|espnW.com: College Sports|
STORRS, Conn. -- On the same weekend many of her former rivals, not to mention two of her former teammates, gathered in Connecticut to learn their basketball futures in the WNBA draft, Brittany Mallory laced up a well-worn pair of sneakers, donned a Notre Dame uniform and once more ventured forth to face a familiar foe.
That the future looms in front of her is inevitable and not entirely unwelcome. It's just no reason to rush what remains of the present.
The newest member of the Notre Dame women's lacrosse team still seeks a championship, and a field that sits almost in the shadow of the University of Connecticut's Gampel Pavilion, one of the few places Mallory never won as part of a basketball rivalry that reached new heights in recent seasons, marked her first step toward one more title run.
Just 11 days after Mallory and her teammates walked off a basketball court in Denver amidst the confetti falling on Baylor's championship celebration, and Notre Dame's second consecutive championship game heartbreak, the fifth-year graduate student took the field for the No. 6 Fighting Irish lacrosse team in a game against Connecticut. In truth, she spent more time on the sideline than on that field, playing limited minutes in the second half of a comfortable 16-9 win for the Fighting Irish. But for someone who hadn't hefted a stick in a competitive setting in more than five years, it wasn't a bad start.
"It was a little nerve-wracking at first, but it was good," Mallory said. "I got used to it. It's a little different than practice."
The smile she wore when she offered the last bit of information underscored just how sizable an amount "a little" really was for someone who effectively came out of retirement six days before the game. Standing a few feet away from her new player, Notre Dame coach Christine Halfpenny couldn't contain a laugh. You might never forget how to ride a bike, but you're still going to be a little out of your depth if someone drops you in the middle of the Tour de France peloton after a hiatus.
And yet considering that her focus until so recently had been on a much bigger ball and a much smaller field of play, Mallory hardly looked like an impostor.
"She's such a natural," said Notre Dame co-captain Maggie Tamasitis, no small compliment from someone who had just set a school record with eight assists and is in the running for conference and national accolades. "Just getting the stick back in her hand -- she says she's nervous, but I don't see it at all. I think she has too much experience in the big time to be nervous about playing lacrosse at all."
Most recently, that was big-time basketball experience. Mallory started almost every game of her final two seasons in South Bend for teams that advanced to the national championship game. She was a 35 percent career 3-point shooter for teams that didn't always have a wealth of reliable long-range options, and hit two of her biggest in overtime of a semifinal win this season against Connecticut. And for all of that, her biggest contributions rarely showed up on the stat sheet, both as a lockdown defender regularly assigned to cover the opponent's best player and a leader who, as former associate head coach Jonathan Tsipis put it, had a basketball brain that allowed her to think for the other four players on the court.
But before all of that, Mallory was also a big-time high school lacrosse player at the McDonogh School near Baltimore, that program a hotbed of high school lacrosse even by the standards of a region passionate about the sport. There was never any doubt which sport she would play in college, but she didn't leave her passion for the other at home.
"Basketball was something I'd always played since I was younger, and lacrosse was something I kind of picked up in middle school, so making that college decision was a little easier for me," Mallory said. "But I always missed lacrosse. I always went to their games [at Notre Dame]. I lived with lacrosse girls, so just being around it made me miss it a little more, I think."
Halfpenny was no stranger to Mallory's previous athletic incarnation. She watched Mallory when the latter was starring for McDonogh and Halfpenny was an assistant lacrosse coach at Duke, impressed by the skills that left plenty of college lacrosse coaches talking almost wistfully about that kid who everyone knew was going to play basketball. Reminded of all of that when she took over as coach at Notre Dame this year after a successful run at William & Mary, Halfpenny would ask Mallory when she was going to come play lacrosse when their paths crossed on campus -- mostly, but not entirely, playfully.
Mallory's friends on the lacrosse team, Tamasitis among them, were busy planting similar seeds in the player's ear throughout the year, but even with time in short supply, the coach waited until the Monday after the title game, six days, to meet with Mallory. Her own experience on the wrong end of a Final Four outcome when she was at Duke told her to push any sooner might work to a negative end.
"It's not basketball, but it's the same deal," Halfpenny said. "The Final Four is really cool, and it's such an emotional high, but one team comes away. There's kind of an up and down -- you kind of go into this weird depression. You forget about it, and then you remember it. And so I think everybody needs time and space away from something they've put their whole heart into."
Mallory said that after five years of life as a college athlete (she missed most of the 2008-09 basketball season with a knee injury), she's looking forward to the day this summer when she can relax in a world without practices dotting her schedule. She isn't looking to play basketball professionally, overseas or domestically, and she's ready to try her hand at professional life this fall, perhaps in sports marketing. But that is then. When she walked into the house many of the lacrosse seniors share, stick in hand, and announced her intention to play, it was about a few more weeks to savor what is now.
"I talked to my family a little bit just seeing what they thought," Mallory said. "I mean, I'm going to be done with everything when this year is over, so why not just give it a chance if I could help them out and they seemed pretty excited to have me."
To that last point, her foray is a feel-good story for everyone except the kids who lose playing time to the newcomer after putting in practice hours all season. But after holding an open meeting in which all players were encouraged to voice their feelings, pro or con, before she spoke to Mallory, Halfpenny felt it was a move she could make without risking the chemistry a first-year coach can't take granted.
How much playing time Mallory earns with just four games left in the regular season remains to be seen, but both her coach and Tamasitis make it sound like this is more than a token addition. A midfielder in high school, Mallory is listed as a defender now but played almost exclusively in the attack half against Connecticut, a reflection of her coach's desire to let her focus on just one half of the field, utilizing the hands that produced so many steals on the basketball court to win draws on the field and the frame that looks much taller on the lacrosse field to command space.
If someone who hasn't done more than throw a ball around for years can actually help a national contender in a meaningful way, how good could she have been if she picked lacrosse over basketball? "She'd be a tough cookie to stop," Halfpenny said. "She's got size and she's got smarts and she's got the ability to lead. I looked at her and I was like, 'Are you sure you don't have a sixth year? Can I get you for one offseason?' It's her hands. I think that her smarts and her hands and her competitive edge, she could have developed into -- I don't know, it's the unknown and you never know. But she has that will in her that she would have been the best because that's kind of who she is. She's going to put her time into it. "She doesn't do it halfway or just for the ride; she wants to be the best." And in Mallory's case, even if the clock is ticking, there's no time like the present. "She's going to be awesome by the end of the year," Tamasitis said. "I'm calling it now; she's going to be someone to watch."