Wednesday, April 2, 2008

New faces, old powerhouses

Traditionally strong Stone Ridge and Quince Orchard get new girls lacrosse coaches

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Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
This spring, Skye Saltman becomes only the second-ever varsity girls lacrosse coach at powerful Quince Orchard. She’s looking to build on the legacy of former coach Jenna Ries, now at B-CC.
On the surface, Kara Henry and Skye Saltsman, two of Montgomery County’s newest girls lacrosse coaches, are in very different situations. One of them is taking over a private school, while the other will be coaching in the public-school ranks. One of them has a mentor right on campus, while the other has a new rivalry to contend with. Yet, the one thing that bonds Henry, who is at Stone Ridge, and Saltsman, now coaching at Quince Orchard, is the fact they both are taking over two of the strongest programs in the county, and not coincidentally, programs that have not seen a coaching change in 10 years. While other first-year coaches may have the comfort of taking some time to adjust to their surroundings, these two step into the pressure cooker of lofty goals and expectations.

‘We’re building on the attitude’

Saltsman, 25, arrived at Quince Orchard, a public high school in Gaithersburg, with some big shoes to fill. She had played at Penn State (2001-06), and coached at Avingrove High (2007) in southeastern Pennsylvania, where the level was akin, she said, to the lacrosse played in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. That should have been enough to give her confidence that she had something new and advanced to give Quince Orchard, a program looking to get over the hump and compete with some of the state’s elite programs (like those from Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties), but it was not that easy. She was taking over a program that had been molded in the image of its only coach, Jenna Ries, who had left last April, after the birth of her third child.

‘‘There is some pressure, in part because of the success of the school’s sports teams, to do well,” Saltsman said. ‘‘The girls have a lot of skill, and I would love to bring the program up to that level.”

Ries did not stay on the sidelines for long, taking over the head-coaching job at Bethesda-Chevy Chase, her alma mater, when Claire Wagner left in January. Though she has become a rival — the Barons will play Quince Orchard in the season-opener on April 2 — she took some pride in the fact the program she built at QO was able to attract someone like Saltsman, who had a considerable lacrosse background and coaching experience.

‘‘When I started, I had never even played lacrosse,” Ries, 36, said. ‘‘We had an incredible ride, and we got some momentum going in other parts of the county. Now, more schools are playing and we have a lot of young coaches coming in and raising the skill level. All of a sudden, I am one of the older coaches.”

Ries had built such an extensive system that the Cougars had advanced deep in the playoffs in each of the last three years, including regional final appearances in 2005 and 2006. That, along with the advent of junior-varsity lacrosse, has raised the profile of the sport at the school.

‘‘We had 25 to 30 girls show up for preseason training,” Saltsman said. ‘‘The adjustment from that point has been awesome. The girls are learning new things everyday and they are excited to come to practice, and we’re just building on the attitude here. I’m still more nervous for that first game as a coach than I ever was as a player, but it’s going to be a great first battle. There will be a lot of emotions.”

‘A great fit’

Jill Marks, the current athletics director and former 10-year head lacrosse coach at Stone Ridge, a private all-girls school in Bethesda, felt a range of emotions as well. With the birth of her daughter a year ago, she knew that she couldn’t handle the demands of being on the sidelines anymore. Yet, she knew that she could not hand the program she had guided to the Independent School League final in 2006, when she was named the Gazette’s Coach of the Year, off to just anyone.

‘‘Over the summer, I kept tossing it back and forth,” Marks said. ‘‘Giving up being on the sidelines was hard, but I knew it was the best thing for my family and the team. It was difficult to find the right person and it took a long time to hand it to someone, but Kara is that person. She is a great fit for the program.”

Henry, 25, came to Stone Ridge after playing at Trinity (D.C) College (2001-05), and then coaching at St. Peters middle school in Olney last year. Her playing experience was recent enough, however, that she was able to make the transition to a high school team easily.

‘‘I draw on my college playing experience a lot,” Henry said. ‘‘It’s excited the team and given them a reason to look forward to the difference. They are ready to go and fired up.”

If Henry feels any pressure to get the Gators back to the heights they once experienced — they were eliminated in the ISL tournament quarterfinals last year, but bring back junior attacker Brooke Blue to lead the offense this season — it is mitigated by the presence of Marks. Rather than looking over her shoulder, Henry has been able to pick her athletics director’s brain, while forming her own opinions of the players.

‘‘She’s been supportive and helpful,” Henry said of Marks. ‘‘She’s given me pointers about the other teams in the league, but she hasn’t told me too much about the players. She has allowed me to keep my mind open.”

Yet, Henry has also taken a philosophical approach to this year. Success on the field will be nice, but success off the field will be paramount.

‘‘I just want to be able to give the girls 100 percent of what I can and teach them,” Henry said. ‘‘If I see them change and grow, on and off the field, that will be enough.”