How Dreams Come True
Lacrosse is One Part Perseverance, One Part Strength of Heart
Playing lacrosse in college was one of my biggest childhood aspirations - a close second to becoming Julia Roberts in the movie Pretty Woman and being swept off into the sunset by the man of my dreams. The lacrosse dream has come true.
by Kristin Hagert
After teaming up with the St. Mary's Saints, NBT summer intern Kristin Hagert was labeled a traitor by her former Davidsonville Little League teammates.
I check the ball out of her stick, grab it in mid-air, pull it into a cradle and look up to see the field. "One more pass down field," I tell myself. "The ball moves quicker than I do."
Across the field, Nora stays wide until we make eye contact. I fire a crisp pass to her outstretched stick, hear the ball snap and settle into the leather strings. Keeping a steady sprint parallel to Nora, I can see Megan maneuvering a goal cut. I run to help out, knowing all the while I will not be used again on this fast-break play.
Nora rips a long pass to Megan, who gives with it and pulls the ball into a cradle. Her eyes intense and goal-hungry, she pivots swiftly around her defender. The play ends as Megan sticks the ball, behind her back, past the unsuspecting goalie, into the upper right-hand corner of the goal.
The middle- to high-school players bordering the perimeter of the field erupt with applause and cheers.
In these four-day Loyola University lacrosse camps, we cover the basics: catching, throwing, cradling, shooting and picking up ground balls. The young players learn their 'transition' game, getting the ball from defense to attack.
With cutting and picking to get open, lacrosse is something like basketball. Eleven players - defense, offense and midfield - drive a heavy, rubber ball down the field and, they hope, past a vigilant goalie into the net. They play armed with straight wooden or plastic sticks ending in V-shaped nets not so big as a baseball glove. We spend a lot of time on defensive positioning and mobility on attack as they are key points to the women's game.
This camper-counselor game is my favorite part of each camp. It is so rewarding to have the campers cheer for us, the counselors, as well as for their gutsy fellow campers giving their all to get just one goal. The game is entertaining for them and us. We're able to do trick shots and fun plays, parts of the game that don't fly with our usual Division I college lacrosse competition.
Not to say that these 12- to 14-year-olds are lacking talent. The Annapolis/Baltimore area is known throughout the nation for breeding men and women lacrosse players, and players learn the skills early on. In Anne Arundel County alone there are at least 10 Little League groups, each from its own area from north to south. Three different levels - pee-wees, midgets and juniors - in boy's and girl's lacrosse programs make ample opportunities for young athletes to play where they're able and comfortable.
"This area produces some great players," says Hugh Hagert, my father and former Little League coach. "I feel lucky to have coached my son and daughter from Little League to high school, and therefore many other young athletes who have gone on to make names for themselves as scholar-athletes in college."
Like these kids, I grew up playing soccer, basketball and lacrosse. As one of the biggest tomboys in Riva, I made dangling from trees, building forts in the woods and fishing for salamanders under logs my hobbies - outside of sports. I was one of the guys in the neighborhood, despite my gender, and I loved every minute of it.
Sports were my passion then, and my love for them has only grown over the years. I say that I love sports because no matter who you are or how good you may become, you must be passionate about the sport that you play in college or you will not survive.
Playing lacrosse in college was one of my biggest childhood aspirations - a close second to becoming Julia Roberts in the movie Pretty Woman and being swept off into the sunset by the man of my dreams. Until that happens, and I'm still waiting, that lacrosse dream has come true. I play Division I women's lacrosse for the Greyhounds of Loyola College.
These girls have great potential. If they choose to do so, each and every one of them could play lacrosse at the college level. With such a broad field of competition - Division I, II and III - opportunities are knocking. Many of them will be able to have their cake and eat it too, getting both what they want in a college or university - academics, size of school, distance from home and of course, tuition - and the level of competition they want to play.
I love seeing these young girls so happy and interested in the sport. Innocent and carefree, they are intent on learning the game. After Megan's goal, they huddle to figure out what play to run.
The campers on the sidelines are rooting for both teams. The sun is bright, the turf is hot and the slightest breeze comes to our rescue.
Only three minutes left of show-boating for the counselors. I wish this moment could last forever.
Hagert's father, Hugh, coached her Little League team.
From Carefree to College
I started my lacrosse career playing for the Davidsonville Gators Little League team, learning persistence and coaching ins and outs from Coach Hagert, my dad. As the coach, he was good at being serious when necessary, fun when we needed a break and inspirational when we needed a win.
He was lucky to have our team; we made his job look easy. We were one of the top two teams in the league. We came up against the St. Mary's Saints, of Annapolis, for the championship game each year without fail. Year after year we would compete against the Saints, developing a rivalry that carries on today.
I am not sure whether it was the talent that I admired or the competition, but after six years of Gators lacrosse I became a traitor (as the Davidsonville girls used to call me). I headed to St. Mary's for high school.
As we resume play for the final three minutes of game time, one of the counselors from the University of North Carolina grabs the ball out of the air and heads towards our opposing goal. The girls sprinting to keep up with her and play defense are in that transitional period I was in not long ago, between middle and high school.
Talking to my young opponent, after the UNC girl sticks the goal with ease, I learn that she is a 14-year-old from Severna Park. She has been playing for four years but is dreading lacrosse try-outs at Severna Park High School. Confident and reassuring, I tell her that she has nothing to worry about. "Just play your best," I say, passing on the routine advice my parents still offer me. I keep my own high school experience to myself.
Six years ago, I shared her feelings exactly. St. Mary's High School was the best school academically and athletically, and it had the best lacrosse talent in the area, but it was also my first run-in with obstacles. At St. Mary's, I traveled a bumpy road in pursuit of my lacrosse dream.
As a freshman I made the Fresh/Soph team while friends and teammates I thought not much more talented made the JV and Varsity teams. I remember how confident I felt when I went to read my name off of the list of those who made each team. I also recall fighting back the tears of discouragement when I walked away from that list.
Being cut from a team is part of the game, but it's crushing. It was my first encounter with the politics of athletics. You can't compete with people other people know. You also cannot move forward without practice and you will never get better without a challenge. Through perseverance and practice, I endured. Voted Fresh/Soph team captain that year, I learned a lot. Most importantly, I learned not to give up.
It turns out I sped through St. Mary's successfully, jumping to Varsity my sophomore year and becoming captain of the Saints my final year. That final high school year I was on the top of the world. Our talent was incredible, and our record showed it. We went undefeated the entire season, going on to win the Catholic League championship. I remember that day.
It was one of the last days of my high school career. The seniors were antsy with graduation practice and prom excitement. The team hurried through the school day, leaving early to travel and play Notre Dame Prep (in Baltimore) for the championship game.
Both of our teams were undefeated for the season, and we knew that our work was cut out for us. As most of the senior girls were having their hair and nails done, primping for the prom that night, we were running, sprinting, sweating and gutting it out for a win. It was worth the effort as the final whistle blew: Saints victorious by just one goal.
I will never forget my last high school game. I also won't forget racing home, adrenaline pumping, jumping in and out of the shower, throwing on my long prom dress and flying over to my friend's house to meet my date. I had to plop flowers in my hair to hide that it was still wet. I was lucky not to have a black eye this time, the way I did for three homecoming dances.
Unlike men, women lacrosse players wear no equipment except for the rubber mouthguard that protects from stray balls or out-of-control checks. Some say that no equipment is an advantage, as it does not weigh us down or slow our speed. I agree, though I have had my share of black eyes, fat lips and bloody fingers.
What a day. What a win. What a senior year. It was beautiful. From Fresh/Soph captain to Varsity captain: I think I proved my talent, and I was proud.
My heart sinks as the camper-counselor game comes to a close. The final damage - 8 to 0, a counselor victory. Both teams huddle for a cheer and line up for a shake of hands.
Diane Aikens, head lacrosse coach at Loyola College (and of course, my own coach) says with a smile, "It's a good thing you guys didn't lose." We giggle and congratulate one another.
As the campers collect around the water coolers for a drink, Diane gives us our instructions for the remainder of the day. We're assigned goal cages and a specific skill to teach as the campers rotate through eight different stations before dinner. As a defender myself, I take one-on-one defense.
I get excited when I see my first 14 girls jogging in my direction. Used to attending lacrosse camps myself at their age, I can't get over the accomplished, yet nervous, feeling of being on the other side of the fence. I am the coach. These girls are learning from me. They are looking up to me. They are intimidated by me. It is a strange feeling to get used to.
Trying to break the ice before the session starts, to make them - as well as myself - feel a little more comfortable, I ask if anyone has any good jokes for me. A few of the girls volunteer: one about three penguins and another about Bill Clinton. With smiles on their faces, it is a good time to begin. As I talk about defensive positioning, staying low on the balls of your feet and keeping your stick in the passing lane, my mind wanders back to how I got to be coaching the game I love so much.
At the end of high school, the pressures of playing well for college coaches, the nerve-wracking recruitment process and, of course, the lifetime decision of choosing the best school were not what I had pictured in my dream.
Being recruited is something in itself. I looked at many schools, taking into account academics, size and reputation. Then I looked at the lacrosse programs and spoke to coaches. But under NCAA women's lacrosse regulations, college coaches cannot contact potential recruits until July 1 of the summer before their senior year of high school. Before that date, players can only communicate through letters. After months of talking to college coaches - most often they reach out to you - players can make five official visits to schools of their choice. You meet the team, see the school, talk to academic and athletic advisors and learn about college social life for the first time.
Recruits also learn about the intensity of sports at the college level. Division I is the highest level of college competition. Teams at this level have the highest probability of making it to the NCAA Tournament. This tournament is the Wimbledon of lacrosse. Division II and III teams, although competitive, are not as intense as Division I. After Division III competition, colleges field club and intramural teams for competitive fun.
Among Division I colleges, locally quite a few rank in the nation's Top 10. Highly competitive teams in our region include Loyola College, the University of Maryland, the University of North Carolina, Penn State, Johns Hopkins, James Madison University, Duke, Towson State, Princeton, Georgetown and many others. Division I has a broad spectrum of teams, some more competitive than others.
After taking my visits to Penn State, Vanderbilt, Brown and Washington and Lee, I decided Loyola's Division I women's lacrosse program would be the next step up in the game of lacrosse that I am so passionate about. With Loyola it seemed like all of the puzzle pieces finally fit together. As a home-body, I wanted to be close to home. The school is well known, the campus is beautiful and the competition cannot be beat.
One catch: I was under the naive illusion that I would get to college and just play. That's not how it works. Nothing comes easily in this game but when it does come, it puts all the hard work into perspective.
My opportunity, my dream of playing lacrosse in college raced my way and I grabbed hold of it with both hands. It is a good thing, too, because it has been quite a ride.
Finishing my lecture on one-on-one defense, I quickly put the girls into a fast-paced drill to keep them moving. An ex-camper myself, I know what the girls want. I used to hate standing around in a slow-moving drill.
I stand and watch now, positively critiquing them when possible but ultimately letting them play. "They can only stand so much talk, you have to keep them focused," I tell myself. That's all they really want to do anyway: play.
Watching them, I think of the futures that they have ahead and the opportunities that will slowly present themselves in women's lacrosse.
Loyola University's lacrosse camps draw hundreds of middle and high school girls, each of them a strong enough player to climb the ladder to college play.
You come from a brilliant high school career as the big fish in a little pond only to get to college, where you're a tiny minnow again. It's a slap in the face. It's like going from the top of the totem pole to the weeds at the bottom. It was my freshman year of high school all over again. I had to prove myself and my talent - on top of making friends, fitting in and doing well in school.
As a college freshman, I learned. I played when possible. I yearned to be in the big games, and with Loyola ranked fourth in the nation, those games were big. I know I was part of the team, doing my best. But not being on the field during such huge victories was heart-breaking. You work so hard and, at the time, it feels like it's all for nothing.
In retrospect, it was heart-breaking not only for me but also for my parents. My mom once told me that "you laugh your children's laughs and cry your children's tears."
And it is true.
Coming off of the sidelines into the arms of my parents was too often the routine. They would say, "Maybe next time. Keep your head up." But their words could not disguise their grim faces or my disheartened spirit.
Even so, I now know that I was not, and will never be, alone on that sideline.
I know my parents will always be there to comfort and congratulate. But they are not there to see the busy schedule that I tackle on a daily basis. A lot goes on behind the scenes of college play. Experiencing it first hand, you come to learn a thing or two.
First, everyone is good and competition is overwhelming. It is not like high school, with two or three stand-out players. Even among your own team members, who are your friends and family, the level of competition is high. You could go to a party with a few team members one night, ask them personal advice about your strained relationship with your boyfriend the next morning, then compete for the same starting position that afternoon at practice.
The first day at college, I was so fortunate to have a team of 25 new friends there for me if I needed them. That's a luxury not many college freshmen have. But once you step on the playing field, friend or foe, it is pure competition with no holds barred.
Second, you learn quickly that who plays all comes down to who is playing best at a particular moment - and who wants it more. Having a phenomenal day is noted; having an off-day is noticed as well. The coaches do what they can with every individual, for the team is their family too. But I have seen seniors who have started for years get benched in the middle of their final year, and I have seen freshmen with no experience step up and start. It all comes down to who is playing well and who is consistent.
Third, unlike Little League and high-school ball, college competition and beyond is a business, a business of investment and winning. Your team invests time, energy, teaching and in some cases money, while you are expected to buy into the program and begin to produce.
You could compare it to a sales position. If you don't bring in the money, you are expendable. As an athlete at this level, if you are not producing, someone is right behind you ready to fill your position. It is a scary part of college athletics, but it is also what keeps you on your toes and motivated to excel.
The whistle blows as the session comes to an end, and I bring everyone in for a quick talk before they move on to the shooting station. I ask for questions and offer clarification of things that I noticed during the drill. The eyes of the girls are intense and focused on me. They seem to be listening to every word I say, and I know that this particular group really learned what I had to teach. You never know what the next group will be like.
I take the chance to offer a little advice and to compliment their play
"You guys did a great job. Your positioning was good and you listened to my corrections. If you have any questions on defense during the next couple days, don't be afraid to ask me. That is why I am here. Don't forget that practice makes perfect. You may not catch on to the skills of defense overnight. But I promise that if you practice, they will come. Always give 110 percent and you will do just fine."
In both high school and college, Hagert, here playing for Loyola's greyhounds, had to work her way into the foreground.
As a sophomore, I played. I got into most games and enjoyed my first Division I start. I remember when Diane came up to me that day before practice. We were flying to Brown University the next day to stay overnight and play the following afternoon. I was stretching with the team.
Leaning forward to stretch hamstrings sore from sprinting the day before, I wondered how my legs would make it through another day. Everyone around me was talking about their new school schedules and the upcoming party at the girls' house.
I spotted Diane trotting up to the team, smiling as if to say, "Another great spring day of practice!" She said hello to everyone, told us a new joke and jumped into a story about how she finally "disposed" of her daughter's mischievous hamster. It was just another practice day. That is - until Diane moved in my direction.
With my head down, I was still concentrating on my fatigued legs. She stood about a foot away. In a low voice, not to disturb the team bonding, she called me by my nickname and whispered, "Hags, you are going to be starting at point [a low defensive position] tomorrow. You've been playing well and you deserve it." With that she walked away.
I never even looked up at her. But with two tiny sentences so easily said, my heart skipped a beat, a smile was glued to my face and tears collected in the corners of my eyes.
The memory of dragging myself to the turf at 5am one fall morning and struggling through a two-hour penalty run - not only to learn discipline but also to lose my dinner from the previous night - flashed through my mind. I realized a few things.
The 5am wake-up call to a two-hour sprint/conditioning work-out can only be withstood if you love what you are working toward. The body-altering weight-lifting program that changes you from the figure of a girl to a machine - what they call an "athlete" - is only willingly done if you love what you're doing it for. The mind-boggling struggle between three final exams, two final papers and traveling to Dartmouth for a game in the second round of the NCAA Tournament - in a three day span - can only be juggled if you love the sport that makes your life that much more difficult. Accepting the amount of playing time that you are granted and a limited social life can only be done out of love. Out of love for lacrosse, I willingly submit myself to this rigorous college routine.
All that hard work finally paid off. Tears of pain, frustration and fatigue had brought about tears of joy and pride. I had worked to improve my skills for 11 years, and I was living my dream.
As I well know, talent does not happen overnight. As a junior next year I will improve, moving up on the production ladder and learning even more than in my past 11 years of play. Hoping and fighting for more playing time, I will continue to push myself.
You have to love in order to endure. This dream of mine has become a life lesson. I've learned to fight, to not give up and to build confidence. I have gained a love of competition. I have learned to not believe or trust just anyone (even if they are part of the business), to step up to challenges and to follow my dreams. Playing college lacrosse was my dream. It has come true.
Before college, I was not prepared for the physical and academic work. I also was not ready to face the difficulty of keeping my head up in defeat and the caution of not crossing the fine line between confidence and cockiness when victorious. But my parents told me to pursue my goals in life and to always give my best in the process. For that I was prepared.
Everyone knows about the U.S. Women's World Cup Championship win over China a few weeks ago. Whether you are an athlete or not, that game was amazing, making giant steps for the U.S., the sport of soccer and women's sports. I only hope that those younger girls out there trying to decide whether to play soccer or lacrosse will still give lacrosse a shot.
Like soccer, lacrosse has a U.S. Women's team. I have not settled on my future. Trying out for the U.S. Team is a possibility. Another avenue is to coach at the high school or college level. Then there is the possibility of becoming a sports writer. But the temptation of relaxing and taking time off from sports is also inviting - for a little while. However, I think the love of game and competition that drives me will not let me do that.
The love of game is hard to put into words. It is a force that motivates me to enjoy what I do and to try to excel. It has been a part of me since early childhood. Sports and competition are what I know, whether it be soccer, tennis, basketball or lacrosse. The relationship between teammates and the camaraderie within a team are treasures I can't find anywhere else. I can't put a name or a price to it.
Who knows what the future holds after the next two years? I do know that, as in the past, my future will revolve around sports.
It is hard to weigh the cost of a dream and the satisfaction of reaching it. Seeing the next group of girls jog their way over to me, ready to learn whatever it is I may be able to teach, I feel accomplished and proud. I realize that the satisfaction of reaching your goal in life is priceless.
| Issue 31 |
Volume VII Number 31
August 5-11, 1999
New Bay Times
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