WINTER GARDEN Mary Hopkins cannot recall having ever had this many seniors on one team. The head coach for the West Orange girls lacrosse team counts 10 seniors on her roster as the spring season is set to begin Feb. 10.
Within that group, Hopkins estimates six of those have been playing together since they were in middle school competing for the Orange Crush. Among that sub-group, three girls have inked their names to National Letters of Intent during the early-signing period last fall and will continue to play the game into college.
Now, with recruiting out of the way, Detroit Mercy signee Julia Dennis, Florida Southern signee Olivia Griffith and Rollins signee Sarah Neely are free to focus on taking the program beyond the district tournament and into the state playoffs for the first time.
“After signing, I was just really excited to make this year great,” Dennis said. “We have the opportunity and we have the talent.”
One hurdle to the postseason has already been lifted, with realignment moving Olympia — which has been to the state semifinals the past two years — into a different district. Now, West Orange should be a favorite in the six-team District 9 (FHSAA Lacrosse is a single-classification sport), although that hasn’t led to Hopkins going any easier on her girls in terms of scheduling.
In addition to its district slate, West Orange will play formidable foes, including Timber Creek, Olympia and First Academy, as well as out-of-state programs such as Potomac School (Va.).
The tough schedule is just one way Hopkins, who is also heavily involved with US Lacrosse, likes to develop her players.
“She just really puts a lot of responsibility in the player,” Dennis said. “She’s like, ‘You can be as good as you want to be — it’s up to you.’”
Beyond the team’s raw skill, though, is a level of cohesiveness that comes courtesy of years of playing together.
“Through elementary and middle school, we’ve just grown up playing together,” Griffith said. “We have a very tight chemistry.”
That same cohesiveness — and the overall maturity of a team with so many seniors — provides luxuries to Hopkins in a couple of ways. The veteran coach feels comfortable throwing new things at this team with the knowledge that they will be able pick up whatever it is quickly — especially her college-bound players.
“All three of them are sponges,” Hopkins said. “They love to learn something new.”
They are also much like an extension of the coaching staff, and Hopkins said she would like to add responsibilities to each girl gradually. That will come in handy over the season as Hopkins and her staff ease girls from the junior varsity team up to varsity to make sure the mass departure of graduating seniors following this season doesn’t set the program back.
Although district realignment has appeared to work in the Warriors’ favor, none of the team’s leaders is overly confident. West Orange has had high hopes before, and through tough losses in the district tournament, its seniors have learned how to handle the gravity of the one-and-done tournament format.
“The biggest thing is you don’t want to let outside factors get to you,” Neely said. “You can only control yourself and your team.”
Hopkins said it’s that edge of knowing they have one season left that may make this year’s version of the Warriors’ especially formidable.
“They’re a very determined group,” Hopkins said. “Their determination to be very precise in everything they do has gotten them very far.”
Contact Steven Ryzewski at [email protected].