Pandas Up for the Challenge of Building Lacrosse Program at Notre Dame
It's hard to start a sports program when there is no one to play in your area, yet that is what Notre Dame Academy still grapples with five years after the launch of the school's lacrosse program.
There are no other girls lacrosse teams in Northern Kentucky and the Pandas district consists of teams from Louisville and Western Kentucky.
That didn't stop the Pandas from dominating Bryan Station (Lexington), 17-2, on Senior Night Friday to earn their sixth win of the season.
With few Kentucky teams, a benefit Notre Dame has is the number of Cincinnati programs, and because of that, there are lacrosse referees to be found nearby which is usually a challenge for the whole state.
Notre Dame has hosted 10 out of 14 games at home this season as a result of the referee availability.
“We benefit in a way because of this, because one thing Kentucky lacks, is officials who know how to referee a lacrosse game, and because of that, all the teams in Kentucky are limited in the number of games they can play because there are not enough officials to go around. Up here, we pull officials from Cincinnati which there is plenty," Head Coach Jimmy Marshall said. "So what's happened is, all the teams that play in Louisville want to come up here and play because it's not part of their limited games.”
The program has experienced plenty of instability as it tries to grow.
“When they started it up, they had a soccer coach run it the first year, and then a different soccer coach run it the next year, neither had any lacrosse knowledge or background, so they have had a different coach every year in the five years,” Marshall said.
Marshall was an assistant coach last year before taking the reigns this season and he hopes that the momentum the program has experienced will allow for Notre Dame to continue to improve. Last year, the Pandas went winless in nine games against Kentucky schools, but finished the regular season in 2015 with a 6-8 record and earned a first-round bye in the District tournament which begins Monday at 8 p.m. at Georgetown College.
The top two finishers of each of the four districts advance to the state tournament which means if the Pandas win on Monday, they will have gone from winless to state contenders in just one season.
“That would blow my mind if we had that kind of turnaround. This was the first year in the five years that we were able to build the roster up,” Marshall said. “I think with the growth now at this point, the program is really going to take off.”
This was the first season that Notre Dame Lacrosse was able to field a junior-varsity team and next season will have 38 students on the two teams. Out of those 38, 19 are freshmen and only four are seniors. Marshall hopes to see somewhere closer to 50 girls play somewhere in the program next season and field a freshman team, too.
“I'm really hoping that we build to the point where some schools up here start programs,” he said. “We're kind of on an island, but we did start at middle school this year, too, and there are kids on there that are going to go to other schools than Notre Dame and they are learning the sport and like it. It's starting to get a little more exposure.”
Marshall said that lacrosse is the fastest growing high school sport in the nation and that it's just a matter of time before it takes off in Northern Kentucky, too.
On senior night Friday, the four seniors on the team, Anna Stutler, Hannah Good, Jessica Colvin, and Maria Topmiller, were highlighted as being instrumental to the growth of the program. Stutler had four goals on eight shots.
“All four of them have started all year. They have been a part of this program from the ground up to when we had barely enough players to put on the field, to now where we have varsity, junior varsity, and middle school teams. It's cool for me to see the success they have achieved in four years of working.”
Even though it has taken time for the program to become competitive and even though many of Notre Dame's other athletic programs are annual contenders, Marshall and his team can feel the school's support.
“We have not felt like we've taken a backseat to the other sports,” he said. “Notre Dame has been very successful with all their sports and lacrosse has kind of been the one sport that is lagging behind, but they want it to be as successful as I do and they are behind me 100%. Anything I need, they are for it.”
Story & photos by Bryan Burke, associate editor