By Jim Paulsen

On the surface, it looked ugly: The Minnetonka girls' lacrosse team was whipped 24-11 by perennial powerhouse Eden Prairie in a game last week. Shockwaves reverberated through the Minnetonka program. How could that happen? Didn't the Skippers play the Eagles close in their first meeting, losing by just three goals after being tied midway through the second half? What went wrong? Questions arose, even among the players.

"That loss was rough because we played them so close before," said senior midfielder Erin McGinnis, the team's leading scorer.

But scratch the surface and you'll find things weren't quite as dour as they seemed. A loss, yes. But a bad loss? Not to Skippers co-coaches Erin Scearcy-Larson and Becky Jacobson. Through their vision for the program, the defeat was just another ingredient in a long-range plan intended to establish the Skippers as an entity to be feared on the field and admired off it.

Girls' lacrosse at Minnetonka is not just a sport but a conduit for building teenage girls into confident young women. Sometimes, a step backward is actually a step in the right direction.

"Afterward I had individual conversations with some of the players about why we made the strategic changes we did," Scearcy-Larson said. "That contributed to the greater score differential, but there were reasons why."

Focus on the bigger picture

Last week was a busy one for the Skippers. Three games were scheduled during the same span that the school was administering Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams — a pretty heavy load.

"Annika [Samuelson] and I have, like, 15 tests," McGinnis said.

Balancing academics and athletics can be daunting, Scearcy-Larson said.

"Our message has been about succeeding beyond the lacrosse field. We have higher aspirations," she said. "We want them to be able to cope with stress, to be good citizens and to become successful young women. Lacrosse can be an outlet, a source of joy and a place to lift each other up, but if there's too much pressure, that doesn't happen."

In short, Minnetonka, which had lost only one game to that point, was given a game with no expectations, no pressure.

Players went to practice the next day expecting to work on fundamentals and shoring up their games. What they found instead was a yoga space and a day of relaxation and reflection.

"We talked through things as a team," Jacobson said. "I'm sure some of them looked at losing by 10 goals and thought we should be running or working our butts off. But we felt there were other things that needed attention."

The next night, Minnetonka hosted rival Wayzata. Despite a steady downpour, the Skippers were clearly in sync, winning comfortably 18-7.

"That was probably the best team game we've played all season," Samuelson said.

Holistic approach to the sport

In the world of women's lacrosse, Janet Holdsworth is a name held in high regard. She was one of the pioneers for lacrosse in Minnesota, coaching Hopkins a dozen or so years ago. She also started the Lakers Select, which she built into one of the state's premier club programs. Holdsworth expanded the club to New Jersey, where she now lives, but her influence remains strong in Minnesota. Scearcy-Larson and Jacobson are Holdsworth disciples, having played for her, coached under her, and carried her philosophy of development of the athlete as a person to the high school level.

"When we first started [six years ago], Minnetonka was something like 2-11 in lacrosse," Scearcy-Larson said. "Our idea was to set a framework for lacrosse to develop the whole player. There is no professional lacrosse league. At some point, they'll have to stop playing. So we took a holistic approach, focusing on wellness and the person as a whole."

The opportunity to have a lasting impact on players long after their careers are over colors everything Minnetonka does. Excellence on the field and a commitment to serving others off it are intertwined.

So far, the results are hard to argue. Minnetonka (9-2 through Sunday) is ranked No. 4 in the state coaches association rankings. The Skippers' strength on the field is their almost seamless teamwork. Six players have more than 20 points.

"We're teaching life skills," Jacobson said. "We're trying to help them build strong relationships with others and become leaders."

Miracle League Sunday

Unlike for most high school athletic programs, Sunday is not an off-day for the Skippers. The season is brief — roughly two months — leaving precious little time to shoehorn in all they want to accomplish.

But you won't find the Skippers on the practice field. Sunday is service day, when the entire team gets together and supports a cause.

For the past three years, the cause has been the West Metro Miracle League, which provides athletic opportunities for youths with developmental disabilities. Sunday is T-ball day and each Minnetonka player dedicates herself to a player and assists them one-on-one.

Jen Hawley, mother of junior midfielder Maddie Hawley, is charge of promotion for the league. She is effusive in her praise for the commitment the Skippers have made.

"I'm biased, I know, but it is so amazing what these girls do for these kids," Jen Hawley said. "It's their day off, yet they're out here helping and having fun. It means to much to them."

The payoff goes both ways, Scearcy-Larson said.

"We're privileged to play this sport. The message that resonates is 'What do you want to leave behind?' "

Skippers players have embraced the philosophy. Sophomore forward Savannah Bhojwani is developing her own program, Lax for Change, that will stage a 7-on-7 lacrosse tournament next October, with each team raising money for the charity of its choice.

"The Miracle League really hit home," Bhojwani said. "I've seen how it can help us bond on the field. I want to take it a step further."

Championship dreams

For all of the high-minded ideals that get tossed around, it would be easy to forget that this is about a lacrosse team. Despite the big loss to Eden Prairie, the Minnetonka players are convinced that this year, they can give the Eagles a serious challenge for the section title and have a shot at the state tournament.

"Last year we came so close," McGinnis said of a 13-12 loss to Eden Prairie in the Section 2 finals. "I think we've got the team to do it this year."

Jim Paulsen • 612-673-7737