Moorestown High School girls are leaders in lacrosse

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In 1992, high school girls’ lacrosse looked much different than it does today.

Players didn’t wear goggles and still used wooden sticks. The game was much slower, and there were no rules regulating the number of players on offense or defense.

In New Jersey, there were few schools sponsoring girls’ lacrosse. Only about 50 had NJSIAA-sanctioned teams. Because so few schools had teams, there were no group or sectional playoffs. There was one statewide tournament at the end of the year, with the winner being declared the overall state champion.

That same year, Deanna Knobloch, a former Moorestown girls’ lacrosse player, took over as head coach of the Moorestown High School team. The Quakers were already a powerhouse after winning four championships in a five-year span from 1987 to 1991. Just 22 years old at the time, Knobloch was taking over for Lynn Schilling, the nine-year head coach who guided the Quakers to seven state championship games.

“All I can basically remember is that I was young and scared,” Knobloch said. “I was taking over a state championship program, one that I had played for, and replacing my high school coach whom I respected and looked up to.”

Fast forward to 2015 and the game of girls’ lacrosse looks remarkably different in New Jersey. Players are required to wear goggles, nearly all of them wield plastic sticks and the game has sped up considerably. The sport has exploded in the state, with 200 schools fielding girls’ lacrosse teams. The added number of programs has allowed the NJSIAA to add sectional and group brackets to the playoffs.

Through all of these changes, there has been a constant: Moorestown has been a contender nearly every season. In the last 24 years, the Quakers have won 14 state championships, including an unprecedented 10 straight from 2000 to 2009 and the last three in a row from 2012 to 2014. The program has won 21 titles in its history, more than double any other school in the state.

On the national level, Moorestown ranked in the top 10 in the country nine times from 2005 to 2014, according to laxpower.com’s power rankings, including being named the top team in the country in 2013.

The Quakers are also known for long winning streaks, having won 228 games against New Jersey schools in a stretch from 2000 to 2010. In 2015, the program set a new record for the longest overall win streak in New Jersey girls’ lacrosse history, winning 88 consecutive games before falling to Ridgewood on April 25.

The success of Moorestown girls’ lacrosse isn’t the work of any one person. Countless players, parents, coaches, alumni and other volunteers have contributed to the program’s championships and the aura surrounding the team. Together, this lacrosse family is responsible for having developed the most prestigious high school girls’ lacrosse program in New Jersey.

Husband and wife guide Moorestown to greatness

In the first eight years of Knobloch’s tenure as Moorestown head coach, the Quakers won one state championship, in 1995.

In 2000, a familiar face joined Knobloch on the sidelines. It was her husband, K.C.

The two have been married since 1995, but it took a few years before K.C. joined his wife’s staff. Knobloch said K.C. was always trying to give advice and offer input after games.

“At first, I would say, ‘what do you know about girls’ lacrosse? You never played the sport,’” Knobloch said. “It got to the point where he’d be hiding out in trees during practice and watching. I thought this was crazy and I just brought him on.”

K.C. was very eager to get involved from the beginning. Despite not playing lacrosse, he committed himself to learning the sport and drew upon his knowledge of other sports to enhance his ability to create plays

“When I wasn’t involved, she would come home,” K.C. said. “I would draw from the sports that I played like football and basketball and things like that. I would say, ‘why don’t you try this?’”

The first year K.C. was on the staff was the first of 10 straight state championships for Moorestown. Knobloch said the team benefited greatly from K.C.’s input right away. The two have different strengths and weaknesses, allowing them to complement each other perfectly.

“I’m more of the mother figure, the disciplinarian, the motivator,” Knobloch said. “He’s the strategizer on the field, the one who puts the Xs and Os together.”

“It’s kind of like the yin and the yang,” K.C. said.

K.C.’s effect on the team is apparent at both practices and games. He can be seen breaking down offensive sets during 7-on-7 drills at practice and moving players around the formation to position them perfectly.

The couple’s ability to work together has not only been a great combination for the Quakers, but for all of South Jersey. The Knoblochs teamed up to help launch and run the South Jersey Select Lacrosse Club, a team hosting top players from across the area.

K.C. is just grateful his wife has given him the opportunity to coach, and said the experience has not just made the two better coaches, but also a stronger couple.

“It’s been a wonderful experience,” he said “Ninety-nine percent of the time we get along. Not too many married couples can work together.”

“I’m so grateful that we had the opportunity to work together,” Knobloch said.

Feeder programs building foundation for success

In Moorestown, lacrosse is played from a very young age thanks to the Moorestown Lacrosse Club. The growth of the club and the township’s recreation program has created one of the deepest feeder programs around.

Kids from third to eighth grade can play lacrosse through either the recreation department league or the Moorestown Lacrosse Club. Competitive play begins in third and fourth grade as the kids play in the township’s recreation department. In fifth grade, the girls move up to Moorestown Lacrosse Club, a travel program where the level of competition picks up and the girls are prepared for the high school level.

Knobloch said the feeder programs are crucial to the team’s success because the team is unable to recruit from other towns.

To help prepare the younger girls for high school, the varsity team hosts two days of clinics each year for fifth- and sixth-grade players. Knobloch said the clinics are extremely important in preparing the younger girls for the high school level.

“The younger girls get to meet and work with the high school players whom they already look up to,” Knobloch said. “During those clinics, they are taught the high school cheers and what it means to play for Moorestown. The young girls feed off the enthusiasm of these high school players, and the foundation is set. One day, they hope to play and win just like them.”

Each year, the high school team also hosts a Youth Appreciation Day game where the younger players are honored at halftime and are invited to watch the high school team in action.

Even before third grade, girls in Moorestown are already looking forward to playing lacrosse. Maggie Handlan, a senior on the high school team, said many of the young girls realize how big lacrosse is in town at a young age.

“I’ve been at a couple clinics at the Field House and there’s girls coming in that are 4 and 5 years old, and they say, ‘You’re from Moorestown. I can’t wait to go and play high school,’” Handlan said. “I don’t even think I picked up a stick at that age, but it’s starting earlier and earlier.”

Another senior, Adriana Pendino, said girls are clamoring to play the sport earlier than ever.

“Everyone talks about it,” Pendino said. “My little neighbor who’s about 3 years old wants to start in lacrosse. They’re trying to start it earlier and earlier as the years go on.”

Courtney Legath-Darling is Moorestown High School’s JV coach and was an All-American for the Quakers when she played for the team from 1999–2001. As successful of a player as she was, she couldn’t imagine playing lacrosse as early as some of the current players do.

“I probably started playing lacrosse in seventh grade,” Legath-Darling said.

“Now they start playing lacrosse when they’re 5, 6, 7 years old.”

The interest in Moorestown girls’ lacrosse has much to do with the tradition and mystique surrounding the high school program.

Girls’ lacrosse more than just a game in Moorestown

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Senior Melanie Becker couldn’t believe it when her family moved to Moorestown when she was in sixth grade. She had never played girls’ lacrosse and never imagined it being as big of a deal as it was in her new hometown.

“I had never played lacrosse before, but it was really big here, so I tried it out and I loved it,” she said.

Becker quickly became one of the dozens of Moorestown girls who aspire to wear the black and gold jersey at the high school level.

Each year, girls take the field with the recreation department’s lacrosse program and the Moorestown Lacrosse Club in hopes of getting to play for the high school team one day. Pendino recalls being one of those girls as a child.

“I can remember the day I got my jersey,” she said. “It’s just something that’s so special. The day I got it, I’ll never forget.”

All players who come through Moorestown know about the history and realize how much of a privilege it is to play for the team. Handlan played on the freshman team in her first year, but got to join the varsity team for playoffs and watch the Quakers win the Tournament of Champions.

“We got to experience what the varsity level was like and see that transformation from freshman to varsity,” she said.

Playing Moorestown girls’ lacrosse is completely different from any other sports team at the high school. Handlan knows the history so well, she can name the players who wore №21 before her.

“I can name the players who have worn my jersey, and I try to play as hard and match their intensity from when I watched them play as a little girl,” she said. “I also played on the varsity soccer team, and I can’t name anyone who wore the same jersey number as me.”

Pendino said playing for Moorestown girls’ lacrosse is not something to take for granted. The team is expected to win the Tournament of Champions every year.

“We have a tradition of playing for the person who wore your jersey before you and playing for the person who will wear the jersey after you,” she said. “So we play to keep the tradition alive.”

Knobloch said the players are taught what it means to play Moorestown girls’ lacrosse from their first day on the team freshman year. Each year, the team is pushed to play as hard as it can and represent the school in the same way dozens of players have done before them.

“The girls understand that it is a privilege to play for Moorestown, not a right,” she said. “We rely on the seniors to lead the way and the underclassmen to follow. Each team feeds off the previous years and puts pressure on themselves to uphold the winning tradition.”

Legath-Darling knows all about Moorestown’s winning tradition, having played on the 2000 and 2001 state championships teams. She said it doesn’t take a lot to get the message about the winning tradition across to the players. She feels they all enter the program realizing how big of a deal it is to be a Quaker.

“When they put their uniforms on, they’re so proud to have that Moorestown Lacrosse (logo) on their chest, and when they go to college to say I played for Moorestown girls’ lacrosse,” she said. “Every player goes to the next level with pride in their high school program, and that’s what Deanna instills in them.”

Moorestown goes independent, keeps winning

The 2015 season has been different from any Moorestown has experienced.

For the first time, the Quakers are not playing in a league. They are playing as an independent team after years of playing in the Burlington County Scholastic League.

Moorestown’s independent status is unique in itself. Of the 200 schools that played at least one girls’ lacrosse game in 2015 in New Jersey, only five played as an independent. Of those five, only Moorestown played a full, 18-game regular season schedule.

In the 2014–15 offseason, the Burlington County Scholastic League allowed Moorestown to opt out of the league for girls’ lacrosse and become independent. In the past, Moorestown had to play a required number of Burlington County Scholastic League teams, many of which were unable to compete with the Quakers. Lopsided scores and games decided well before halftime were the typical result. With no league games to play, Moorestown was on its own to schedule a full regular season slate.

“When we decided to go independent, we knew right away that our strength of schedule was going to improve because it meant we were going to have to reach out to primarily other New Jersey teams,” K.C. said. “Also it meant we were going to travel a little bit.”

The vast majority of Moorestown’s 2015 schedule consists of top-notch Central and North Jersey programs, including Rumson-Fair Haven, Ridgewood, Suffern and Westfield. The South Jersey teams Moorestown played were other accomplished programs, including long-time rival Shawnee, Lenape, Cherokee, Clearview and Bishop Eustace.

K.C. said this year’s schedule was much tougher than in the past.

“From top to bottom, it might be the strongest we’ve ever had,” he said. “Every game, we’re going to be tested.”

The tougher schedule hasn’t phased Moorestown too much. They finished the regular season 15–3, with their only losses coming to Ridgewood, the №1 team in New Jersey, Agnew Irwin, the №1 team in Pennsylvania, and Suffern, a top-10 team from New York. Their strength of schedule was the second hardest in New Jersey, with only Summit High School playing a tougher schedule.

One reason Moorestown has been successful against the state’s top teams for many seasons is the level at which it practices. The team doesn’t run practices at half-speed. The players are asked to give 100 percent for two hours, just as they would in a regular game.

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“When it comes to practice, we expect intensity,” Knobloch said. “We demand that every player pushes themselves to not only be the best player they can be individually, but also to make sure they are pushing their teammates to do the same. We run them hard and work them hard so they are prepared not only for every team they face, but also for the next level.”

Plays on both offense and defense are run repeatedly through practice. A good portion of practice focuses on specific plays, including offenses and motions the team eventually uses in the upcoming games.

The high level of practice isn’t just for the varsity team, either. The JV and freshmen teams are held to the same expectations.

“The freshmen do everything with the JV and varsity from day one,” Knobloch said. “Skills, strategy and mental and physical toughness are taught from their first practice as freshmen.”

In many ways, practice serves as the building block for Moorestown girls’ lacrosse. The intensity doesn’t seem to bother the players, however. They know what the expectations are when they enter the program and what is required of them to succeed.

“There’s huge expectations and a little bit of pressure, which I think is a good thing,” Pendino said. “Even if it wasn’t there from our coaching staff and from everyone, I think we would have it on ourselves.”

Former Quakers make an impact as coaches

As the years have gone on, more Moorestown lacrosse alumni have departed their hometown and have had an influence on lacrosse at the high school and college level. Multiple alumni are now running lacrosse programs and giving them the Moorestown touch.

Kateri Linville got her start in coaching at Moorestown High School about 10 years ago. She is now in her fifth season as the head women’s lacrosse coach at University of Delaware. The Blue Hens have improved since Linville took over, having registered winning seasons in each of the last three years.

Linville credits Knobloch and her experience with Moorestown lacrosse as the reason she got into coaching.

“Deanna was definitely a significant influence in wanting me to pursue coaching,” she said.

Delaware has a South Jersey flavor on its roster. Former Moorestown defender Anne Keim is in her freshman season at Delaware and is the first Quaker alum to play for the Blue Hens since Linville joined the team. Delaware also has Lenape alumni Lizzie Duffey and Nicole Donnelly and Shawnee alum Kierstan Smith.

“K.C. has been very instrumental in developing the South Jersey Select program,” Linville said. “From a recruiting perspective, they’re definitely a strong source of influence.”

Vanderbilt University is another Division I college where Moorestown has made its mark. Three players from the class of 2014, Kayla Pruitt, Jess Dadino and Frankie Angeleri, all play for the Commodores, and head coach Cathy Swezey played for the Quakers in the late 1980s.

Becker will join her former Moorestown teammates in Nashville next year. Becker said the Quaker connection helped influence her decision to attend Vanderbilt.

“It was, at first, a little shocking that four players from one school are going to the same college,” Becker said. “We’re really excited about it, just being able to take any part of the lacrosse program is really exciting. We all love MGLax so much.”

One former player who remains in Moorestown is Legath-Darling. She is in her eighth year as JV head coach and assistant varsity coach for the girls’ lacrosse team. Even though she knows she could likely become a varsity head coach for another local high school program, she has no interest in leaving her hometown.

“I’m happy to be a JV coach and varsity assistant here,” she said. “It’s so rewarding because you’re part of a program that gets to vie for a title every year. That’s so exciting. It feels unnatural for me to go somewhere else and build a program somewhere else when I’m so close to this one right here.”

Legath-Darling has also built a great relationship with Deanna and K.C. She said the two were great coaches when she played and have now become great friends.

“I love the friendships I’ve made with them from them being my coaches to today,” she said.

Knobloch said Legath-Darling has had a larger impact on Moorestown girls’ lacrosse than any other alum of the program.

“Courtney is able to teach the current players exactly what it takes to not only win the Moorestown way, but also to win with class,” Knobloch said. “She is respected, loved and revered by each and every girl in this program, and we are so fortunate to have her with us.”

Legath-Darling also serves as an example of how being a member of the Moorestown girls’ lacrosse family doesn’t end at graduation.

The Moorestown girls’ lacrosse family sticks together forever

On March 1, there was plenty of black and gold in the stands at Franklin Field on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Vanderbilt University was in town to take on the Quakers in women’s lacrosse. Five Moorestown alumni, two from Penn and three from Vanderbilt, were on the field for the respective schools in the game. Dozens of girls’ lacrosse players from the recreation program all the way up through high school came to see the former Moorestown Quakers in action.

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Such a trip is nothing unusual for the Moorestown girls. The team spends just as much time together off the field as it does on it.

Each year, the seniors adopt a handful of younger players and act in a motherly sort of role. In addition, the team takes an annual bonding trip prior to the start of the season.

Once the season begins, the team does a number of things to keep team unity strong.

“We write each other letters,” Handlan said. “We decorate the locker room. We do everything together.”

The team also receives motivation from former Moorestown players. Pendino said the team keeps in close contact with some former teammates.

“Even when girls graduate, you’re still such good friends,” Pendino said. “We all still keep in touch. We all like to be cheerleaders with each other.”

Becker said the high school team loves to keep track of what their former teammates are doing in college and cheers them on as well.

“We keep track of their season, too, and we check out their college stats,” she said.

Legath-Darling still felt an attachment to Moorestown lacrosse even after she left the area to attend Boston College in 2001.

“I think more so than any other program in the country, there’s so much more tradition in Moorestown lacrosse and this element of family,” she said. “You do things together as a family. You just feel so connected to things that when you leave. You feel like you’re always connected to it.”

The tradition of staying connected is not going to die with the current team. The team is like a special sorority. Once you take the field for Moorestown girls’ lacrosse, you’re a member of the team forever.

“You’re always an MGLaxer,” Handlan said. “You never leave the program.”

“I’ll be back until the day I die,” Pendino said.