By Chris Goldberg
Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 9/6/21
No one would have blamed Haddonfield’s McKenzie Blake for being one of the most disappointed athletes when the 2020 scholastic lacrosse season was canceled.
Blake had missed the second half of the 2019 season, her sophomore year, with a torn ACL. Just as she was cleared by doctors to play in March of 2020, COVID-19 hit, ultimately ending another season.
But Blake chose to make a positive out of a seemingly awful situation.
“I ended up being cleared (to play) probably 4-to-5 days before they canceled it and it was pretty rough to say the least,” she said. “The first couple of weeks were pretty hard.
“But in the long run it was good because it gave me an extra season to recover and make sure the knee had fully healed to play again. I didn’t play until early July and it really helped me. It was a blessing in disguise.”
Blake’s accomplishments in 2021 confirmed her thoughts. The senior midfielder collected 112 goals, 26 assists and 143 draw controls and led Haddonfield to a third straight New Jersey state title and a trip to the Tournament of Champions.
Blake scored at least three goals in every game this season, and had five, including the game-winner, in a stunning 10-9 overtime win over mighty Moorestown in a memorable regular season thriller.
What made this season most satisfying for Blake – who earned USA Lacrosse All-American honors for the second time – was her team’s success. Haddonfield was a power in her freshman and sophomore seasons and was expected to contend in 2020 for a Tournament of Champions title.
But in 2021 the team was young and not expected to beat a team like Moorestown.
“It was awesome just to get out there,” Blake said. “It was a pretty new team with a bunch of freshmen and sophomores. We only had a couple of returning juniors and seniors.
“It was definitely my most fun year. The team worked so well together and we did it with so much energy and so much positively. .We surpassed expectations by a lot.”
Haddonfield finished 18-2 and defeated Glen Ridge for the State Group 1 championship before falling to Cherokee, 14-10, in the Tournament of Champions quarterfinals. In 2018 and 2019, Haddonfield won the State Group 2 titles.
“It was super exciting to win the state championship this year,” Blake said. “The team did a great job of getting to the level of play needed to get there.”
The team’s biggest win may have occurred May 19 when it toppled South Jersey rival Moorestown on Blake’s overtime goal. Moorestown eventually reached the TofC final.
“My class was the first to win a state championship at Haddonfield so it was already a historical class,” Blake said. “Beating Moorestown was the last check for me. It was a close game with so much intensity and an awesome team win, from my (OT) goal, all the way up. We were super excited to get the win.”
Blake said she matured in many ways this year – most notably as a leader and a defensive player.
“I think because most of the team was so much younger, my role was stepped up into more of a leader. I needed to answer questions and help underclassmen to build up their confidence,” she said. “I normally lead through my play, but they needed me to be more vocal.
“I also really improved with my footwork and defense. When I was injured I got to see things from the sidelines and I picked up a different perspective on the game. My defense got a lot better, but our team had many great defenders and the unit stepped it up as a whole and just jelled.”
Nobody knows Blake better than her mother and head coach at Haddonfield, Jess Blake, who said her daughter refused to let obstacles get in her way.
“McKenzie could not wait for the 2021 season to start,” coach Blake said. “Torn ACL, rehab then COVID. She just wanted to play. The beginning was rough on her physically because she developed some hip injuries in her ACL rehab. She was in so much pain those first few weeks, I wasn’t sure how much she would be able to play.
She is a tough kid, so to see her in that much pain was hard. Luckily, as the season went on and she continued to work on her hips, she was more like herself with every game.
“McKenzie just wanted to be back on the field her senior year with her teammates. She wanted to have the opportunity to be a senior leader, to share her love of the game with the underclassman. As a second-year captain, she knew she had to find a way to get the most out of her teammates. All but five or so were new to the lineup; freshmen and sophomores, having never stepped foot on a varsity lax field before. McKenzie encouraged them, challenged them and let them know they deserved to be on the field.”
Jess Blake said her daughter knew when to take over and how to lead younger players.
“We knew what we can do as a team and McKenzie was willing to put the team on her back if and when needed,” she said. “Our goalie and defense had a great season. If they could lock it down defensively, McKenzie would find a way for our offense to score, and she did.”
“McKenzie is one of the fiercest competitors I know. She is a leader on and off the field. She wants to make everyone around her better. She had all eyes on her this season and each game she adjusted with her teammates and found a way for us to score.
“She sees the game so well, and can adjust on the field. She wanted all of the underclassmen to know what it felt like to win a state championship, to feel the benefits of all of your sacrifices and hard work. Thankfully she succeeded.”