Brooke Griffin leads Maryland women’s lacrosse into NCAA tournament


“I know she’s above, looking over me” said Maryland’s Brooke Griffin, gazing at the College Park field her mother never saw her play on. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Before each game with the Maryland women’s lacrosse team, Brooke Griffin slips a white band inscribed with the initials “JG” around her left knee. Every morning, the junior attacker wakes up to a picture of her mother, Jodi Griffin, grinning as she collects teddy bears for an elementary school charity drive. For home and away games, the Terrapins’ family guest list always bears Jodi’s name so Brooke can feel like she is there.

“I know she’s above, looking over me,” Brooke said recently, gazing at a field her mother never saw her play on, overcoming a deflating string of injuries to etch her name into the ACC record books and lead the Terps into a second-round NCAA tournament game on Sunday, Mother’s Day.

Jodi Griffin died from breast cancer Oct. 11, 2008. She was 45 years old. The doctors had thought the disease was in remission. She had returned to work at the University of Maryland computer center until one day she suffered a seizure. Soon after, the family learned the cancer had spread to her brain.

Brooke, a middle twin among four children, all girls, was in high school at South River . Sports offered sanctuary after her mother’s death, and Jodi’s relentless optimism had taught Brooke to channel her sadness.

“I tried to block some of the hard times out, those memories,” Griffin said. “Going through it, you never want anyone to go through that. I was so young and my family was so young. You have good days and bad days. But at the end of the day, you have to know she’s looking down.”

In the back yard of the Griffin family house stands a brick wall, between eight and nine feet tall, built by Skip Griffin. In front of it stood the lacrosse goal bought for his daughters. During Brooke’s high school years, stepping outside meant encountering the familiar thump-thump-thump of a ball smacking the walls. Skip — who played lacrosse in high school, where he met his future wife — often engaged Brooke in games of H-O-R-S-E.

It was in that backyard that Griffin grew into the deadeye shooter who has led the Terps (19-1) to their sixth consecutive ACC tournament title and the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament. Maryland received a bye into the second round and will host Penn (13-4) on Sunday at noon. The Quakers advanced with a 9-4 win over Canisius in the first round Friday in College Park.

This season, Griffin has made two-thirds of her shots and scored a team-high 54 goals, including an ACC-record-tying seven against Virginia in the conference semifinals. She is a nominee for the Tewaaraton Award, given to the nation’s top college lacrosse player, less than two months after the possibility loomed of missing a second season to injury.

Griffin suffered damage to cartilage in her left knee during a game against Duke on March 1. She had already endured a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the same knee, the one she adorns with her mother’s initials, during fall practice of her freshman year. The night before the Terps played Syracuse, nine days after the injury against Duke, Griffin met Coach Cathy Reese in the team hotel and told her she would play through it, adding one simple request.

“She said, ‘I don’t want to be pulled out because you’re worried,’ ” Reese said. “ ‘I want to be out there and compete.’ She played and now look at the season she’s having.”

Griffin had not been injured in high school, but since coming to Maryland she suffered the torn ACL in her freshman season, which she sat out as a redshirt year to maintain a year of eligibility; sat out fall practice of her sophomore season with a bone bruise; and underwent surgery to implant a screw in her right foot to fix a stress fracture, all before this season’s injury.

“She’s done so many different things,” Reese said. “I can’t keep up. No way. But she finds a way to get through it. That’s the thing.”

Griffin’s resolve has its roots in how she took solace in the days just after her mother’s death. At South River, Griffin’s field hockey team was scheduled to play in the state semifinals several days after her mother’s funeral. Everyone told Griffin that sitting out would have been fine. “How could you play in a field hockey game?” they said. But Griffin never questioned leaving.

“It cleared my head,” she said. “Go out. Forget about what’s going on. Have fun.”

In many ways, it was how Jodi Griffin lived her final years, cheerful even as the cancer spread and she lost hair from the chemotherapy, still attending swim meets and lacrosse games in baseball caps. On her 45th birthday, five days before her death, the family visited Jodi at Anne Arundel Medical Center. They brought food from one of her favorite restaurants. She jokingly asked for a margarita.

“Her and her mother were a lot like each other,” Skip Griffin said.

As Griffin’s college recruitment gained steam, she learned something else. In 2001, when Reese was an assistant coach at Maryland in her mid-20s, her mother died from multiple sclerosis. During an official visit, Griffin bonded with Reese over their losses. They talked about the burden of moving on. That bond sold Maryland.

“It was a very tough process,” Griffin said. “Hearing at a young age, you don’t believe that’s happening to your mom. I think that made me a stronger person going through that. You realize you can’t take life for granted. Anything can be taken from you. You have to enjoy life, enjoy being on this team, enjoy playing lacrosse. That makes me a stronger person.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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