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Moorestown lacrosse learns to live with loss

First, the winning is consistent. Then it becomes routine until it's the monotonous tick in the metronome - game after game, season after season.

Kristin Mutch and Karlee Dean (32) celebrate a Shawnee goal. Moorestown lost to a New Jersey opponent for the first time since 1999.
Kristin Mutch and Karlee Dean (32) celebrate a Shawnee goal. Moorestown lost to a New Jersey opponent for the first time since 1999.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

First, the winning is consistent. Then it becomes routine until it's the monotonous tick in the metronome - game after game, season after season.

They swear they never took the 228-game streak for granted within the Moorestown High School girls' lacrosse program. They cherished every victory. They valued the lopsided games vs. the overmatched opponents as much as the taut triumphs in the late stages of the state tournaments.

But sports can be funny. Sometimes, it takes a loss - a rare loss, a once-in-this-century loss - to put all that winning in bold relief.

"The bottom line is we lost," Moorestown coach Deanna Knobloch said Monday afternoon, standing in the shadows as the low sun ducked behind the trees that surround the Quakers' home field in Burlington County.

There were a dozen girls in white Moorestown uniforms, maybe more, sitting on the bench or lying on the ground behind the coach. Most of them were sobbing. At the other end of the field, the players from the Shawnee High team posed for pictures with their right index fingers thrust in the air.

To followers of New Jersey girls' lacrosse, the outcome of the South Jersey Group 3 championship game was staggering: Moorestown lost. Shawnee rallied from a 5-1 deficit early in the second half and secured a 7-6 victory when junior midfielder Kristin Kocher scored a goal with 12.6 seconds remaining.

The loss snapped Moorestown's winning streak against New Jersey opponents at 228 games, dating from the 1999 state finals. The Quakers had won 10 consecutive Tournament of Champions titles from 2000 to 2009, meaning they were the last team standing at the end of the state tournament in every season in this century.

It was a run of sustained excellence that has been rivaled by few programs in recent South Jersey sports history - maybe by Eastern Regional field hockey, maybe by Paulsboro wrestling.

But it was the end, a shocking loss to a talented Shawnee team that will compete in Thursday night's Group 3 state finals, that placed all that winning in perspective.

"The legacy doesn't die because of one goal or one game," said Moorestown senior midfielder Katrina Martinelli, who will attend Rutgers on a lacrosse scholarship. "We lost one game by one goal in 10 years. That doesn't change what we've accomplished."

The loss might have hidden benefits, according to two veteran coaches whose programs have experienced similar success.

Take Eastern field hockey. The Vikings, who have an active streak of 11 consecutive Group 4 state titles, went unbeaten in 207 consecutive games against New Jersey opponents before losing in the 2007 Tournament of Champions semifinals.

"I'm not a believer that you have to lose to learn a lesson," said Eastern coach Danyle Heilig, a Moorestown graduate. "I despise losing. But looking back at 2007, I'm OK with it. It was good for my program."

Take Paulsboro wrestling. The Red Raiders won 25 consecutive Group 1 state titles from 1983 to 2007, and 307 consecutive Colonial Conference matches from 1971 to 2008. Both streaks ended in 2008.

"It took the pressure off," Paulsboro coach Paul Morina said. "When you have that kind of success, there's a lot of hidden pressure that people on the outside don't see. It can wear you down.

"When you finally lose, it makes you re-focus."

Moorestown's formula for success is familiar. Lacrosse is a popular sport in the affluent Burlington County town, and most of the Quakers begin playing as second- or third-graders in well-established feeder programs.

In the late 1950s, Moorestown was one of the first schools in South Jersey to start a girls' lacrosse program. And Burlington County has been a hotbed for the sport over the last 30 years, with Moorestown (17), Shawnee (seven), Lenape (one), and Cherokee (one) combining for 26 state titles since the start of the girls' tournament in 1976.

Even as the sport has grown in recent years in other areas of South Jersey, with strong teams developing at Camden County schools such as Haddonfield and Bishop Eustace Prep, and at Clearview Regional in Gloucester County, Moorestown has maintained its status as the state's premier program.

"When you look at what they've accomplished, it tells you how hard those girls, and those coaches, work to maintain that tradition," Heilig said. "When you get to that level, everybody comes after you with their best shot. Sometimes, people forget these are kids, 15-, 16-, 17-year-old kids."

Knobloch, a 1986 Moorestown graduate who was a two-time Division III all-American at the College of New Jersey, is a tireless coach who excels at motivating her players. She has a 377-23-4 record in 19 seasons. The Quakers are 251-10 since 2000, with the first nine of the losses to national-caliber programs from New York, Maryland, and Virginia.

"We're just so proud to put on the Moorestown jersey," said junior goalie Bridget Bianco, who has committed to attend Northwestern, which has won five straight NCAA championships and will try for a sixth in Towson, Md., this weekend. "You grow up dreaming of playing for Moorestown lacrosse and Coach Knobloch."

Moorestown has become an assembly line for college lacrosse players. In 2006, 10 seniors went on to Division I programs. This year's team has 13 seniors who plan to play college lacrosse, with Martinelli, Claire MacDougal and Kelsey Miller heading to Rutgers; Erika McCool to Oregon; Jenna Dougherty to William and Mary; and Jenna Slowey to Fairfield.

"We know all the players that came before us," Martinelli said. "Our goal is always to uphold the tradition."

Martinelli, the team's leading scorer, made a last desperate drive to the goal Monday. She was checked by several players and fell to the ground as the clock expired, along with the winning streak.

"That was the hardest moment of my life," said Martinelli, who lay on her back as Shawnee players piled on one another in celebration just a few feet away. "I would have done anything to get that ball in the back of the net."

A few moments later, Knobloch tried something new: To put a loss to a New Jersey team in perspective.

"I wish I had the right words right now," Knobloch said. "We'll pick up the pieces, although I'm not sure how. It's going to have to be a learning experience for us. This will make them better players and better people."

By the Numbers

Here's a quick glance at the powerhouse Moorestown girls' lacrosse program.

State group titles: 17

Tournament of Champions titles: 10 (2000-09)

Overall record since 2000: 251-10

Coach Deanna Knobloch's record: 377-23-4 in 19 seasons

State standard: Moorestown won 228 consecutive games against New Jersey opponents from the start of the 2000 season until Monday's 7-6 loss to Shawnee

National power: has ranked Moorestown as one of the nation's top seven teams in each of the last 11 seasons. The Quakers were No. 1 in the nation in 2001 and 2002, and

No. 2 in 2004 and 2006.

- Phil Anastasia