They come together from a hodgepodge of sports — soccer, basketball, hockey, cross-country, even tennis — to defy what has become an accepted belief. The members of the Eden Prairie girls’ lacrosse team don’t need to play the sport year-round to be the best at what they do.
Since 2001, six years before lacrosse became a fully sanctioned Minnesota State High School League activity sport, Eden Prairie has been a dominant girls’ team. The Eagles and their lacrosse-mad co-coaches, Judy Baxter and Beth Patterson, have built a program that trades experience for athleticism and preparation for familiarity. The Eagles have won six state championships in the span and have not lost to a Minnesota team other than archrival Blake in more than six years.
“We’re building something special,” said Baxter, a former player and college coach at Lehigh University. “There wasn’t really any history of lacrosse in Minnesota, so it’s taken a lot of hard work.”
The Eagles are nesting in their usual spot, atop the state rankings after making a good Stillwater team appear pedestrian in a 16-6 victory last Tuesday and with a convincing 10-7 victory over No. 2-ranked Blake in Thursday’s regular-season finale.
Eden Prairie’s flowing style and intelligent playmaking is made even more impressive when one considers that many of the team’s players see lacrosse as a pleasant diversion from their primary sport. Co-captain Annie Thul is a basketball player. At least five players are varsity hockey players. Even leading scorer and co-captain Emma Claire Fontenot, who has earned a lacrosse scholarship to Notre Dame, long considered herself a soccer player first.
“Sometimes it’s kind of weird to be this good when for the majority of the team lacrosse is not their first sport,” said senior goalie McKenzie Johnson, who is better known as the Eagles’ all-state hockey goalie.
The biggest reason, all agree, is the dedication of Baxter, Patterson and their staff toward making sure nothing is left to chance. Theirs is a passion for preparation.
“They are so smart and so knowledgeable,” Fontenot said. “They point out things that we would never notice. They know what it’s like to be a player. They commit the time and the research and the effort to making sure we’re ready.”
From the outset, the coaches realized they had a wealth of resources, however raw, at their disposal. Eden Prairie has long been among Minnesota’s largest schools and benefits from a communitywide commitment to sports.
“In the old days, some of the girls who came out didn’t even know how to cradle [a lacrosse term for controlling the ball in the stick while moving],” Baxter said. “But they were strong, they worked hard and they were athletic.”
The marriage of coaching know-how and well-trained athletes has solidified the program’s reputation. Eden Prairie has lost just nine times in the last six years, four of those losses to Chicago power Loyola Academy.
Now the focus has turned to getting to the top and staying there as the game grows across the state.
“We need to develop a better skill level,” Baxter said. “It’s not what it used to be. There are so many more good teams now. We need to get the sticks in their hands sooner.”
Despite their lofty perch, the Eagles are not lacking for motivation. Blake has defeated Eden Prairie in each of the last three state championship game and is the only Minnesota team to defeat the Eagles since the high school league began conducting official state tournaments in 2007.
While the coaches won’t talk about it, the players acknowledge that having a rival like Blake is just what they need to keep complacency at bay.
“The minute you get on the team, you start to think about Blake,” Johnson said. “The coaches do a good job keeping us focused on the games at hand, but everyone pretty much knows the history between Eden Prairie and Blake.”
Eden Prairie may have won Thursday, but that does nothing to alter its resolve to be rid of the sour taste left by three straight losses — by a total of four goals — in the finals.
“Three in a row isn’t the greatest feeling,” Fontenot said. “We’ve been so close. We’ve got as bunch of girls willing to do whatever it takes to finally win it this year.”