May 10, 2014
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the winter of her junior year at Good Counsel High School in Olney, Md., Morgan Stephens spent part of her holiday break at a University of Virginia lacrosse camp. Her legs helped Stephens land a scholarship offer from the Cavaliers.
“I’m not even sure if they had seen me play prior to that camp,” Stephens said this week. “It was after that that we started talking.”
At each of her camps, UVa coach Julie Myers said, a contest is held to determine the fastest player. In December 2009, that camper was Stephens, whose speed in the Cage on a cold winter day did not escape the coaching staff’s notice.
“We were like, `We don’t even care if this kid can catch. She’s so fast, she has to come,’ ” Myers recalled.
Had Stephens, who ran indoor track at Good Counsel, not attended camp at Virginia, Myers said, “I’m not sure we would have found her and been that determined [to recruit her].” But the serendipitous discovery worked out well for both parties.
A junior who grew up in Olney, near Good Counsel, Stephens is a three-year starter for the Wahoos. Her in-season position change this spring — Stephens moved from midfield to defense — proved instrumental in the surge that carried sixth-seeded UVa to a first-round bye in the NCAA tournament.
Moving Stephens to defense has “just given everybody a chance to breathe a little bit,” Myers said. “Everybody believes so much in Morgan, and when she’s playing one-on-one, we don’t really have to slide help to her. She does such a great job that you don’t have to send that double team, which means that you’re not giving that attacker a free player to try to find.”
Stephens is fifth on the team in scoring, with 28 points on 18 goals and 10 assists, but most of that production came when she was at middie.
Still, Myers said, “she’s our fastest kid, so if she gets a clear from [goalie] Liz [Colgan], she’s got the green light to go into a fast break and see what she can do.”
Final exams ended Friday at UVa, and the first-round bye meant Myers’ players were able to finish their schoolwork in Charlottesville before the team’s first game in the NCAA tournament. That comes Sunday, when Virginia (10-8), which has won six of its past eight games, plays Princeton (12-6) at 4 p.m. in a second-round game at Klöckner Stadium. The winner advances to the NCAA quarterfinals.
This is a rematch of the teams’ March 15 meeting at Princeton. Stephens scored four goals in that game, but the `Hoos fell 15-13, a loss that dropped their record to 3-5.
Not long after, the coaching staff moved Stephens to defender, a position she had played periodically during her UVa career. She did not object.
“If I had to pick, I’d rather play defense over offense,” said Stephens, who enjoys the challenge of trying to stop attackers. “It’s a little hard at first, just because I’ve grown up playing midfield and like playing on both sides of the ball. But playing on one side, you definitely get to focus on one spot, and it makes it a lot easier.”
Myers said: “She’s our best defender, and when you’re a middie you’re rotating on and off the field, and when you’re playing defense, you’re doing it while you’re a little bit more winded than we wanted. And she really gave us the best chance to be able to match up with the primary attacker from the other team.
“If we needed to shut somebody down, Morgan was the best player to be able to do that, because she’s so quick and she’s so strong, and she takes really good lines on the ball. So as lots and lots of shots were being taken [by opponents], we needed to strengthen our defense, we needed to keep Morgan on the field, and the thing that made the most sense was taking her out of the midfield and putting her back in that defensive spot.”
Athletically, Myers said, “I would say there’s nothing the kid can’t do. She’s a really good athlete, and she keeps it simple, so she always has a chance at great success.”
Stephens, who chose UVa over Florida, sees reminders of home regularly around Grounds. Virginia’s football team included five Good Counsel graduates last season — E.J. Scott, Vincent Croce, Andre Levrone, Kirk Garner and Brendan Marshall — and Faith Randolph, who was a class behind Stephens at Good Counsel, is a standout guard on the women’s basketball team.
In women’s lacrosse, this is the Cavaliers’ 19th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. That streak appeared to be in peril after UVa’s March 15 loss at Princeton, but since then “I feel like everyone’s just been working so much harder,” said Stephens, a sociology major.
“I don’t really know what went on at the beginning of the year. We kind of got ourselves into a big [hole], but I feel like we play well under pressure, when we know we need to get that win. I feel like that’s when we’ve come together.”