This time last spring, Kirsten Kruhm could not wait for lacrosse season to end. These days, Kruhm wishes her Atholton team had more gamesleft.
Winning has a way of altering one's perspective.
Atholton winning? The same Raiders who, in four years of girls lacrosse in Howard County, never have posted a winning season? The sameRaiders who, in 1990 and 1991, had won a grand total of five games, two against league competition?
There is nothing wrong with your picture. Atholton is this spring's rags-to-riches story. In one exhilarating month, the 6-3 Raiders (2-0 against the county) have shed their doormat label and now are wearing the look of county title and playoff contenders.
"Now, it's exciting. We realize there are four games left and we have a real chance to make it to regionals," said Kruhm, a senior goalie who is winding up her fourth season at Atholton and has waited three long years for a season like this. "We don't want to start celebrating yet."
The Raiders had reason to party last week. On Wednesday, they beat Centennial, 9-6, to improve their county record to 2-0. That marked the first time Atholton had ever beaten the Eagles in girls lacrosse. The Eagles, perennial contenders, won thecounty title two years ago.
"We're not on everybody's lips yet, but the kids are talking," said second-year coach CarolAnn Stevens. "This time last year, I couldn't get them to stop talking about the prom. This year, that's not a problem. They're much more focused on lacrosse."
Winning has a way of changing one's focus.
One reason the Raiders are tied for first place and looking like a cinch to win 10games is their commitment to change, specifically their approach to the game.
After last year's frustrating 3-10 finish, most of the Raiders decided to sharpen their passing, catching and shooting skillsat camps or recreation leagues. Stevens said two-thirds of the team participated in at least one camp or league.
Junior center AllisonValentino typifies the new attitude that pervades the Raiders' locker room. Valentino had an excellent season last year, scoring a team-high 43 goals. Then, she participated in a camp, the Heros summer lacrosse league and two other smaller recreation leagues.
This year, Valentino already has 30 goals and 12 assists, including a seven-goal effort in an 18-11 victory over North Harford. She also scored Atholton's first two goals Wednesday, setting the tone for the Centennial victory.
"We're more dedicated this year. The practices are longer and we're learning more," Valentino said. "We wanted to prove to people that we could win."
"Two big reasons (for the turnaround) are the Heros program and the integrity of the kids. They decided they wanted to get better," added Stevens, who broadened her horizons by attending several coaching clinics and studying the game closer.
Stevens played field hockey in college and has coached Atholton's hockey team for three years. She has never played lacrosse. But that didn't prevent her from selling the Raiders on her idea of solid work ethic.
"Determination, hard work and teamwork are why these girls are doing so well," Stevens said. "We had six-hour practices in the beginning. We still practice every Saturday. They wanted it. I gave it to them."
And the Raiders have been giving it back to their opponents ever since. After opening the season with a 9-6 loss to Liberty, Atholton revealed a hint of things to come with a four-game winning streak,including a 7-5 victory over Westminster, a Class 4A school.
Suddenly, the team's goal of a .500 season looked modest.
After losingan 11-10 decision to North Carroll, the Raiders bounced back by pounding Oakland Mills, 17-6. They then split two games in the Arundel tournament before knocking off Centennial.
Part of Atholton's surge can be explained by its experience. Eleven seniors and nine starters returned. And besides passing and catching much better, the Raiders also are faster this year, which has given opponents problems in the open field.
The biggest area of improvement has been defense. Last year, Kruhm, an outstanding goalie -- she is headed to Maryland on a lacrosse scholarship -- routinely was bombarded with one-on-one shots. This year, Kristen Murphy, Catrine Emilsson, Vicki Trott, Stasia Skillman, Dana McGraw and newcomer Christy Seagerson have kept the heatoff Kruhm.
As a result, the Raiders have surrendered only 63 goals, seven a game. Kruhm is giving up only six goals a game while averaging 13 saves.
Offensively, Valentino, who is equally smooth with the left and right hand, presents opponents with the biggest headache. But she is not alone.
Ali Auclair (18 goals, six assists), Jen Brock (14, five) and Anne Klosky (11, five) have contributed. Joy Gilbert has scored five goals in her last three games. Even McGraw (four goals) and Skillman (four goals) have proved to be threats from the defensive end.
"We're not just capitalizing on mistakes, we're forcing people to commit errors," Stevens said.
It's been a remarkablespring for the county's new contenders. Their program is on the map.Their practices are crisp. Instead of counting the days until summervacation, they're catching themselves looking ahead to bigger, more exciting games. Like their date Friday at Mount Hebron.
"I told mygirls in the beginning of the season they could beat anybody in thiscounty. That includes Mount Hebron. I really believe that," Stevens said.
"I don't want them thinking ahead. I want them worrying about their next game."