Nine years ago, in what at the time was a rather inconsequential result, Canandaigua Academy from New York defeated McDonogh School in a girls lacrosse game, 12-10.
McDonogh hasn’t lost since.
In a show of unprecedented domination, the Owings Mills, Md., powerhouse has won 186 consecutive games, just recently breaking Watertown (Mass.) field hockey’s record for most unbeaten games in a row in team sports, according to the National Federation of High Schools record book.
Perhaps more astonishing, though, is the way the Eagles have won. Talent, sure, has played a huge role. But in speaking with past and present McDonogh players and coaches, it’s not hard to detect an air of competitiveness and intensity designed to maintain focus and emphasize, as cliche as it sounds, playing one game at a time.
RELATED: ALL-USA Top five players to watch
McDonogh usually doesn’t just win. McDonogh crushes you.
It all began in April 2009 with a win over Winter’s Mill (Westminster, Md.) High School. The McDonogh coach at the time, Chris Robinson, had a simple explanation of what led to complete dominance over the next decade.
“We had great athletes and great players,” Robinson said. “But we really utilized depth more than anybody. That was a big philosophy we had. The last 10 minutes of the game belonged to us.”
Robinson cycled in younger players to play alongside All-Americans, keeping legs fresh and wearing down less talented opponents. Then, as years went on and the All-Americans graduated, the rising juniors and seniors were plenty experienced to step into prominent roles.
“We never really started over when we started a new season,” Robinson said. “We always had 10 or 12 kids who had experience from the year before.”
This wasn’t lost on opposing coaches. Becky Groves, whose Century team was the only squad to force overtime against McDonogh during the streak, has seen this firsthand.
“They can constantly reload,” Groves said. “When their senior class graduates, they have people ready to step in and fill those holes. Their bench is fully loaded. They don’t skip a beat.”
The beat, however, changed a bit. Prior to this season, Robinson abruptly stepped down from his role as coach, turning the program over to longtime assistant Nancy Love.
“It was tough,” Robinson said of leaving. “The streak is something that is bigger than me and bigger than McDonogh. I’d been there for 14 years and devoted a lot of my life to that program, and the decision was, ‘Do I stay and continue the strength, or do I leave and better my life?’ It was time for me to move onto different things.”
Love has kept the ball rolling, winning her first nine games at the helm. The secret to the streak? Easy. Don’t talk about it. Ever.
“My conversation with them on the very first day of practice was this: ‘I’m going to say a word, and you’re not going to hear me say it for the rest of the season,'” Love said. “And the reason why is, it’s just not important to me. Don’t get me wrong, I want to win a championship, but we have to focus on what we can control.”
Of course, the big problem for McDonogh is that the streak is the only thing anyone else wants to talk about. But this year’s team, like every McDonogh team, has a wealth of talent and experience, led by reigning American Family Insurance ALL-USA Player of the Year Maddie Jenner. Love also has help on the sideline. Taylor Cummings, who played at McDonogh when the streak started and was named NCAA national player of the year three times at Maryland, has joined the coaching staff.
Cummings understands what it’s like playing with the streak. She also understands how McDonogh has gotten this far.
“McDonogh is known for having talent, and we have a ton of talent on this team,” Cummings said. “But they also have the work ethic to back it up, which is why we’ve been so successful for so long.”
But ask Cummings whether she played on better teams than the current McDonogh squad, or if the competition was more fierce, or if this team would beat one of her teams, or any other hypotheticals, her answer, in so many words, is simple: Who cares?
“Every team is different, and we don’t acknowledge the streak because of that,” Cummings said. “We would really love if people stopped talking about it, honestly.”
This can be dismissed as coach-speak, but in talking with players, it really seems to be a mantra that has taken hold. And one reason, according to midfielder Julia Hoffman, is it’s not really their streak.
“It’s exciting every single day, going out knowing the success this program has had,” said Hoffman, who will play next year at Maryland. “It’s cool to be proud of the program, because obviously the streak didn’t start with us.”
But the pressure that comes with the streak is theirs. In a way, all of McDonogh’s past accomplishments rest on this team’s collective shoulders.
“I don’t see it as pressure,” Hoffman said. “We know everyone is going to give us their best shot, so we have to be super motivated for every single game.”
Jenner, a Duke signee, concurs.
“Knowing that every other team’s biggest game is when they play us means that we have to be pumped up,” Jenner said. “It motivates us to match their level of energy and intensity.”
This form of motivation, quite clearly, has served them well. No one wants to be The McDonogh Team That Lost.
“Every single practice we come out and work as hard as we can, and every single game we want to give our best effort and best performance no matter who we’re playing,” goalie Julia Cooper said. “As players, it’s something we get to work for and it’s something exciting that pushes us even harder. It’s not something that makes us nervous or feel pressure. We just want to succeed.
“It does give us an edge because it’s something exciting and something to work for, but it’s not something stressful.”
Love has worked to maintain that low-stress environment — remember, no one talks about the streak! — but she also has different objectives in mind.
“The fact that we have a long run of graduating, well-prepared, confident student-athletes, to me, that’s the great accomplishment,” Love said. “That’s what the success is all about.
“The win for me is about fifth on the list. I want them to be healthy, happy, well-rounded, well-adjusted girls working hard to achieve a goal. That’s my priority, and that’s how we don’t talk about it.”
But everyone else does talk about it. McDonogh, a private school, has the luxury of being able to pluck the area’s top players.
Love recalls in the past the term “evil empire” thrown around to describe the program. That certainly comes with the territory, as does every opponent playing its absolute best to be the team that breaks the streak.
“I’ve been with the program since 2003, so I’m really proud of it,” Love said. “But I want them to understand that this is a result of practicing really hard and preparing for each opponent and not taking anyone lightly. The outside stuff is irrelevant to us.
“Our pride comes from what we do on the field. People will say things on social media and try to get a rise out of players, and we just rise above that. Honestly, it means nothing. It means nothing to us.”
Cummings explains what sets this particular McDonogh team apart, again harping on what those affiliated with the program see as the tenets of its success: Talent, effort, and competitiveness.
“This group of girls is awesome,” she said. “Not only are they super coachable, but they’re super competitive. You don’t have to get them to work hard, they want to work hard on their own.”
Cooper, the goalie headed to Stanford, succinctly summed up where that desire comes from.
“I don’t know what it will take to beat us,” she said. “But we work hard every day so it won’t happen.”