Late in the first half of last week's season opener against Severna Park, Southern field hockey coach Lauren Leukhardt threw her water bottle down in frustration and gave a growl, visibly miffed that her squad wasn't making headway and trailed by two goals.
Never mind that Severna Park is perennially one of the best teams in the Washington area and has won 14 Maryland state championships since 1979. Or that Southern, which finished 4-8 last season, was playing on the Falcons' field, where the home team hasn't lost a game since the regional final in 2002. Leukhardt's expectations were high. She saw what she called "walkers" when she wanted to see runners.
"I want you to go out there and score. You can do it," she told her players during a timeout. "You cannot wait on the ball. I can't stress that enough."
The oft-used phrase "there's a new sheriff in town" is a perfect fit for the 2005 Southern field hockey team. After recent years of sub-.500 play, the school hired Leukhardt, a 2001 Southern grad and former player, to turn the program around. A goalie for four years at Arcadia University in suburban Philadelphia, Leukhardt is bringing her youthful energy (she turned 22 last week) and emphasis on conditioning and stick skills ("Conditioning is number one. Any team can run circles around another team, but if it's only for so long, what good are you?") to Harwood.
"They needed somebody to come in and teach them stick skills," said Leukhardt. "I'm impressed with them. Another coach [during a preseason scrimmage] came up to me and said these girls look like they've had sticks in their hands for a long time."
After winning scrimmages over North County and La Plata and playing tough against Howard County champion Mount Hebron in a loss, the Bulldogs began their league season last week at Severna Park. Leukhardt was constantly talking -- yelling instructions, giving one-on-one pep talks, trying to motivate -- and moved up and down the sideline as if she were on roller skates. It's her style.
Conversely, Lil Shelton, the dean of Washington area field hockey coaches who has guided Severna Park for 31 years, said nary a word and hardly moved. She didn't have to. The Falcons were seasoned enough to put the machine into action and let the coach watch. Fourteen state titles will do that.
Southern played hard, seemed intent on not being pushed around, and displayed those stick skills that Leukhardt is teaching. Sophomore Cara Manas took a ball off her body to stop a Falcons shot during a penalty corner ("That's the way you come to the ball, baby," Leukhardt yelled in appreciation); junior Lee Nowell, sporting a bandanna and a fiery get-out-of-my-way look in her eyes, made a nice move with the ball around an opponent and smacked it deep into the offensive zone; sophomore Jordan Eng was sweating as if she were in a Gatorade commercial. They lost the game 5-0 -- Southern almost scored in the final minutes when they had three straight penalty corners -- but the players weren't upset.
"This year we do a lot more conditioning, running," said senior Marti Concannon. "It's a lot more serious. If we play [this season] the way we played against Severna Park and don't go down to the level of other teams, we should have a good season."
Following the Severna Park game, as Leukhardt got on the bus for the ride back to school, Southern's players gave her a standing ovation.
"I think we have a lot of potential with [Coach Leukhardt]. We're working on stick skills more than last year," said Nowell, who plays defense but is so quick she'll often come into the offensive zone before getting back. "Plus she played at Southern, so it's cool that she knows our history."
Three days later, Southern earned its first win in the Leukhardt era, a 2-1 double overtime victory at St. Mary's-Ryken. Concannon tied the game with two minutes left, and Eng won it. The coach's No. 1 item paid off.
"My girls were still running like we just started the game, and they [St. Mary's-Ryken] were still dragging," said Leukhardt.