we were getting, though we knew she was really good. We just wanted to see her in action, and she more than lived up to expectations."
In an odd twist, she lived farther away from campus as an off-campus college student than she did when she was growing up nearby. She fought the temptation to go home too much, though her father's taco dinners were often a major draw for her and her teammates.
"I was looking for a good fit academically, and I wanted to pick a school not just for lacrosse or the coaches but for the school," McDonald said.
It turns out, though, that Slade has been the perfect coach for McDonald to maximize her collegiate journey. McDonald's schedule doesn't always sync up to college athletics, but Slade has been her biggest academic advocate.
"I have a great relationship with Coach Slade," McDonald said. "She has allowed me to practice when it works with my classes. School comes first."
Slade said she's not sure McDonald has ever had below a 3.9 GPA. And while graduate school in such a demanding major can be tough, McDonald has back-loaded her thesis work to when her playing career is over next school year.
She has mapped out a path, much like she does on her daring forays to the goal. At Catonsville High, McDonald excelled in math and science and had grown up loving the outdoors, so she found a passion pursuing environmental engineering.
"My dad is a big nature guy so I've always been around it and always enjoyed it," she said. "And once I started taking classes [at UMBC], there was no going back."
McDonald found she enjoyed the science side more than the engineering, drawn to the analytics and the chance to positively impact her world.
"Right now I'm in the private side of environmental consulting, but I think one day I'd like to work for [the Department of Natural Resources] or Maryland Department of the Environment," she said. "I really enjoy stream restoration and getting involved in watershed science. I'm learning each and every day what I like and what I want to do."
McDonald had an outstanding career at CHS. She was essentially a four-year starter for the Comets and was named the Catonsville Times Athlete of the Year in 2014 and 2015. She had 49 goals and 31 assists as a junior and tallied 62 goals and 30 assists as a senior. She also lettered four years in soccer and basketball.
Like a good scientist, McDonald tested out a lot of different disciplines. Her parents, Jeff McDonald and Kathy Hensler, always encouraged their only daughter to try new things and push herself.
"My parents were big on putting me into everything," she laughed. "I did my time in ballet. I did my time in Girl Scouts. I did my time in musical theatre, and I'm a terrible singer and dancer."
Sports were a more natural fit for McDonald. She didn't pick up lacrosse until middle school, though, and she theorizes that starting so far behind everyone else in lacrosse-crazed Maryland drove her even harder to succeed.
"Everyone else had been playing since they were 5 and 6 years old," she said. "For me it was exciting and new and I was learning so much."
She has been a quick study. Her 19 points were the most among UMBC freshmen in 2016, and then she exploded as a sophomore with the record 62 goals to earn America East All-Conference honors. She has also been among the team leaders in draws controlled, and her scoring draws so much attention from opposing defenses that it opens up the offense for teammates.
"She's just so dynamic, looking for cuts, getting draws -- she's just a facilitator," Slade said. "She's just going a 100 miles an hour, and I love that. It jump-starts us."
Meanwhile, McDonald is the quintessential self-motivated student-athlete.
"You always want to be better," she said. "You can always learn more. You can always work a little bit harder. There's always someone out there better than you. Those are motivating things for me."
And that's the kind of attitude that will work in any environment.
Photo Credit: Gail Burton
Issue 252: March 2019
Originally published March 15, 2019