Hopkins ready to take next big step

Blue Jays say they've done their prep work, and it's time to get championship ball rolling

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February 11, 2006|By KATHERINE DUNN | KATHERINE DUNN,SUN REPORTER

Since her freshman year at Johns Hopkins in 2003, Meagan Voight has seen a considerable change in the Blue Jays' women's lacrosse program.

That first year, the Liberty High graduate helped the Blue Jays finish No. 16. They just missed the NCAA tournament field.

The next two years, the Blue Jays earned NCAA tournament bids, but lost in the first round. They finished No. 10 both times.

Now, the Blue Jays, ranked No. 7 in the Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches' preseason poll and No. 9 in the Inside Lacrosse preseason media poll, are shooting to reach the next step, the Final Four. However, Voight said the Blue Jays really don't want to settle for that - they think they can win the national championship.

"It's been a complete 180," said Voight of the Jays' rise. "When I came here, everyone was committed and we wanted to win, but the attitude the last couple years - we're serious, we're dedicated, we're willing to put in that extra time. I think what's really changed is we want to.

"You need people that want to put in the time and aren't just there to be there. It's been really fun to be a team that just keeps getting better."

The change was perhaps easiest to see in the final days and weeks of the previous three seasons.

In 2003, the Blue Jays missed out on the 16-team NCAA field, even though they were ranked No. 16. They likely were doomed by a 10-9 loss to unranked George Mason on the final day of the season - the day before the tournament field was selected.

A year later, the Blue Jays started 10-0 but lost five of their last seven games. A 13-12 win over No. 6 Notre Dame during that stretch might have been their ticket into the tournament.

Last season, however, the Blue Jays came up with a big win at the end of the season, knocking off No. 6 Georgetown, 14-10, to seal a tournament berth.

"Our Georgetown win was so clutch for us right at the end of the season when we were looking to make it into the playoffs," said Blue Jays junior Mary Key. "We were a questionable team, but we were able to pull together and almost make ourselves a shoo-in with just the matter of where we were going to end up [in the tournament field]."

For their first-round tournament game, the Blue Jays drew No. 6 Virginia in Charlottesville. Although they played well, they made some critical mistakes late against the veteran Cavaliers, falling, 10-8, in game that was tied at 8 with three minutes left.

Despite the disappointment, the young Blue Jays took it as a learning experience and a motivating factor.

"I remember being out there and taking a look around and we had seven other freshmen at one time playing," said Kadie Stamper, a C. Milton Wright graduate and one of nine freshmen on last year's team.

"We were such a young team and understanding that even though we lost, we learned so much from that. We had Virginia out there playing all their senior players and yet we were hanging right in there. The biggest thing with us is just experience, because I think we're one of the most athletic and fast teams out there."

The Blue Jays, who need to replace only two starters this season, have come a long way as they begin just their eighth season as a Division I program.

Coach Janine Tucker said confidence has been a large part of the turnaround.

"The girls believing that we deserve to be there [in the NCAA tournament], believing that we earned it, that's huge. So much of what we do has to do with mental attitude and I see a difference in their mannerisms, in their attitude, in their self-confidence and that will go a long way for us." said Tucker, in her 13th season as head coach.

Key, a St. Mary's graduate and the leading scorer the past two seasons, said the Blue Jays have learned to bounce back.

Last season, they overcame crushing losses to Penn State and eventual national champion Northwestern later in the schedule, as well as an early setback to Ohio State.

"We were able to come back with huge wins after that [Ohio State loss] that meant a lot more in the positive column than that loss meant in the negative," Key said.

Along with that developing mental toughness, Tucker has made sure her team has the physical assets. Strong recruiting classes have made much of the difference, especially because Tucker has managed to keep much Baltimore-area high school talent close to home.

Georgetown coach Ricky Fried, a former Johns Hopkins assistant, said Tucker has the perfect tools to win the recruiting wars, including one of the nation's top academic institutions, the family-friendly atmosphere she fosters and her interest in her athletes as young women and not just lacrosse players.

Plus, Fried said, Hopkins has one big draw that such other top academic schools as Princeton, Duke and Georgetown do not.

"That is the only place you can go where lacrosse is the premier sport," Fried said. "You look at other schools that people in Baltimore consider, like Carolina or Duke, and lacrosse falls way down on the spectrum. Although it's important to us, football, basketball, soccer and even field hockey are bigger at some of those schools."

Former Maryvale All-Metro defender Cherie Michaud said that in her senior year of high school, she felt certain she would go far from home.

"I guess it was that stereotypical thing that you don't want to go to college too close to home, but now that I'm here, I'm so unbelievably happy.

"Once I realized the team dynamic, that I could be myself around these girls and the coaches, and the coaches are just like parents, I love it. Those things took priority, and I didn't think about how close it was to home. I couldn't imagine being anywhere else."

katherine.dunn@baltsun.com

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