On May 24, 2016, Walkersville resident Dave Baldwin was one of the officials for the Class 3A-2A boys lacrosse state championship game at Stevenson University.
Like any other MPSSAA final four matchup he’s seen, Baldwin was struck by the high caliber of play.
“Those teams are just like college, those kids are good,” he said. “They don’t drop the ball a whole lot, the ball stays in play, not many fouls.”
One of the teams playing crisply that day was Linganore, and the Lancers went on to beat the Vikings, 9-7, winning their second state crown.
With a two-time state champion to its credit, no one could dispute that Frederick County lacrosse had arrived. Of course, Baldwin was also there years earlier when it literally arrived.
March 23, 2000, to be exact. That’s the day the first varsity lacrosse games in Frederick County Public Schools history were played.
One of those games, between the host Walkersville boys and Urbana, intentionally started minutes before the others to honor the local game’s Walkersville roots, making it the first varsity lacrosse game in county history. Baldwin officiated that game, too. The Lions won 7-6 in overtime.
“It was a great game,” Baldwin said.
Aside from the thrilling ending, that game — and all the others in the spring of 2000 — represented a starting point for a county that, in the lacrosse world, had been on the outside looking in despite being located in a state known as a lacrosse hotbed.
Frederick County teams were the newcomers, tasked with raising their level of play to compete against powerful, vastly more experienced high school programs lurking in other parts of Maryland, including neighboring Carroll County.
Frederick County teams, even the best of them, took their lumps. But in its first 20 years, Frederick County lacrosse made vast strides, as the Linganore boys’ 2011 and 2016 state titles attest.
While no other Frederick County program has captured a state crown, several others — boys and girls — have emerged as powers over the years. In fact, if not for the coronavirus pandemic that canceled the spring sports season, Urbana’s boys and Middletown’s girls seemed built to go far in the 2020 postseason.
Also, Frederick County churns out a considerable amount of college lacrosse players each year, including several who play for Division I teams.
Local club teams help players sharpen skills, which benefit their high school teams and draw interest from college recruiters. And thanks to coaching, even lacrosse novices can become credible players by the time they graduate.
Tuscarora girls coach Brad Gray, who moved to Frederick County after coaching at Meade and Broadneck, has seen the the county’s lacrosse scene from numerous vantage points.
Aside from running a quality Titans program and facing local girls powers like Middletown and Oakdale over the years, Gray began coaching in the county as a Walkersville boys lacrosse assistant in 2001, started Tuscarora’s boys program in 2004 and still serves as an MPSSAA boys lacrosse regional director.
“We are certainly competitive,” he said. “There were times, when we were just starting there in the early 2000s, where we’d go into Carroll County and just get our hats handed to us.
“And it’s a big deal now that you take the Urbanas, the Linganores, the Middletowns, and we’ll play anybody in the state,” he said. “Now, we might not win ‘em all, but we’re not going to get the doors blown off the way we would have 15, 20 years ago.”
Save for the Mount St. Mary’s program, Frederick County’s lacrosse’s history was relatively brief when those first varsity high school games were played in 2000.
The local lacrosse scene can be traced to 1989, when Baldwin, A.J. Russo and Bill Derbyshire formed Frederick County’s first youth lacrosse team, the Walkersville-based Blue Ridge Lacrosse team. It was just that, a single team, which played opponents from Baltimore, Howard and Carroll counties.
“Then in 1992, we had enough kids and programs that were starting to pop up in specific areas,” said Baldwin, who played lacrosse at UMBC. “We started the high school club program along with the youth program.”
These club teams represented each county school. Some of their players were dabblers.
“That’s how football guys kept in shape in the spring,” said Frederick girls lacrosse coach Brandon Brewbaker, who played for Frederick High’s club team before graduating in 1999.
By the mid 1990s, Baldwin and Randy Richter — who both served as commissioner of the Western Maryland Lacrosse Youth Conference at some point — spearheaded an effort to make lacrosse a varsity high school sport in the county. Girls club teams existed by that time, which helped the cause.
They targeted the millennium, dubbing the campaign Lacrosse 2000. Pitches were made to FCPS officials and funds were raised.
“We raised 35,000 dollars, and that was to help with the set-up costs for all the schools,” Baldwin said.
When FCPS lacrosse started in 2000, newly minted varsity players, especially seniors, appreciated the opportunity. Those who missed out took notice, as well.
“My little brother came in 2000 as a freshman,” said Brewbaker, referring to Brent, who played for the Cadets. “And I remember there being a little bit of animosity, maybe a little bit of jealousy because they got the new equipment, they got to take bus rides to games, they got the locker rooms, they were a school sport, they got to actually letter in lacrosse.”
But Baldwin, who coached Walkersville’s varsity team from 2003 to 2008 and still officiates, pointed out that club players paved the way for their varsity successors.
ELEVATING THE LEVEL OF PLAY
The pecking order among Frederick County teams didn’t take long to shake out. On the boys side, Linganore and Walkersville were among the best. On the girls side, Urbana started off strong. Eventually, county teams began trickling into the MPSSAA state final four.
The Hawks girls became the first from the county to win a regional title, doing so in 2001. The next season, Walkersville was the first county boys team to earn a regional crown.
Still, for the most part, Frederick County had to play catch-up. Wins against counties with richer lacrosse traditions, like Carroll, were noteworthy.
Club teams, which could sharpen players by pitting them against high-level players from other areas, provided a path to improvement.
Jessica Sardella, who learned how to play the game in lacrosse hotbed Syracuse, New York, couldn’t find such a path in the county when she began playing at Urbana in 2002.
“I think we started driving an hour and a half to the other side of Baltimore to play,” she said. “And we were like, ‘This is ridiculous. We can do this right here. We have the talent.’”
Her father, Bill Sardella, who had played Division I lacrosse at Army, filled the void by starting the Frederick Stars Lacrosse Club in 2002. Starting with 25 players, the Stars had as many as 250 at one point during their 14-year existence.
“Little did we know that the boom in girls lacrosse clubs had just started at the same time throughout the entire country,” Bill Sardella said. “And ground zero of it was really Maryland with all the clubs in and out of Maryland because it’s such a high intensity of lacrosse players.”
Several Stars coaches also ran county high school programs, including Gray, Mark Snyder (Walkersville) and Robin Abel (Urbana).
Stars players populated rosters throughout Frederick County for years. When Sardella — who now lives in Boston — watched fellow powers Middletown and Oakdale clash a few years ago, he saw a slew of players on the field who had played for the Stars.
Sardella’s goal was to raise the level of play in the area. But there was a byproduct — many former Stars went on to play college lacrosse.
Rather than pass on the Stars to someone else after looking to move on, Sardella folded the club. By that time, there were numerous other club options for girls players.
Now, there are teams like the Renegades, where Jessica Sardella now coaches (she used to coach Walkersville High, too), and Lionheart Lacrosse Club, where Brewbaker coached.
Like Jessica Sardella, Urbana boys lacrosse coach Gavin Donahue moved to this area from New York, where he played lacrosse. But by the time he came here — this would’ve been his ninth season coaching in Frederick County — the area was producing high-caliber players and teams.
“Coming from a hotbed like Long Island, I didn’t really know what I was going to get coming down here,” said Donahue, whose Frederick County high school coaching career started with the Oakdale boys. “But it was definitely better than I thought it was.”
Donahue thought Lax Factory Lacrosse Club, which was run by Josh Funk, deserved a lot of credit for that.
“It really grew the sport and grew the individual skill level in this area, for sure,” Donahue said of Lax Factory.
Donahue said many of his talented players came through that program and 3D, a national organization, after Lax Factory shut down. He then started Fundamentals Lacrosse Academy, where he has a class of 2021 team, trains younger players and eventually plans to add teams from other age groups.
Donahue said boys players have other options, mentioning Maryland Extreme MDX and Team Maryland, which is run by Hood College coach Brad Barber (who Gray coached at Tuscarora).
“I would say the predominately stronger teams are closer to Baltimore,” he said. “But we’re definitely growing in this area with club, and we’re not too far behind.”
Still, playing club lacrosse isn’t a prerequisite in Frederick County, not even for county heavyweights like Middletown’s girls.
“One of the things we try to do at Middletown, is you don’t have to play club lacrosse, you don’t have to have a stick in your hand all the time,” Knights coach Tyler White said. “You can make it a seasonal sport.”
While Gray’s Titans have some club players, he often recruits athletes from other sports, such as girls soccer, figuring they can become fine lacrosse players over time.
Those strong Linganore boys teams didn’t rely solely on lacrosse-only athletes, either. One of the key players on the Lancers’ 2011 state championship team was Tyler Thompson, who earned Frederick News-Post All-County first-team honors in both lacrosse and football (which he played in college).
SUCCESS AT THE STATE LEVEL
Linganore’s 2011 boys team wasn’t the first from Frederick County to reach a state championship game. That honor went to the 2005 Urbana girls, who were coached by Bill Sardella.
The Hawks lost in the final to Mount Hebron, a dynasty that has won 15 state crowns and has garnered national recognition.
“It wasn’t just a really good Maryland team, it literally was the No. 1 ranked team in the country,” Sardella said of the Vikings. “So we were very happy being No. 2 behind the No. 1 team in the country.”
So far, the only other girls program to reach the finals has been Oakdale, which accomplished the feat in 2014 and 2016. But at least one coach from another county team thought Middletown had a shot to go that far, if not farther, this season.
In boys or girls, Frederick County doesn’t send nearly as many teams to the state tournament as teams from the Baltimore metro area, but even local teams that fall short can hold their own with state powers.
For instance, Westminster boys teams that won state titles in 2018 and 2019 did so after pulling out hard-fought wins over Linganore each year in regional championship games.
Linganore isn’t the only county boys team to make postseason noise. In fact, in 2011, both the Lancers and Middletown played in boys state championship games.
And no county team has been to as many state final fours (seven) or championship games (three) as Urbana’s boys.
The Hawks seemed poised to return to the state tournament this season, bolstered by a roster that shows what a magnet Frederick County has become for college recruiters.
Urbana has two sets of twins who are all heading to prominent Division I programs — Eric Kolar to Maryland and Jack Jozwiak, Jason Jozwiak and Jason Kolar to Delaware.
And Linganore’s boys team, which didn’t get to play this season because of the health crisis, had a pair of Division I-bound players in Will Coletti (Army) and Roman LaRocco (Navy).
Likewise, Brewbaker pointed out how Frederick County produces numerous Division I girls players each season. He singled out Middletown grad and former Stars player Brittain Altomare, who starred at Hofstra before playing for the Baltimore Ride of the United Women’s Lacrosse League. But there are many others.
“So, it’s come a long way in the 20 years. I think that we’re catching up,” Brewbaker said. “I’m shocked that we don’t have a state champion yet on the girls side, but I think it’s coming.”