When Sara Mayes tried out for the Paint Branch High School girls' lacrosse team about a decade ago — never having picked up a stick — she made varsity. She said there weren't enough girls to field a junior varsity team.
Mayes is now the first-year coach at her alma mater, and the 2008 graduate watched a school record 60-plus girls try out this spring, she said.
“It's amazing to see the level of interest, compared to when I was there. It really is amazing,” said Mayes, an assistant on last season's 3-10 team.
With interest in the sport at an all-time high, the rise of younger, homegrown coaches such as Mayes — coupled with the boost in club lacrosse participation — is helping balance public school competition in Montgomery County, coaches said.
“You have more and more qualified coaches now and it's growing your experience,” second-year Richard Montgomery coach Brett Ponchione said. “… Not only is the gap closing but the level of play across the county is getting better every year.”
Ponchione's Rockets went 4-9 in his first year and have finished above .500 twice since 2005, according to LaxPower.com, but return almost all of their key players, including six who participated in club lacrosse this past summer.
“We've implemented a lot of new concepts and the foundation was laid last year,” he said.
Quince Orchard coach Jennifer Holliday, a coach for the MC Elite Lacrosse club, said the club used to be filled with private school athletes but now has representatives from public schools across the county.
“I just think everyone as a whole, we can't take anyone lightly now,” said Holliday, a 2004 Quince Orchard graduate. “Because there are athletes all over the county that are playing at a higher level.”
Several public school teams have added private school games to their schedules.
Our Lady of Good Counsel, ranked 13th in the Nike/US Lacrosse poll, is scheduled to play Walt Whitman and state runner-up Sherwood. Good Counsel coach Michael Haight said the top public school teams have not caught up to the elite private schools, but the county is improving.
“It's definitely getting better and the more youth leagues we develop, the better the teams will be,” said Haight, whose team has 15 Division I recruits.
First-year Poolesville coach Brittany Hilton said girls are starting to play at younger ages, which is making for better competition.
“There's a lot of teams that are gaining the experience and growing,” said Hilton, a 2006 Poolesville graduate. “Back when I used to play there were [those] one, two-win teams. Now you don't tend to see that as much.”
Emily Zmoda is a first-year coach at John F. Kennedy, which went 1-11 in 2013 and has registered six victories since 2005, according to LaxPower.com. She said the numbers were dwindling in recent seasons but this year's tryouts had a “decent” turnout with about 35, nearly a third of whom had never played lacrosse before.
“I told them right at the beginning, I'm not going to promise you we're going to suddenly make it to the playoffs,” said Zmoda, a former club lacrosse player. “But I feel that if each of us can focus on one goal for ourselves, and everybody can improve at least one skill, we're all going to improve as a team.”
Sherwood, coached by Kelly Hughes, became the first Montgomery County school to earn a victory in the state tournament last spring. The rise of the bottom tier teams would benefit the county as a whole, she said.
“Win or lose, that's all I want. I want a good game, I want girls playing,” Hughes said. “I want Montgomery County to be in the state finals more often.”