New faces keep the goals coming

Girls lacrosse: Annapolis lost a powerful attack to graduation last spring, but this team is 8-0, with a strong defense, three sophomores and a senior building on a strong tradition.

April 18, 1999|By Glenn P. Graham | Glenn P. Graham,SUN STAFF

The mighty Annapolis attack produced 349 goals in its state championship season last spring, and this year's version is on pace to put in 300 more.

Despite all that, Christy McNew and Acacia Walker, a couple of the prominent scorers this season, found themselves before practice the other day talking just as much about the Panthers' strong, but largely unrecognized, defensive unit.

"We have an awesome defense this year. They don't get a lot of recognition, but it all starts there," said Walker. "And our offense gets to play against them every day -- that helps."

The lesson here is the approach the No. 5-ranked Panthers have taken as they chase their third state crown in four years.

Gone are All-Americans Kelly Dirks and Brooke Wagner and the combined 119 goals and 232 total points they contributed last season, along with three other starters who are all playing Division I lacrosse in college.

But present is a young group that is maintaining the program's excellence.

"We knew coming in we lost a handful of great players. It's been our team spirit that has gotten us this far, and hopefully that will take us back to the state tournament," said McNew, a senior co-captain.

Team spirit aside, Panthers coach Dave Gehrdes came into this season with an unfamiliar question: Who will score?

The answer has come from every direction.

Kristy Dirks (20 goals, 17 assists) is looking a lot like her older sister, Kelly, and brings a complete game that involves everyone. Sarah Oliphant (27 goals, 14 assists) can get to the goal in a hurry, has an array of shots, and uses both hands with equal effect.

Walker (12 goals, 10 assists) thrives in the open field, starting the Panthers' transition game with good field sense.

All three are sophomores, leaving McNew (20 goals, 15 assists) as the veteran vocal leader who earned first-team All-County honors last season after scoring 48 goals and adding 15 assists.

"I was a little worried about scoring, but I'm not as worried now. The girls made tremendous strides improving their skills in the off-season," said Gehrdes. "This year, we're more well-rounded. There could be superstars, but they are all team players. The key is that no one is worried about individual stats as long as we're winning as a team."

The Panthers are doing plenty of that. They're 8-0 as the season reaches its midway point and averaging 14.2 goals a game. Dirks said aside from the new faces, little has changed.

"We run the same set offense," she said. "We just needed people to step up, because we had the big holes to fill. We play together year-round, so the big thing is we all know where each other will be."

Gehrdes relies on a swarming defense with the attack players responsible for getting back to help a talented defense led by senior Becca McDevitt.

Once they gain possession, the Panthers are fun to watch.

"I get caught sometimes sitting back and watching, and I try not to do that," said Gehrdes. "But you see five or six crisp passes, and then a shot come while the other team's defense doesn't have a chance to settle in. And you shake your head and say, `Wow.'

"Our catching and passing are very strong. We don't drop a lot of passes, and that's the key to transition. And all the kids will pass it to anyone, because they know they're going to catch it and do something positive with the ball."

Annapolis teams always have been known for speed and athleticism. The crafty stickwork and fluent passing game came a little later. Gehrdes said a region final win over Severna Park in 1993, his first season as coach, got things started. The Panthers broke through in 1996, when at 20-0, they won their first state title.

"Amy Brew, Stephy Samaras, Becky Morris, Ali Krieger ," Gehrdes rattled off the standouts. "That was a tremendously well-rounded group of girls that was strong all over the field. That was the year we started moving the ball around well and scoring with efficiency."

The scoring hasn't stopped, and a rich tradition has been firmly established.

"Last year, playing as a freshman helped," said Oliphant. "It's such a big difference from rec leagues. In the beginning of the season, we were making a lot of mistakes, but we got a lot of help watching people, like Kelly and Brooke. The tradition is neat to think about, and it's awesome getting the chance to play in this program."

Kristy Dirks agreed: "When you practice every day with quality players, everybody is pushing each other, and you keep going and going. And every year, you get better and better."

Potent Panthers

The Annapolis attack under coach Dave Gehrdes:

Year Goals Assists Record

1999 114 86 8-0

1998 349 228 *20-1

1997 265 155 15-3

1996 317 177 *20-0

1995 243 96 +16-2

1994 233 99 +15-2

1993 211 110 +15-2

* Class 3A-4A state champion

+ State playoff team

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