Jersey Strong: Four local lacrosse standouts take team to national championships

Haddonfield’s McKenzie Blake, Moorestown’s Margaret Lawler, Clearview’s Hailey Russo and Lenape’s Gianna Monaco represented South Jersey as Team New Jersey claimed the All-America Lacrosse East Super Regional championship on August 28. They’ll compete in the national championship in Virginia Beach next month. (Photo provided)

From the time she suffered a season-ending ACL injury one month into her sophomore season at Haddonfield Memorial High School until the time she stepped on the field with her teammates at the Under Armor All-America East Regionals in Aston, Penn., last month, McKenzie Blake had gone 489 days between competitive games. 

It probably felt like four or five years.

“It was a breath of fresh air, back to normal, almost,” Blake said. “Everyone was a little bit rusty (at first), but it was just so fun because everyone is so good and it was so competitive, so it was so exciting playing against the best girls in the country, basically.”

Clearview’s Hailey Russo also suffered a knee injury during her sophomore year and saw her comeback season wiped out by COVID, too. Moorestown’s Margaret Lawler missed out on the opportunity to lead the Quakers to what could have been an eighth state championship in nine years. Lenape’s Gianna Monaco lost out on a chance to build off of a breakout freshman season by solidifying herself as one of the state’s top players as a sophomore.

All of that frustration boiled within, and when sports returned this summer, the quartet of South Jersey lacrosse stalwarts were born anew. They took the field together last month and took advantage of what was in front of them.

They seized the moment.

Blake, Lawler, Monaco and Russo helped fuel New Jersey to victory in the All-America Lacrosse East Super Regional Event last month. With the win, New Jersey advanced to next month’s Under Armor National Championship in Virginia Beach, with an opportunity to take the national title for the second time in the last three years. 

“We know it’s our turn to get it back, and I feel like we’re underdogs,” said Russo, who will continue her lacrosse career at the University of Maryland next fall. “I think the first year we won it everyone was kind of surprised like, ‘New Jersey?’ But I think we’re showing everybody we can be just as good as the New York areas, Long Island, Baltimore, where they are supposed to be better.”

“We want to be a force to be reckoned with,” said Lawler, who will play at Ohio State University next year. “Especially after not making it (to the finals) last year. Our whole thing is bringing that Jersey grit, after not winning last year and having the spring season canceled. We’re just trying to take advantage of every single moment we get on the field.”

Unlike high school or club teams, when teammates have years of playing every day to mesh, All-Star teams can be trickier in getting a group of individual athletes to come together as a cohesive unit. But New Jersey’s team returned a core from the team that won nationals two years ago.

Russo, Lawler, Monaco and Blake will try to lead Team NJ to its second national championship in three years before finishing their high school careers and moving on to D-I collegiate programs. (Photos provided)

And from the time they got together this summer, they were motivated and together.

“We made a group chat on Snapchat so we got to know each other there,” said Monaco, who committed to play lacrosse at the University of Florida last week. “I think since we all play at a high level, we know how to work with each other. We had a couple of practices before the tournament and we tried to bond and stay together off of the field, just so that everyone knew everyone.

“We went into it knowing it was going to be hard competition, we just had to come out every game playing our best and playing together, and I think we did that.”

After a few more practices next month, Team New Jersey will travel to the Princess Anne Athletic Complex in Virginia Beach the weekend of Oct. 17-18 to take on the best of the best from the other regions to vie for the honor of being crowned national champs. 

After having so much taken away in the last year, the girls are ready to make the most of the opportunity. Knowing how quickly and unexpectedly games and seasons can disappear, they’re mentally prepared, too.

“We don’t want to waste any more time,” Lawler said. “This is one of the last times we’re going to get to play before high school, at such a high level, before college. It’s such a great opportunity. Right from the first practice everyone wanted to be there and we said right from the beginning that the goal was to go down to Virginia Beach and come back to New Jersey with the trophy.”

“It’s so exciting,” added Blake, who will continue her career next fall at Princeton University. “I think we’ll definitely compete and there will be a lot of good games. You’re going to have Long Island, all of the New York teams, teams from the Baltimore area. It’s going to be good competition, but I think we have a really good chance.”