With a coaching resume that includes five WCAC Championships, four VISAA State Championships, a win percentage of .772%, over fifty former players having entered the NCAA ranks, and having been named WCAC (2014), VISAA (2014, 2015, 2017), All-Met (2014), and USA Today (2015) Coach of the Year, one has to ask, what’s left for Coach Rick Sofield to accomplish on the high school coaching stage?   

Since taking the reigns as head coach of the Bishop Ireton girls’ lacrosse team in 2011, Sofield has established a tradition of dominance that has perennially kept the Cardinals nationally ranked, but with the start of the 2021 season beginning April 12th, unprecedented challenges loom heavy for the reigning WCAC champions, a title earned consecutively over the last four full seasons.  For Sofield, and the girls’ lacrosse team, a season entrenched in pandemic protocol proves to be both a daunting challenge and an unforeseen opportunity. 

“Constructing a safe environment and preserving the health of our players is the program’s primary concern.  Yet, in light of the restrictions brought on by COVID-19, we’ve been granted an opportunity to continue to build upon our legacy.  Our goal this year is the same goal we set every year: succeed on (and off) the field and compete at the highest level.  But, given the current circumstances, our objective now is to win while maintaining a high-level of mental resiliency amid the most challenging conditions.  Given the overwhelming complexities that our program must navigate through, if we can consistently exercise mental discipline to gracefully tackle known and unknown obstacles this spring, I believe that this will be one of our finest accomplishments and a goal that will cement this program’s cultural identity,” said Sofield.

The Bishop Ireton girls’ lacrosse team wasn’t always a national powerhouse, as they’ve undergone a massive transformation over their twenty five year history.  Michelle DiPietro (‘98), a founding member and four-year varsity attacker, recalls how her two years of youth league experience miraculously deemed her worthy of a varsity leadership role.  “We were awful.  We just couldn’t win a game, and games weren’t even close.  To this day, I still vividly remember hearing O’Connell’s head coach, at halftime, explicitly warn her players not to shoot on our goal for the rest of the game,” said DiPietro.  Fortunately, change was on the horizon.  The program’s upward trajectory started in the early 2000s, when players like Caitlin Gorman (‘03) joined the team.  When asked what the catalyst was for the program’s improvement, Gorman replied: “it was quite simple, really.  We just made the decision to start dominating.  Once everyone bought in, the momentum couldn’t be stopped.”             

Bishop Ireton is currently operating in a hybrid learning mode, whereby students alternate which days they are required to be on campus.  Under these current guidelines, the only players who can practice on a given day are the ones who have been on campus that day.  Understandably, this poses a serious impediment to the development of team chemistry.  “Our players are accustomed to rigorous standards, and they expect a particular experience on a daily basis that challenges them to compete while being engaged in an environment that facilitates the growth of team camaraderie,” adds Sofield.  Given last season’s cancellation, the fact that many girls on Ireton’s team haven’t played with the upper-classmen, limited preparation, and the minimized exposure they’ve had to each other this season, it’s only natural to have concerns regarding physical conditioning, mental fortitude, establishing team identity, and continuing to produce a winning tradition.  While these conditions are certainly disheartening, “we’re looking forward to embracing this challenge, as we’re motivated by the opportunity to find a way to improve together.  This pandemic and the restrictions placed upon us will not be excuses we use to justify any shortcomings,” added Sofield.

            The overarching tone among the girls on the team is a pervasive sense of uncertainty.  Their educational and athletic foundations have drastically shifted giving way to a lingering pulse of unsettled ambiguity.  Under normal conditions, managing the pressure that comes with being a student-athlete is difficult enough, and compounding those demands with the expectation to perform optimally with minimal preparation is certainly a tall order. 

            When asked how he’s addressing this uncertainty, in a word, Sofield replied: “adapt.”  “Plain and simple, we need to be flexible.  That’s been our message to the team from the start.  Again, we’ve been presented with a challenge, and how you’re defined is how you respond to that challenge,” he added. 

            While BI will undoubtedly lean upon senior experience to set the tone and provide leadership, this season, the Cardinals are noticeably a younger squad, calling upon veterans to provide guidance and motivation to less tested players.  This inexperience poses an additional layer of adversity, and in contrast to prior years, freshmen are expected to see significantly more playing time.  The Cardinals are led by seniors Blair Guy (Virginia Tech commit), Ashley Bowan (Penn State commit), Caitlin Boughton (San Diego State commit), Madeline Klunder (Liberty commit), Isabelle Shefrin (Christopher Newport commit), and juniors Ainsley Scruggs (Jacksonville commit) and Maggie Gately (Denver commit). 

Guy has worked tremendously hard in the offseason, and she is emerging as a natural leader.  “What’s most impressive are the measures [Guy] has taken to keep her teammates engaged to ensure that our culture continues to progress forward,” said Sofield.  One area that poses no concern this season is goal tending, as the Cardinals are stacked in that position.  “We have three NCAA commits [Bowan, Boughton, and Shefrin] that stand in net.  Very rarely can a coach project that certain athletes will see more playing time in college than they will in high school.  Our goalie situation speaks exactly to that,” adds Sofield.  Lastly, and considering that we haven’t seen these two players take the field since their freshman year, the production of Gately and Scruggs is one of the more highly anticipated aspects of the 2021 season.  Primarily, Gately served as a defensive midfielder her freshman year, but she will be expected to play a more versatile role and contribute on both sides of the field for the Cardinals.  Scruggs, a lefty attacker, is poised to step up this season and draw the attention of opposing defenses.  “I’m excited for them!  Gately and Scruggs have essentially been operating in the shadows where very few people within the WCAC have been able to see them play,” said Sofield.       

For the girls’ lacrosse team, understandably, this past year has been emotionally trying.  When the final whistle blew in the 2019 WCAC Championship game giving Ireton their fourth straight crown in an 11-7 victory over Good Counsel, it certainly seemed as if the future was bound to burn bright.  The program’s momentum was continuing its stride, and the Cardinals’ potential was yet to be determined.  Then, the 2020 season was cancelled.  “It happened so fast.  Our team was well prepared after all the hard work put in during the off season.  We never got to show it on the field. My heart was broken for the seniors, and I couldn’t believe I wasn’t going to play with my best friends before they went to college,” said senior goalie Ashley Bowan.  While shock, anger, and disappointment lingered, these feelings eventually gave way to motivation.  “As we’re gearing up to start the season, our team seems to be universally embracing Coach’s message to ‘always compete,’ and it’s this mentality that we hope will sustain us in turbulent times.  It’s absolutely essential to hold each other accountable in everything we do,” said senior midfielder Blair Guy.       

This season, the WCAC is foregoing its conference tournament, but the VISAA championship will commence.  On their road toward another state title, the Cardinals will have to battle perennial threat Good Counsel, Paul VI, which is looking to have a breakout season, and a highly competitive Holy Cross team.  Similar to the school’s motto, “always advance,” Ireton is a team willing to take losses in the regular season to learn from their mistakes when it counts in the state tournament.  “I cannot express how excited I am to get back on Fannon Field.  We’re eager to see how we manage failure, but more importantly, we want the opportunity to showcase a year’s worth of hard work in April,” said Bowan.  For the lady Cardinals, two things are clear: having heart in net is invaluable, and opportunity rarely surfaces as expected.                                    

Peter J. Morrone, Ph.D.                                                                                                                
Assistant Teaching Professor of Writing                                                                                          
Rutgers University