RADNOR >> There was a little wave of uncertainty that rippled through the Agnes Irwin athletic community at this point last year.
For Maria Pansini’s entire lacrosse career, she and coach Jen Duckenfield had been together on the field. Since starting on varsity in eighth grade, Pansini had the plan figured out. She was part of the Owls’ rise to regional and national prominence, with three total losses in her first two seasons. They’d won a Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association title in 2017 to avenge a pair of one-goal losses to Episcopal Academy in the regular season.
So 2018 would be the capstone to that journey. Eleven seniors, eight who will play college lacrosse, seven in Division I, it was all set, right?
That was until a change of leadership at the school, a parting of ways with Duckenfield and the arrival of Lauren Wray brought the plan into momentary question. But Pansini soon discovered that the continuity her team had built was up to the challenge.
“It was definitely different and we didn’t really know what to expect as a team,” Pansini said. “But coach Wray was amazing with communicating with us captains, and it was a very smooth transition because it was a direct line of contact with us and her and the team. Just the fact that we could have such a close relationship in less than one year was really cool.”
With Pansini leading the way, the Owls’ ascent continued unabated. They won 19 games, split the Inter-Ac title with archrival EA and bested the Churchwomen in the PAISAA final. And Pansini provided the stabilizing presence in all facets — with her defensive work, her 42 goals, her work on draw controls.
For that, the senior is the 2018 Daily Times Girls Lacrosse Player of the Year.
Pansini is joined on the All-Delco team by sister Natalie Pansini; the Garnet Valley trio of Regan Nealon, Sam Hamalak and Kamryn McNeal; EA’s Katie Crager and Olivia Dirks; Archbishop Carroll’s Rachel Matey and Katie Detwiler; Radnor’s Cate Cox and Ellie Mueller and Springfield’s Belle Mastropietro and Olivia Little.
Maria Pansini, Crager, Detwiler and Matey earn their second All-Delco nods. Seven picks are seniors. Mastropietro, Dirks, Cox and Nealon lead the junior class, while Natalie Pansini and Mueller represent the Class of 2020. The squad of 13 All-Delcos is culled from a crowd of 14 All-Americans from Delco schools recognized by U.S. Lacrosse. The All-Delco team is selected in consultation with area coaches.
The theme of family that Agnes Irwin relied on in its transition rings particularly true for Pansini. One of the most special aspects of her Owls career is that she’s never been the only Pansini.
When she started on varsity, older sister Laura, a two-time All-Delco, was there to guide her. After the 2016 season — which featured Laura as a senior, Maria as a sophomore and Natalie as an eighth-grader — Maria transitioned to the role of older sister. Being the third of four siblings has granted her both perspectives.
“It’s cool because I get to see the two sides of it, and I’ve never had to play alone, so I’ve always had a sister there,” she said. “But it’s crazy how the dynamic switches from being the youngest to being the oldest and sort of leading Natalie in certain ways. It’s cool because I’ve learned from Laura, and then I get to kind of teach Natalie that, which is cool.”
The same will apply in college. Laura will be a junior at Princeton when Maria arrives next year, with Natalie committed to follow. And if she needs familiar faces, she need only look around the Ivy League.
Classmate Emma Macaione, a second-team All-Delco defender, will join Kate White at Dartmouth. Kristin Burnetta and 2015 POY Hannah Keating will be at Harvard. Emmie Kiely and Emily Fryer are at Brown, while Alicia O’Neil and Hailey Andress ply their trades at Cornell.
Pansini takes pride in the Irwin diaspora.
“It’s been really cool,” she said. “I’ve been playing with Emma since eighth grade, and just to see all of us grow and become better people, players, all around, it’s really cool. … Seeing (Macaione) in a different uniform is going to be strange. But I think it’s cool that we can go our different ways and still have the bond from this high school experience.”
The Owls’ strength and depth allowed Pansini to play her preferred pure midfield role this season, with less of a defensive bend than in the past. She contributed 42 goals and 17 assists. She tallied three hat tricks, all against Inter-Ac opposition, and four goals in a loss to national powerhouse St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes of Virginia. One of her hat tricks was in the PAISAA final, a 12-7 handling of EA.
Pansini also supplied plenty of defensive mettle, causing 21 turnovers, collecting 41 ground balls and controlling 76 draws. The latter category offered the level of control she prized, allowing her to dictate the game on both sides of the field, instead of being the defender shouting instructions from afar. And it allowed her to develop and deploy the profound on-field connection she has with Natalie.
“I think that Natalie and I sometimes, we just kind of know each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” Maria said. “So certain things — I’ll know that maybe I’ll have to back Natalie up on a certain side or she knows that she has to back me up. We can almost know where each other is going without fully communicating. It’s just this bond that we have.”
It all comes back to family for Maria, with Laura and Natalie serving as representative shorthand. Maria watched Laura lead Agnes Irwin’s rise under Duckenfield, then she became a key figure in authoring the follow up, proving that sustained success wasn’t dependent on one class or coach.
Now, she bequeaths to Natalie the roadmap to take that further into the future.
“It’s been a surreal experience,” Maria said. “I think it was my freshman year when we beat Moorestown and then we just started to beat these good teams. This year we beat Lawrenceville and had some tough games, we were really close with St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes. Everyone thought that our team was going to go way down when our 2016s graduated because they were such a strong class. But the fact that we could just keep going and do these things that people really didn’t think we could, it’s been really cool, and I hope the program continues to grow because I’d love to come back and watch it.”