Legendary tales are often propped up by a touch of hyperbole.

But what happens when it’s not?

To call the Queen Anne’s County High girls’ lacrosse program the best among all Eastern Shore sports, among all seasons, when looking back at the last decade or so may seem like one of those hyperbolic statements, but little digging is required to align the evidence.

Ten region championships since 2009, including nine in a row.

Two state final appearances.

Eight North Bayside championships.

Five Bayside Conference championships.

Countless athletes that went on to play competitive, college ball.

One head coach for the entire timeframe.

But that will change come a new decade.

Penelope Santos Bates, who has overseen the entire rise of the program from an Eastern Shore power, to state playoff also-rans, to seemingly on the precipice of bringing the first public school girls’ lacrosse championship to this side of the Bay Bridge, stepped down this June from her post after 11 seasons, citing the desire to spend more time with her family, including her two young daughters also immersed in lacrosse.

Santos Bates, who guided the Lions to that 10th region title since 2009 this past spring, leaves behind a legacy virtually unmatched in recent times by other Shore sports programs, with Kent Island High’s football team’s run of 10 straight postseason appearances from 2008 to 2017 and Cambridge-South Dorchester’s active string of 12 straight Class 1A playoff berths since 2007 perhaps the only entities that can also lay a legitimate claim.

Santos Bates steps away with a record of 128-27-2, having produced four All-Mid-Shore Player of the Year performers, and earning the nod as the All-Mid-Shore Coach of the Year on four separate occasions.

Restoring the Lions to full glory in 2019 secured that fourth win for Santos Bates, and Shannon Donovan completes that quartet of top player winners after her exemplary season this past spring, headlining The Star Democrat annual girls’ lacrosse team recognizing the mettle and robust growth of the sport around the Mid-Shore.

“The expectations were set immediately,” Santos Bates said of her team’s aspirations at the outset of her head coaching career. “With school, you got to have A’s and B’s, you got to have good grades, and you got to work hard and try to be a better person. That was the first goal. As far as the lacrosse aspect of it, we went to a tournament in Cape Henlopen early on, and there was a team, Moorestown, out of New Jersey, and we showed up, and we were all nervous.

“We were going to play McDonough, and we were going to play Moorestown, and we didn’t know what to expect,” Santos Bates added. “I remember Moorestown getting off the bus, and they had maybe 40 people on their team, and every single player had on this black, full outfit, and they had their bags a certain way, they had their stick in their right hand, and they were walking in the same step, and I had never seen anything like it before.

“All our kids, they were in orange sweatshirts, black sweatpants, a pink headband, and we were about to play them,” Santos Bates continued. “The look, in my team’s faces, I will never forget. I think they thought they were going to just get annihilated.

“Anybody can wear whatever they want, they can walk however they want, they can carry their stick however they want. But when you get on the field, it’s who plays the hardest, plays the best. They went out and won, and once that happened, this confidence took over to where they believed in themselves, and this culture was established where we can do anything, let’s see what we can do. I realized how important it was for uniforms, sweats, gears, headbands, little trinkets, having parents involved, and this culture was established where there was this buy-in that people would latch on to. It became this fun thing to be a part of.”

Donovan is one of those players nurtured in that culture.

The senior captain and midfielder, who also had a stellar career with the school’s girls’ basketball program, used her field vision, lacrosse aptitude and leadership to spearhead the team’ return to the state level.

Donovan’s overall numbers were relatively modest — 25 goals, 17 assists, 42 ground balls, 47 draw controls and eight interceptions — but her intangibles have always been off the charts.

“I think game sense, she is one of the top players, game sense,” Santos Bates said of Donovan. “Watching the play develop and watching what’s happening and then doing things on purpose, because of what’s happening around her — everything she did was purposeful.

“She’s definitely a lead by example player, hands down,” Santos Bates added. “She comes in with a presence, the girls follow her suit. She elevates and helps elevate people around her, and there are other players who elevate her play, as well. When that happens, the whole team gets better.”

While many teams revolved the defensive game plan around stopping All-Mid-Shore first-teamers Bella Rulapaugh and Kylie Tulowitzky, there was not much to do as far as limiting Donovan’s effectiveness — she was perpetually everywhere, all the time, affecting the game in ways not gleaned from simple counting stats.

“Going into the season, this was my last chance to play, see how far we can go,” said Donovan, who is currently at Queens (N.C.) University and studying Business and Interior Design. Donovan noted the 2019 group’s camaraderie also played a major role in both her and the team’s success. “When we would do team bonding outside the season, the more team bonding we had, it would show in how we played with each other.”

Arguably the most successful player to come out of Queen Anne’s County is Mollie Stevens, a 2013 graduate and 2012 All-Mid-Shore Player of the Year. Stevens went on to an All-American college career with nationally ranked University of Florida, was a Tewaaraton Award nominee, has since played professionally and was most recently appointed head girls’ lacrosse coach at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in southern California.

“Culture is everything, and she instilled that in us from Day 1,” Stevens said. “You can be a talented team stacked with great players, but if you don’t support the girl next to you and believe in her and trust her, you aren’t going to get very far.

“Being older now and going through a Division 1 lacrosse program, you realize culture makes a team, and when you are a young high schooler you don’t know that or really care about that,” Stevens continued. “Every day, I think of the role model she was and is for me and I strive to be young girls’ role model all across the county and hope to leave a lasting, positive impact on their lives like she did on mine.”

The Lions’ latest playoff run included a 9-3, Section II final win over rival Kent Island, which won the Bayside title and sported an unbeaten, 15-0 record going into the game. Queen Anne’s then easily disposed of North Harford, 12-6, in the region championship and once again reached the state playoffs, but their run was ended days later to eventual champion South Carroll.

Donovan had a huge interception that virtually sealed the game in the middle of a Kent Island uprising, and did her customary work on offense and in the midfield.

“The 2018 season was kind of a restart, because we lost so many players,” Donovan said. “We kind of had basically the same team coming back and we knew how we played and we connected very well.

“After we played (Kent Island) that first game, we kind of knew we could take them the second time,” Donovan added of avenging the regular-season loss to the Buccaneers. “Knowing that it could be our last game, we just really wanted to beat them. It was a really big game for us.

“We felt awful last year, when we didn’t win the regional championship,” Donovan continued. “It had been so long since we lost it. Coming into this regional game, we knew we had to start it over.”

But long before the current batch of Lions even entered high school, the program was already running the show on the Eastern Shore, including three region titles in Santos Bates’s first three seasons.

It wasn’t until the 2012 state playoffs, the Lions’ fourth straight appearance in the final four, that Queen Anne’s went from Maryland also-rans and into the conversation for one of the best teams in the state.

In the 2012 Class 3A-2A state semifinals, the Lions were pitted against Mt. Hebron, from the lacrosse hotbed that is Howard County. The Vikings, who won state championships every year from 1992 to 1995 and then 1997 to 2007, and were in the final as recently as 2009, marched onto the field at Annapolis High that day in a manner that left an indelible mark on Queen Anne’s, much like Moorestown did just a few months back.

“That was another instance of Mt. Hebron getting off the bus, walking out on the field, very militant style,” Santos Bates said. “Then, their pre-game warmups, as we were watching it, I remember my players looking down at them and thinking, ‘Oh, no,’. The way they carried themselves, they looked like total rock stars. And I kind of saw a little bit of air get taken from my girls. Rich and I quickly said, ‘We can do this. We’re here for a reason’.”

Lions assistant coach Rich Abel has been at the post since 2010, Santos Bates’s second year, and has been the booming voice on the sidelines navigating the players and negotiating with the referees.

The story of how Santos Bates and Abel partnered up is one of kismet.

He was also one of only a few in the inner circle who had an inkling Santos Bates would be moving on after the season.

“I was actually playing in a tournament in Ocean City, and her husband plays, as well,” Abel said. “She was there at the game, and my daughter was getting ready to start high school and play lacrosse, so I just kind of went over and introduced myself, ‘My name is Richard Abel, my daughter Carly is getting ready to start high school and is going to be playing lacrosse’. (Santos Bates) kind of asked right there, ‘Hey, do you know anybody that wants to be an assistant?” And I was like, ‘I could possibly do that. I have a flexible schedule. That wouldn’t be out of the question’. That’s my side of the story.

“We weren’t just ‘Coach’, we’ve known each other now for 10 years,” Abel added. “We’re friends, and the writing was on the wall. It was hard for her coming across the bridge, being away from her children. She was missing things that they were involved in, and she absolutely stuck it out probably another couple of years more than I think she really wanted to.”

Abel’s recollection of that fateful May afternoon in 2012 is perfectly in step with that of Santos Bates.

“Coincidentally, it’s my high school,” Abel said of Mt. Hebron, located in the scenic Baltimore suburb of Ellicott City. “My memory of that was, we showed up to that game, and we looked at this team, Mt. Hebron, with all these bright white uniforms on and they were doing these drills, running these big circles, and we’re all just sitting there going, ‘What the heck...’”.

“They were like a military machine,” Abel added. “I know myself, thinking in my head, ‘Let’s just not get blown out. Let’s look good and not get blown out’. Not that I didn’t have confidence in my girls, but it was like, ‘What do we do here?’ I was always thinking of the “Hoosiers” movie: we were some rinky-dink Eastern Shore team going up against this powerhouse.”

The Lions trailed 5-1 with about 20 minutes left to play, suffered through yellow cards levied upon leading scorers Stevens and Jessica Crew, were missing starting midfielder Gina Purdue to a knee injury incurred in the first half, and was up against the mystique of a program that had won 103 straight games through 2007 before re-districting balanced the power.

Queen Anne’s, sparked by Stevens, Crew, goalkeeper Cassidy Wilson and midfielder Abby O’Donnell, scored the final five goals and toppled the venerable Vikings by a 6-5 tally.

“I feel like I won the lottery,” Santos Bates said after that game.

More than seven years later, the memories of that breakthrough are still beyond fresh for Santos Bates, Abel and Stevens.

“That was a point in my career that I realized, that you don’t have to win by 20,” Santos Bates said. “All you have to win by is one, and it’s management of the clock. That was the team that played against Moorestown, and I remember, it was Bre Hamm and Abby, and we called a timeout and told them exactly what to do, and they went out and did it. It was the whole trust factor they had. I think it was that game that was the benchmark, the turning point, that people started to believe.”

Added Abel: “It was the heart and soul of these girls that came out in this game. They busted their butts. The way it unfolded, it was just unreal. It was just unreal. It was definitely one of those moments that you dream of, and it hadn’t happened, yet.”

“It was an incredible feeling,” Stevens said. “Every year we had been knocking on the doorstep, but we finally got in and made it to the state championship. We knew we were talented, the entire Shore knew we were talented, we were the team to beat. Once we were able to beat a powerhouse like Mt. Hebron, the teams on the western shore knew we were the real deal, too.”

The Eastern Shore is still fighting an uphill battle in the state landscape, but the Lions’ area domination was officially underway. Queen Anne’s reached the state playoffs every year until 2017, including a second title-tilt berth in 2015. Kent Island momentarily wrested away the region crown from Queen Anne’s only to hand it back a year later, further securing the Lions’ place in the annals of Eastern Shore girls’ lacrosse.

“You can’t argue with it,” Abel said. “The facts are facts. We can sit here and say it was coaching and all that, but it was a bunch of great girls that started out in the rec leagues around here, learned how to play the game, and when they got to us, we had to just refine them.

“These kids all came through programs that taught them the game before they got to us,” Abel added. “I have to hand it to the rec leagues and coaches that started these kids out young and kept them interested.”

Now the program will begin relatively anew, but with plenty of past success to use as examples for the returning group and eventual influx of fresh talent.

The elusive state championship would certainly complete the circle, but around every curve, every apogee of that circle will be names that will only grow in legend: Shannon Donovan, Madison Ascione, Kallie German, Mollie Stevens — all players of the year — and Penelope Santos Bates, the one head coach who had a hand in the development of each one.

“I also had her as a teacher, and we talked a lot about the season,” Donovan said. “Coach Santos Bates, the coaches, they were really great all throughout our high school careers, because they were so dedicated to our team.”

Added Stevens: “I had an incredible four years playing for Penelope. Going to high school is a huge adjustment, especially for young girls. She helped me find my identity and turned me into a confident young woman my freshman year. I still go to Penelope about practically everything — job advice, coaching advice, life advice — no matter what I am trying to do, she is always there to help me.”

Santos Bates continued teaching those lessons through the final weeks on the sidelines.

“The competition, that’s what makes sports great,” Santos Bates said, reminiscing one final time about 10th region title and getting a little bit of revenge on Kent Island in the process. “It was extremely satisfying for the entire team. When you have such competitive teams around you, and it doesn’t go the way you want it to, or you expect it to go, and you’ve been conditioned to have it go that way, it hurts really bad, it stings.

“It’s not the coaches, but also the players, and the whole school,” Santos Bates concluded. “It’s fun, it’s competitive, but, unfortunately, someone is going to lose. And from that, you have pick your bootstraps up and keep going.”

Santos Bates extended hearty thank yous to her family, players, parents, the team’s community of supporters, and the school itself.

The feeling is no doubt mutual: “Thank you for the memories, and thank you for guiding the most successful high school sports program during your tenure with the Queen Anne’s County High girls’ lacrosse team.”

Here is a look at the 2019 All-Mid-Shore girls’ lacrosse teams, as selected by a combination of the area coaches and The Star Democrat sports staff:

* * *

First Team

Attack

Bayley Tracy, Jr., Cambridge-SD

The Vikings’ leader on attack and transition en route to the Class 2A-1A East Region final, Tracy scored 48 goals, dished 28 assists and played for Saltwater Lacrosse Club. The three-year varsity player has verbally committed to Florida Southern University.

Bella Rulapaugh, So., Queen Anne’s County

The top scorer on the Mid-Shore for the second season in a row with 57 goals and 40 assists, Rulapaugh was again the Lions’ No. 1 finisher and often drew the attention of the opposing team’s best 1-on-1 defender. Rulapaugh, an MD United club member, also picked up 22 ground balls in 2019 and scored two goals in the state semifinal loss to South Carroll.

Morgan Gunn, Sr., Kent Island

Gunn put up strong, all-around numbers in 2019 for the Bayside Conference champions, posting 35 goals, 20 assists, 10 draws, 28 ground balls and seven caused turnovers, showing off her moxie on both offense and midfield. She is now attending George Mason University and also played for Lady Blue Crabs.

Kylie Tulowtizky, Jr., Queen Anne’s County

Tulowitzky combined with Rulapaugh for a devastating 1-2 punch on offense for the Lions, tallying 51 goals, while chipping in six assists, 22 ground balls, and four interceptions. The Lady Blue Crab performer has verbally committed to Winthrop University.

Midfield

Morgan Tracy, Jr., Cambridge-SD

The Vikings’ varsity captain and three-year player, Tracy scored 45 goals, passed for 11 assists and was a key cog in the draw circle. Tracy has verbally committed to Butler University and also is on Saltwater Lacrosse.

Cassidy Creighton, Sr., Kent Island

The reigning All-Mid-Shore Co-Player of the Year posted another strong season with 26 goals and seven assists, while providing her customary ball-handling and speed in the midfield. Creighton also demonstrated her knack for the ball with 32 draws, five caused turnovers, six takeaways and 58 ground balls. Creighton is attending Elon University after a distinguished four-year varsity career with Kent Island and MD United’s club team.

Blair Goodrich, Jr., Kent Island

A player of the finalist, Goodrich racked up 35 goals, 10 assists, a Mid-Shore high 80 draw controls, 54 ground balls, 16 caused turnovers and 10 takeaways in one of best all-around seasons in recent memory. The MD United member played everywhere from attack, to midfield, to defense for the Buccaneers, and was also named an All-American for the Eastern Shore.

Lily Osborne, So., Easton

Osborne, a finalist for top player, was a highly reliable scorer and ball-handler during her sophomore season. Osborne registered 38 goals, 20 assists and 55 draw controls while also playing physical, lockdown defense in and around midfield. She is a member of MD United.

Anna Roser, So., Easton

The Player of the Year runner-up and a member on the M&D Lacrosse Club’s Black squad, Roser scored a program-record 55 goals for the Warriors and added 17 assists and 54 draw controls while displaying some of the best stick work in the entire Mid-Shore. Roser’s versatility, durability, and endurance were key for an Easton squad going to toe-to-toe with the area’s best all season.

“She is one of the best shot makers I’ve seen and is aggressive to the cage,” Warriors head coach Robert Smith said. “She can play with her left hand just as well as her right, and against the best teams, Anna played her best. She rises to the challenge and is a great leader.”

Addy Caulk, So., Queen Anne’s County

The Lions’ draw control ace, the 5-foot-11 Caulk turned in one of the better all-around sophomore campaigns on the Mid-Shore with 26 goals, 15 assists, 18 ground balls and 47 draws. Caulk also plays club ball for Chesapeake Club Lacrosse.

Cat Christian, Sr., Easton

Christian, one of the most capable end-to-end players on the Mid-Shore, scored 10 goals and added 29 draw control wins during her one season with the Warriors after starting her high school career with Saints Peter and Paul.

Annabelle Gillespie, Jr., Gunston

A three-year varsity performer and 2019 captain, Gillespie poured in 51 goals, dished 24 assists and added healthy tallies in ground balls (25) and caused turnovers (11). The draw expert used her height and speed to be a force in the circle, where she came away with 35 wins.

Defense

Emma Caulk, Sr., Queen Anne’s County

Caulk, now studying at University of Cincinnati, was part of a stingy backfield for the Lions, totaling 16 ground balls and five interceptions. She also played club ball for Chesapeake Club Lacrosse.

Grace Sweetak, Sr., Queen Anne’s County

The other half of the Lions’ dynamic defense, Sweetak picked up 20 grounders and nabbed four interceptions during her final year of a standout career with Queen Anne’s. She is currently attending Rollins (Fla.) College and also played for Chesapeake Club Lacrosse.

Marissa Plumer, Sr., Kent Island

With 18 caused turnovers, eight takeaways and 38 ground balls, Plumer posted some of the strongest defensive numbers across the Mid-Shore, and is now at Newberry College in South Carolina. Plumer balanced patience and aggressiveness on defense and was the de facto leader of the Buccaneers’ strong backfield.

Madalyn Messersmith, Sr., Kent Island

Another one of Kent Island’s defensive aces, Messersmith compiled 15 caused turnovers, two takeaways and 25 ground balls to round out her athletic presence for the Bucs. Messersmith, also attending Newberry College with her backfield mate Plumer, played for MD United during her Shore lacrosse career.

Myia Jeter, Jr., Easton

Jeter added a new dimension to her game in 2019, chipping in a solid 14 goals and 10 assists to go with 23 draw controls as she also saw plenty of time in the midfield. Jeter also plays for the Lady Blue Crabs.

Nellie Stup, Sr., Gunston

Stup, a four-year varsity player for the Herons and a two-year captain, corralled 34 ground balls and caused 21 turnovers during a standout season. She is also a member of Maryland United and will play Division III lacrosse at University of Mary Washington.

Goalkeeper

Emily Griffith, Jr., Easton

The leader of the Warriors’ defense, Griffith made 77 saves, including seven big stops in a hard-fought, 15-11 loss to Queen Anne’s in the region playoffs. The Lady Blue Crabs alum is now at Arcadia (Pa.) University, where she intends to play lacrosse.

Second-Team

Attack

Colby Martin, Sr., Kent Island: 20G, 29A, 16GB, 10CT, Mercer (Ga.) University, Maryland United.

Macy Schmidt, Jr., Easton: 37G, 8A, 12DC, Rollins (Fla.) College, Maryland United.

Sarah Bowyer, Jr., Queen Anne’ County: 28G, 10A, 28GB, Franklin & Marshall College (verbal), Maryland United.

Alley Heath, Sr., Kent Island: 30G, 20A, 22GB, 5CT, Campbell (N.C.) University, Maryland United.

Sarah Bradley, Sr., Saints Peter and Paul: 35G, 14DC, Lewis (Ill.) University.

Lily Dixon, Fr., Kent Island: 25G, 14A, 27DC, 48GB, 11CT, 7TA, Lady Blue Crabs.

Hannah Brewster, Sr., North Caroline: team captain, Kutztown (Pa.) University, Lady Blue Crabs.

Kaylen Karnes, Sr., Kent Island: 24G, 16A, 36GB, 12DC, 10CT, 8A, Longwood University, Sky Walkers Lacrosse.

Midfield

Natalie Snyder, Sr., Easton: 12G, 4A, University of Maryland.

Kate Ervin So., Kent County: 28G, 4A, 24DC, 21GB.

Camryn Pepper, Jr., North Caroline: team MVP, Salisbury University (verbal), Lady Blue Crabs

Taiyana Goldsborough, Sr., Kent County: 42 GB, 31 TA, Millersville (Pa.) University, Lady Blue Crabs.

Ella Pinder, Fr., Queen Anne’s County: 15GB, 4INT, 1G, 2A.

Alex Lawton, Sr., North Caroline: team captain, Grand Valley (Mich.) State University, Lady Blue Crabs.

Goalkeeper

Evy Stricker, So., Kent Island: 85 saves, Maryland United.

Follow on Twitter @Ayman_StarDem. Email at aalam@stardem.com

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