by DAVID P. GREISMAN
Lauren Schwarzmann was in third grade when she followed her older sister into recreational lacrosse, the newest addition to a lengthening list of sports she played. Lacrosse quickly became her favorite. She blossomed on the field, starred at Century High School on the first Carroll County team to ever win a “lax” state championship, then went on to play in college and for the national team.
Jesse Uhlman first picked up the stick along with a group of his 6-year-old friends and was taken in by the athleticism, skills and teamwork involved. He’s stayed with the sport for two-thirds of his life and is now one of four Carroll residents, including three Westminster High School graduates, on the roster at Towson University.
These are just two of the ever-increasing number of players to come out of Carroll County, sign with and then stand out at women’s and men’s programs at Division I, II and III colleges and universities throughout the country.
While Maryland has long been considered one of the top states for lacrosse, the best players and powerhouse schools tended to be in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties. Carroll has since staked a significant claim, garnering attention at the high school level and from college coaches.
“There have always been good players maybe that went under the radar,” Uhlman said. “Now they’re getting noticed.”
It’s not quite guaranteed that if your child picks up a lacrosse stick and learns to play at an early age he or she will have a pick of scholarship and college opportunities — but it certainly helps that so many kids are picking up the basic skills and fundamentals while young.
The sport is booming in Carroll, with recreational leagues adding more and more teams in every corner of the county, where kids are cultivated by coaches who often are accomplished former players themselves. Then there are the club-level teams that provide even more chances to compete throughout the year, and against an even tougher quality of competition. Through it all, parents are spending time and money, and expending energy and effort to support their child’s passion.
“We’re a big benefactor of what’s occurring before the kids even get to us,” said Randy Pentz, athletic director at Century High.
“That is just tremendous to be able to have a kid who has had a stick in her hand all these years,” said Rose Pentz, Randy Pentz’s wife and the now-retired Century girls head coach who won five championships, beginning in 2004 with a team that included top names such as Schwarzmann and Kelly Kasper. “You’re not teaching the basics to them. You’re able to teach to a much higher level. It becomes more of the strategy and how to be a better player.”
Schwarzmann is keenly aware of this, and not only as a former player. She is in her first year heading up the program at Mount St. Mary’s University in Thurmont, helped by her younger sister and fellow star, Katie. Previously, Lauren Schwarzmann assisted at University of Cincinnati, San Diego State University and Stanford University. Both sisters also coach with Check-Hers Elite, a club organization for girls that got its start in Carroll in 2004.
“Carroll County girls lacrosse has grown so much,” said Lauren Schwarzmann. “I’ve seen firsthand how the players have developed, how the teams have gotten better, how the clubs teams have grown. When we go out to recruiting tournaments, I’m looking at rosters and want to see kids from Carroll County high schools, because I know they’re coming from competitive programs and well-coached teams.”
All eight Carroll high schools have sent girls teams to the semifinals or finals of the state tournament. Since 2004, three schools have combined to capture 11 championships in their respective classifications, with Century going on a remarkable run with wins in 2004, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2012; Winters Mill coming out on top in 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2013; and Manchester Valley taking home the crown last year.
“For so many years we were behind Howard County and Anne Arundel. I would say now we’re at the top,” said Courtney Vaughn, the head coach who ran a successful program at Liberty before moving on to lead Winters Mill to glory. “Just within our county, the competition’s so tough.”
On the boys side, six Carroll schools have been among the final four in the state tournament. Two have won championships: Winters Mill in 2007 and Westminster in 2013.
“The girls sort of dominated and set the bar high with what they were doing. We’re starting to catch up,” said Bill McDermott, who is approaching 13 years as head coach for the boys team at South Carroll, which made it to the state championship game in 2012. “You see improvement ever year.
“Within the county I thought we were good, but once we got out of the county we couldn’t compete with some of the teams from Howard or Anne Arundel. Over the years the gap has closed, and I think each year one or two of the teams has a good shot at winning a state championship. All the teams are competitive, for the most part.”
Players and coaches both say the recreational leagues play a key role at the beginning.
“We wouldn’t have high school teams that are competitive if we’re not teaching the right things at both the rec programs and the club organizations,” said Tim Stecher, the former boys coach at North Carroll High who still works with the North Carroll Rec Council. It’s very important that they’re teaching the right fundamentals as kids come in, or the high school kids coaches have to do it.”
“If you have a stick in your hands at all time from a young age, it begins to feel like a third arm,” Uhlman said. “It feels like an extension of your body.”
The club teams then add another layer, pushing players to step up their game.
“The competition was just one step ahead,” said Eric Natale, a 2011 graduate of Westminster High now in his senior year playing goalie for Yale University. “The clubs gave me an opportunity not only to keep a stick in my hand throughout the summer, but to play against kids I hadn’t played against before. I was playing against a lot of the private-school kids who went on to play in college, and I got a good feel of what playing in a higher level of lacrosse is really about.”
College coaches and recruiters often are watching these games, and for good reason. “You’re not playing a team where they might have just two or three good players,” said Tom Cullop, a 2009 South Carroll graduate who went on to Catawba College in North Carolina. “You’re playing a team that people had to try out for and were selected from among 100 kids. Everyone on the team is good.”
And beyond that, the clubs and even the winter indoor leagues allowed Cullop to be playing lacrosse instead of playing video games.
With that said, while players do get better from participating in lacrosse for more than just one season, it’s also important for them to put the stick down.
“People are starting to specialize in lacrosse at such a young age,” said Amber Falcone McKenzie, who starred at Winters Mill through 2005, was a four-time All-American in college, played on the national team and is now an associate head coach at Furman University in South Carolina. “Kids can get burned out.”
Playing other sports can help prevent that burnout, and can actually teach players new skills that help when they return to lax, including an improved ability to see and move around the field.
“The way I used my feet to get around the cornerback in football kind of translates to how I’d get around someone in lacrosse,” said Ryan Hursey, a Westminster grad now playing as a freshman at Georgetown University.
Hursey is at the beginning of his college career. Beyond college are the professional leagues, and the best of the best can move on to international competition. For the rest, though, the high quality of play available in college will be the pinnacle of their playing experience. But it is far from the end of their commitment to a sport they long ago came to love.
“A lot of them go on to wanting to be coaches themselves and are coaching either at the club level or the high school level. They’re giving back with the expertise and the skills they’ve acquired,” said Rose Pentz. “They are teaching the younger players really how the game is played today. That makes a big difference.”