The dance of winners

High schools: A dancer with a passion for sports has her first job as a varsity head coach - for Mount Hebron's nationally prominent girls lacrosse team.

High Schools

March 27, 2002|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

More than a decade ago, Brooke Kuhl-McClelland looked like she might be well on her way to becoming, in her own words, the best tap-dancing attorney in town.

In her heart, she was always going to be a dancer. She couldn't deny that. When she was growing up in Lutherville, coaches begged her to come out for their teams, but nothing quite grabbed her like dancing, and even the hours on top of hours of classes only served to whet her appetite.

But eventually, as the girl became a woman, it came time to earn a living. And if there was one thing she could do almost as well as a jazz step, it was argue.

"My mom used to tell me if I said something was white, and she said it was black, eventually she'd just throw up her hands and say `OK, Brooke, it's white,' just so I would stop bugging her," Kuhl-McClelland said. "I've always loved to argue, so I thought I might want to be a lawyer."

So this is what happened: The young woman with a passion for pirouettes and John Grisham books weighed happiness in one hand, financial security in the other, rolled the dice and decided to become a high school dance teacher. She paid her dues, forged bonds with sweat and tears and earned the trust of an army of kids and administrators. Eventually, she nailed down a permanent job at Hammond High School, and built a respected high school dance program.

And that is how Brooke Kuhl-McClelland, 37, who never played organized lacrosse, came to be the head coach of the Mount Hebron Vikings, who just may be the best high school girls lacrosse team in the country this year.

Make sense? If it doesn't, don't worry. Some days Kuhl-McClelland still has a hard time believing it all.

"For a while there, it was all pretty surreal," she says. "When I got the call from [former Mount Hebron coach] Chris Robinson saying, `I'd like to congratulate you on being the new varsity lacrosse coach at Mount Hebron,' I hung up the phone, looked at my husband, Tommy, and said `Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into?' "

What she's gotten into is a dynasty that doubles as a pressure cooker. With nine state championships in the past 10 years, Mount Hebron girls lacrosse has become an institution. And the Vikings haven't set lacrosse standards for just Maryland, but for the United States as well.

Two of the past three years, Mount Hebron has been recognized as Lacrosse Magazine's No. 1 team in the country. In the six previous years under Robinson, the Vikings have gone 107-8-1, which came on the heels of eight years under the program's patriarch, P.J. Kesmodel, who went 114-12. Under Robinson, the team went more than three years - and 63 games - without a loss before falling to St. Stephen's/St. Agnes of Alexandria, Va., 10-9, last May.

Mount Hebron has become a pipeline for girls who want to play college lacrosse, with seven current seniors signed to play for Division I schools next season, a number not particularly high for the Vikings. (Ten seniors from the 1998 team played in college.) Year in and year out, the Vikings have marched on as if guided by the steady cadence of a bass drum, thumping opponents from both public and private schools one after another, never stopping once to rebuild or regroup.

A new era

But this season marks the beginning of a new era for the program. Kuhl-McClelland has never been a varsity head coach before, and there are few jobs as difficult as leading the Vikings. "We had a few undefeated seasons where, at the end of the year, you didn't feel like you were all that successful because a few people were still upset with you if things didn't work out for their daughter," said Robinson. "It takes some adjusting to."

Kuhl-McClelland is also the first woman to hold the position, and will be coaching girls who have been coached by men for nearly all of their lives.

"When the coaches first talked to me about [an assistant coaching] job at Hebron, I couldn't understand why they would want me," said Kuhl-McClelland, a Vikings assistant for two years. "I mean, they could go out and get so many big-name former players, I wondered, `What do I really have to offer them?' "

Plenty, it turns out.

"I love Brooke," said Mount Hebron junior Kristen Waagbo, an honorable mention preseason All-American. "Off the field, she's like a best friend. She's not an adult to me, but she's not a kid either. She's something in-between. She knows when to push us and be serious, but she knows when to joke around. I think she's definitely forced us to stay at the same level, or even made us go up a notch."

But it wasn't just good fortune that gave Kuhl-McClelland the chance to follow two revered coaches at Mount Hebron. It involved a lot of hard work and sleepless nights, and it likely will involve more of both. But more than a decade ago, who could have predicted how high the dancer would soar?

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