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April 14, 2015

Senior Morgan Stephens has quite a reputation. The 2014 All-American was the lone Cavalier voted to the preseason All-ACC team and is one of three UVa players on the Tewaaraton Watch List. Stephens is known as a lightning-fast threat to score on the fast break and a fiercely-competitive lock-down defender. This reputation is hardly a recent development.

“Growing up I was very competitive,” Stephens said. “I played a lot with my older brother, Michael, and his friends. Most of my friends were boys, so I was always really tough. I was always really fast, too. Our dad would always have Michael and me race in the backyard. I would beat him and he would get really mad, because I was younger and a girl, and he would throw stuff down on the ground. It was funny.

“I also liked to play street football when I was little with the kids in the neighborhood, so I liked tackling and hitting people. I remember begging my parents to let me try out for the football team in third grade, but I didn’t.” Her parents, Bill and Tish Stephens, may not have allowed their third-grader to play football, but their daughter was a seasoned lacrosse veteran by the time they shot down that request.

“I started playing on a co-ed team when I was in kindergarten,” Stephens recalled. “The father of one of my good friends introduced it to me because it was new in my area. My brother Michael was also on the team. There were no rules. I had a boy’s stick and you pretty much just ran around. No one could catch and no one could throw. I played with boys until the third grade and then it was split into girls’ and boys’ teams.”

Michael played lacrosse for only a year or two, choosing to focus instead on swimming. His little sister also followed him into the pool, with a literal push from her father, Bill.

“We joined the pool and when I was four,” Stephens recalled. “When I was six, my dad took my brother to club team practice and I went along. My dad kept asking if I wanted to do join them as well, but I was kind of scared and I really didn’t want to do it. He left me at the pool, drove home, got my stuff and kind of just pushed me in. He said, `You’re going to try this today.’ I ended up being really good at it. They moved me from the worst-beginner lane to the lane with the older kids. I started competitive swimming after that.”

Captivated by Michael Phelps’ Olympic performances, Stephens initially dreamed of becoming an Olympic swimmer.

“Going to different meets when I was younger and seeing all of the older swimmers who were making Olympic trials, it was something I dreamed of doing,” Stephens recalled. “The closest I came was a first-place finish at the Junior Olympics when I was 12.”

As a freshman in high school, Stephens had to make a choice between the two sports, deciding to hang up the goggles and the Olympic dreams and instead focus on lacrosse.

Though she may not be headed to the Olympics, Stephens is on the cusp of the lacrosse equivalent. Last June, she was named to the 2014-15 U.S. Women’s National Team.

“In high school I tried out for the U-19 team and didn’t make it,” Stephens said. “Once the idea of making the U.S. Women’s National Team was introduced to me, I thought that would be such an awesome experience. I tried out last summer with Courtney [Swan] in a three-day-long, super intense, very hard, very competitive tryout. At this level, everyone is good, especially at that tryout. The end of the third day was when we found out whether we made it or not. Courtney and I were in the room freaking out. They were calling out numbers of the people who made it instead of names. After they were done, we had to ask, `Did you hear my number?’ We both thought we heard our numbers, but had to double check with each other that we did. It was really an awesome experience and making it with her just made it better.”

The national team met three times throughout the year for training sessions and played a few games. Stephens will have to re-try-out again this summer for consideration for the 2015-16 team and then again in the summer of 2016 if she wants to make the 2016-17 team that will be eligible to play in the 2017 World Cup. Growing up in Maryland, though, her lacrosse goals were a little shy of playing in a World Cup, but still quite lofty.

“In middle school, I went to Final Four games with my dad when they were in Towson, so playing in a Final Four was something I have always dreamed of doing,” Stephens said. “Last year, making it there with the team was huge. It was so cool to go from watching it in the stands to actually being there and playing in the games. And since it was in Maryland, a lot of my cousins and family and friends from high school got to come and watch it, which made it even more special.”

Of course, there is still at least one dream left for the sociology major left to fulfill before she graduates and pursues a career in coaching: hoisting a National Championship trophy on Memorial Day weekend. And before her collegiate career comes to a close next month, she wanted to thank the people most responsible for making her time at Virginia so special.

“I want to thank my parents for always being there for me and for all of the love and support they have given me as well as for all their time, hard work and sacrifices that they have made for me. I wouldn’t be anywhere without them. I don’t think they have missed a single game of my college career. I couldn’t be more lucky to have them.

“I want to thank my older brother, Michael, for being my role model. He is the most hardworking and dedicated person. His work ethic is inspiring and, as an athlete, it is something I really look up to.

“I want to thank the coaches for giving me the opportunity to come to UVa and for always challenging me and pushing me to give everything that I have. They have taught me so much and have helped me grow as a player.

“I want to thank my teammates for always having my back and making my time at UVa the most amazing experience. They motivate me each and every day. I love every single one of them and will never forget all of the times that we’ve had together.

“And finally, I would like to thank [athletic trainer] Blair [Moore] for always being there for me and putting up with me especially having to touch and wrap up my all my toes and blisters.”

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