— Notre Dame Women’s Lacrosse (@NDWomensLax) February 15, 2020
Maddie Howe and Unshakable Women's Lacrosse
No. 24 Maddie Howe is a junior on the women’s lacrosse team, hailing from Fairport, N.Y.
The 2020 season started just like any other. After a fantastic fall semester jam-packed with football games, fall ball games, a senior banquet, a team trip to Colorado, a Halloween costume competition, rigorous academic course loads and so much more, our team departed to our respective homes for a well-deserved break – or so many think.
What many don’t know is that the month-long winter vacation is anything but a break. Instead, it is filled with preparation. Lap after lap, shot after shot, lift after lift. We fill a time of holiday spirit and family gatherings with consistent preparation for what we all know is arriving in the coming weeks: spring season.
Arriving back to campus in mid-January is always one of my favorite moments of the year. Not only is there the anticipation of the games that are only weeks away, but there are, of course, the reunions. You would think four weeks apart is nothing, but I remember walking back into my dorm room upon arrival to campus and hugging and jumping into my three teammates/roommates as if we hadn’t seen each other in months. Once I made my way to the locker room, I was overwhelmed with the sound of laughter and the feeling that things were finally back to normal. The gang was back together again.
We all could feel that 2020 was going to be different. And by we, I don’t just mean the players. Coaches, parents, support staff members, friends and family could all tell that this spring was going to be unlike any before.
“Are you starving?”
How could we tell that this year was going to be special? Simple. We knew that if you want something you’ve never had, you have to do something you’ve never done.
And man, did we have something we’ve never had before.
Any team can only go so far without talent, and we had no shortage of that. With 10 seniors, two fifth-years and a large majority of the 2019 starters returning, in combination with (in my opinion) the top freshman class in the nation, we had weapons all over the field. Our defense, midfield and attack were all poised to be the best in the country. However, we also knew that relying on talent would be a mistake.
I could sit here and explain all the X’s and O’s and adjustments we made, but the truth is that the difference between this year and last year had very little to do with X’s and O’s.
We all had a unifying goal that drove us every day, and that was the image of us on Memorial Day Weekend holding the National Championship trophy over our heads. In fact, a photo of the trophy was taped to every locker alongside one simple question: “Are you starving?”
We WERE starving. We took steps we had never taken before. We spent hours discussing our team’s Gold Standard values. We analyzed weaknesses from previous years and how we could fix them. We built relationships through bonding exercises. We practiced vulnerability, leadership and success. We then ensured that after hours of discussion, we then went out and LIVED our values, because we knew talk won’t get you far without follow-through.
I think, though, that the most important contributor to what made this year feel different was the passion and love we shared. Never, ever have I felt a bond like I had with the other 34 members of this team. We would do anything for each other. That love came in the form of wingman dinners, Bachelor viewing parties, visits after surgeries, hours spent tanning on Arlotta, and it came in picking each other back up after knocking each other down in practice.
At the end of the day, that feeling we all had in mid-January came down to the extraordinary love, respect and passion we all felt together as one.
We knew how good we were going to be, and we wanted to prove it to the world. We prided ourselves on ignoring the “noise,” or the media that never seemed to view us the way we viewed ourselves. We were ready to show everyone that we weren’t just talk, and the first major opportunity we had was at third-ranked Northwestern.
Of the 35 girls on the team, 33 had never beaten our Midwest rivals. The locker room was filled with a whirlwind of emotions – nerves, apprehension and excitement – as the speaker blared our favorite songs and we all pulled those navy-blue jerseys on.
I will never forget the moment that I knew we were going to win. I knew that day was going to be all Irish as soon as a handful of very important people walked through the door: the Injured Reserve. Unable to travel with the rest of the team due to ACC regulations, the IR had hopped in the car and driven over 2 hours with crutches, boots and slings to come support us. When the IR walked through the door, the rest of the team instantly jumped out of their seats. It was hard to be there without the complete team, because we always knew we were at our best when we were together, and it was then that I knew the love and support we had for each other would be enough.
We took the field and had a few minutes to kill until warmup began. I looked around me and felt completely free of stress and anxiety as I saw my teammates laugh and dance to the music. When the game started, we played free and for each other. The energy from the sidelines was beyond contagious, hyping up every ground ball and every defensive stop. We celebrated each goal with massive hugs. We sacrificed our bodies and fought till the end to a win.
When the clock finally hit zero and we managed to calm down, we followed our usual team tradition. We jogged to the other end of the field to face our greatest supporters, our family and friends, and put our arms around each other to sway to the alma mater. Yes, this win was important because we had just proven to the college lacrosse world how good we were, but the more important part was what we had proven to ourselves.
In the days following our road win in Evanston, weekly rankings were released, and we had come in at No. 2 in the country. As a team, we try not to read into the media too much. We ignore the noise, whether positive or negative, because there is no way for committee members or article authors to possibly understand what we have. That being said, it never hurts to see your hard work and dedication come to fruition. To see our name that high on the list meant that we were on the right track, yet we knew we needed to continue as if nothing had changed. Peaking in May is what matters most, and no matter how big the win was, it was still only February. We had a long way to go and a lot of work to do, but we had taken a huge step in the right direction towards achieving our ultimate goal.
Sadly, we would never get a chance to play through May. The current viral pandemic led to the cancellation of our journey and forced our season to conclude in a way we had never prepared for.
20 seasons coaching college lacrosse & nothing could have prepared me to deliver news to my Irish that their season ended today.
I LOVE this team & I’m so proud of what they represent. This group is special & only thing that could stop them was a pandemic. 🥺 💔 pic.twitter.com/tYhGG9Vzrv
— Christine Halfpenny (@NDcoachPenny) March 13, 2020
Now, we live our lives separated, but still together. We are taking every precautionary step we can take to protect our health and the health of our families during this crisis. Even though we may not like it, we understand that the decision had to be made. We have all since returned to our homes across the country, but continue to be teammates and best friends.
We text in our team group chat every day, we send each other videos of our dogs, we FaceTime each other constantly, we relive memories from the past and we see each other virtually in class. Over the next month, we are participating in a virtual bake-off with our team chaplain, ‘FJ’ [Father Joe Carey], to stay involved with other members of our Notre Dame community and celebrate our time together.
Great 🍕 dinner last night with our team chaplain, Father Joe!
— Notre Dame Women’s Lacrosse (@NDWomensLax) February 13, 2020
We are lucky that many of us come from similar areas or even went to high school together. With multiple teammates hailing from Atlanta, Long Island, New Jersey, Rochester, Maryland and more, I can guarantee that when conditions improve, we will spend time together in person again.
Life certainly doesn’t look the way we had imagined it, but we aren’t ready to let the 2020 NDWLAX team go just yet.
As the semester continues, we will continue to share the same love and passion that we did together in South Bend. We will stay in touch with coaches, support staff members and each other in any way possible. No matter the circumstances, our mindset hasn’t changed at all.
We will continue to uphold the core values of this University and embody our Gold Standards through every aspect of life, on and off the field. We have all made countless memories and created friendships that will last a lifetime. Nothing can take that away from us.
The future doesn’t come without doubt and uncertainty, but I can take faith knowing that we will learn and grow from this experience. It has been an honor and privilege to be a part of something so incredibly unique and special. This team is truly unshakable, and I have no doubt in my mind that Memorial Day Weekend 2021 is going to be all Irish.