Vikings keep shining through reign clouds

High schools: A first-year coach piloted Mount Hebron through some minor turbulence to a 19-0 record and another state girls lacrosse crown.

High Schools

May 29, 2002|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

Can you see them? Have you noticed? Brooke Kuhl-McClelland wants to know. She's adamant. Because this stress, this pressure, it can make you crazy. If you don't take the time to joke about it, to point out your new gray hairs and wear them like a badge of honor, she knows crazy just might win. And she's not going to let that happen.

"I swear, every time I look, I think I see another gray hair," said Kuhl-McClelland, the first-year coach of the Mount Hebron girls lacrosse team, which just wrapped up a 19-0 season by winning its sixth consecutive state title, the 10th in 11 years. "But the stress is just part of it. I knew that coming in. But I also knew I didn't get hired to do this job halfway."

She got hired to win, to win big, and she pulled it off. Along the way, she juggled a few egos, stepped on a few toes, fought the urge to pull out her hair and laughed more times than she can remember. So when the final horn sounded last week and Mount Hebron began to celebrate an 18-7 win over Annapolis in the Class 3A-2A state title game, Kuhl-McClelland felt pride, joy and a lion's share of relief.

"It hasn't quite set in yet," she said. "We did what we set out to do: finish the year undefeated and win a 10th state title. But I'm not sure the girls realize what they've accomplished. It's something you almost need to distance yourself from in order to really savor. I guess if we really are a dynasty, then I feel blessed to have helped keep it going."

It wasn't a flawless fairy tale, but what fun would that have been? After all, the bumpy rides are the fun ones, the ones you remember the most. There is talk already that this year's team might have been the best Mount Hebron team ever, but even still there were times when its focus wavered.

During a rough two-week stretch late in the season when tensions were high, two of the Vikings' best players bickered so much during a playoff game, it deteriorated into tears. A fed-up Kuhl-McClelland told them to stay in the locker room until they worked out their problems, because the rest of the team was taking the field without them.

"I don't want anyone to get the idea that we're some big, happy family all the time," Kuhl-McClelland said. "We're not the Brady Bunch. We had a few personality conflicts. But every team does. Sometimes luck gets you through it."

And sometimes your coach has to help get you through.

"Is Liberty really for real?" senior Chrissy Nicolaus asked Kuhl-McClelland in midseason. "Or are you just telling us that?"

You better believe they are, Kuhl-McClelland shot back, but secretly she started to wonder if her team had grown complacent. "You can only tell them that everyone is gunning for them so many times before they suspect you're just crying wolf."

Liberty gave the Vikings a heck of a scare in the regional final before losing, 11-7, and without the stellar play of goalie Cindy Nicolaus, Chrissy's twin sister, Kuhl-McClelland might have been left wondering just how it all went wrong.

The Vikings didn't have quite as tough a test in the state championship game, though Annapolis pushed them.

"It was nice that we had to play hard all game," Kristen Waagbo said after the state final. "The starters got to play most of the second half, and we still got a big enough lead that our bench could play at the end."

In fact, it's the total blowouts that caused problems. During Mount Hebron's 19-5 semifinal win over Catonsville, an adult (but not a parent) in the Mount Hebron section yelled at Kuhl-McClelland to put in her second string. They work hard too, he yelled. Quit cheating them. Give them a chance to play.

"I do have rabbit ears, and I hear a lot of that stuff," Kuhl-McClelland said. "Normally, I don't let it bother me. But that one really upset me, because right after that, one of my second-stringers, Stephanie Bissett, said, `Oh God, Brooke, please don't put us in just because that guy said that.'

"It didn't offend me, but it offended the kids on the bench. They don't want to feel like they're going in the game just because someone yells from the stands. But that's what happens. They end up insulting the kids they think they're helping."

Kuhl-McClelland was feeling that pressure and much more. She was the first female lacrosse coach ever at Mount Hebron, and she had not played the sport in high school or college. How would the community react if, on her watch, Goliath tripped and fell?

Yet it never happened. The Vikings kept on rolling, and perhaps because of that, she earned the parents' complete devotion.

"Mount Hebron parents are very well-versed in lacrosse," Kuhl-McClelland said. "Sometimes they see things I might not even see. It's good to get some feedback. Every now and then, you get a person who's a little upset about something, but you can't let it get to you. They hired me to be the coach, and, ultimately, I'm the one that has to make those decisions."

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