Baltimore is home to the best lacrosse in the world, on both the men’s and women’s sides, so there is no shortage of talent to consider when it comes time to select our annual players and coach of the year award.

That said, those receiving those honors in 2023 stood out from the pack, in leading their respective teams to glory on the field.

Our 2023 Player of the Year award will be shared by McDonogh’s Kate Levy and Manchester Valley’s Emma Penczek, our defensive player of the year honor goes to Severna Park’s Lilly Spilker and Liberty’s Tom Brandel is our Coach of the Year. Here are their stories.

McDonogh's Kate Levy, the 2023 Baltimore Banner/VSN Girls Lacrosse Co-Player of the Year. (Katherine Dunn)

At McDonogh, Kate Levy knew she would be surrounded by a level of talent and a host of competitive challenges she could not have experienced playing high school lacrosse at home in North Carolina.

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With lots of family in Maryland, the junior spent her summers here playing with the top-level M&D lacrosse club, so, once she transferred, it didn’t take her long to emerge as one of the best two-way midfielders in McDonogh’s history.

The 2023 Baltimore Banner/VSN Girls Lacrosse Co-Player of the Year excelled on attack, on the draw and on defense where McDonogh coach Taylor Cummings called her one of the best midfielder defenders she’s ever seen in the high school game.

Levy’s versatility showed in her final stats: 47 goals, 21 assists, 73 draw controls and 13 caused turnovers for the No. 1 Eagles, the IAAM A Conference champions.

“She makes an impact at every spot on the field. You can’t get away from her,” Cummings said. “Everywhere she is on the field, you have to pay attention to her and not only does she play everywhere, she excels in every area which is really tough to do.”

In the 13-8 A Conference title victory over No. 2 St. Paul’s School for Girls, the two time defending champion, Levy scored three critical goals, controlled four draws and held the Gators’ top midfielder, Natalie Shurtleff, to two goals.

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She won the first draw and scored 39 seconds later. With McDonogh trailing by two going into the second half, the lefty scored twice in a pivotal 5-0 run that put the Eagles on top to stay. She also won four draws and held the Gators’ top midfielder, Natalie Shurtleff, to two goals.

“She’s very smart,” St. Paul’s coach Mary Gagnon said. “She sees the game fast. She understands the game. Yes, she’s athletic, she has great skills, she’s technical, but at this level, it’s just as important to understand the game and that really helps her… You can get athletes that are just fast and athletic, but they don’t always make the right play. She does.”

Next month, Levy will try out for the U.S. Women’s U20 National Team. One 99 players and just 17 rising seniors invited to try out, she’ll compete for a chance to play at the world championships next summer in Hong Kong.

Making the move to McDonogh, Levy knew, would better prepare her for opportunities like that and get her ready to play at North Carolina where she had committed to play for her mother Jenny Levy, the Tar Heels’ head coach.

McDonogh’s appeal included top academics and a chance to play soccer, which she also loves but is a spring sport in North Carolina. The main draw, of course, was the chance to play with talented teammates and to be coached by Cummings, the best two-way midfielder ever.

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Levy’s many contributions played a major role in the Eagles finishing 20-1, winning back the A Conference title and earning the No. 2 ranking in both national polls, the Nike/USA Lacrosse Top 25 and the IL Women Top 25.

“To be able to stand out among so many great players, that’s amazing in itself,” Glenelg coach Alex Pagnotta said, “just to separate yourself when you’re on a team with such amazing talent all around you. She’s just somebody you’ve got to always know where she is on the field. She’s definitely a coach’s daughter. There’s no doubt about it.”

Levy believes she has probably absorbed a few things from her mother who is also the head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team, the 2022 world champion. As a player, Jenny (Slingluff) Levy starred at Roland Park before leading Virginia to its first national championship.

“I’ve been around my mom breaking down game film and I do think some of my IQ piece of it comes from her, just because when you’re surrounded by the logistics of the game and not just the physical aspects of it, it helps implement that into your game. I definitely think it played some sort of role,” said Levy, adding that she also takes her mother’s post-game coaching advice to heart.

She started playing lacrosse, “probably as soon as I could walk, I would think,” and played boys lacrosse until she was 11. She has always been a midfielder.

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“I like how you can make an impact all over the field and not only contribute on one end,” Levy said. “It’s also fun that you get to bond with all of your teammates. You’re not only playing with a set of three people on the attacking end and three other people on the defensive end, you kind of have to be a cohesive unit with everyone on the field.”

One of the ways she’s been most valuable to the Eagles is on the draw where she’s equally adept at placing the ball to her teammates or winning the ball on the circle. She had never been part of the draw team until Cummings taught her.

In the regular-season 10-9 win over St. Paul’s, she controlled five draws and was instrumental in getting the ball to her teammates so they combined to win 13 of 21 draws.

She also had four draw controls and scored four goals in a 12-11 win over No 3 Maryvale.

Levy will spend another summer in Maryland, trying out for the U20 team, playing club ball and competing for Baltimore in the Highlight Division of the All-America Underclass Tournament in late July before she returns to McDonogh.

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“I think the thing that really stands out about Kate is she’s such a competitor,” Cummings said. “She goes so hard and just has this will to win but also is a player who just wants the ball in big moments, doesn’t shy away from them. That just says so much about her confidence in herself and her confidence in her team and I think on top of that she’s just a natural leader.”

Manchester Valley's Emma Penczek, the 2023 Baltimore Banner/VSN Girls Lacrosse Co-Player of the Year.

As a sophomore, Manchester Valley’s Emma Penczek is already well known for her ability to score a lot of goals.

The 5-foot-4 lefty scored 93 this spring and had 43 assists to lead the No. 6 Mavericks to the Class 2A state championship and to the Carroll County Athletic League crown.

In the state final, she tied the title game record with nine goals in a 15-7 win over Middletown to cap a 19-0 season. The Mavericks, the only unbeaten public school team in Maryland, ranked No. 19 in the nation in the Nike/USA Lacrosse Top 25.

As impressive as her offensive numbers are, Penczek’s skills aren’t limited to one side of the field.

The Baltimore Banner/VSN Girls Lacrosse Co-Player of the Year excels as one of the best two-way midfielders around. She also controlled 129 draws, playing on the circle, and caused 37 turnovers.

“I think it boils down to her competitiveness and her game IQ and the combination of those two,” Mavericks coach Shelly Brezicki said. “She sees the field, she sees the plays extremely well, well above her age, above her years of experience. Emma’s just a playmaker but yet also a finisher and also a starter of things. Her defense, her ride, her draw controls, it’s all there — definitely a total player.”

Penczek is faster than almost all of her opponents and has a blistering first step that allows her to escape face guards and blast off the 8-meter line. She outruns opponents to win draws and ground balls and to get into position to cause turnovers.

“Her speed between the restraining lines makes her a dynamic player,” Liberty coach Tom Brandel said. “In transition, she’s tough to find and guard. She’s a competitor, so she’s really tough to beat… I saw her last year as a freshman and knew she was going to be a problem for the next four years.”

Penczek never disappointed in the biggest games.

She scored seven goals and had four assists in a 17-4 win over No. 12 Westminster that clinched the championship in the most competitive girls lacrosse county in Maryland.

In the state semifinal, No. 15 C. Milton Wright face guarded her on attack and on the draw circle, but she still scored the game-winning goal and had eight draw controls in an 11-10 victory.

Against No. 7 and Howard County champion Glenelg, Penczek scored five goals, had two assists and controlled 11 draws in a 10-9 overtime victory to win perhaps the state’s toughest region. She escaped a face guard to tie the game at 9 with 2:24 left and won the draw in overtime that led to Erin Herrold’s free-position game winner.

Glenelg coach Alex Pagnotta had watched Penczek on film, but said she was far more dominant in the game.

“She’s an amazing player,” he said. “I think it goes to that unique combination of being quick and fast and then just having amazing stick skills and ability to get to the goal and utilize that unique combination. [She’s] able to come up with the ball and find the back of the net with either hand and speed and quickness. I was just super impressed.”

In her two-year career, she has 159 goals, 71 assists, 183 draw controls and 66 caused turnovers. The state title was the Mavericks’ first since 2016.

To Penczek, however, none of these accomplishments is all about her. She’s the first to give credit to everyone else with the team, because they are an integral part of her formula for success.

“Through the years I’ve played, I’ve had great coaches and great teammates,” she said, “and just being able to put in extra work outside of practice or outside of games or outside of tournaments and having someone to put me through that and guide me along the way has helped so much.”

On the field, she loves the team aspect of the game.

“This year, we really tried to focus on we rather than I. No matter how anything ends up on the offensive end or the defensive end, you’re celebrating that group of people just there, all working to create that opportunity.”

The first one in her family to play lacrosse, Penczek was hooked the minute she tried the sport at recess in kindergarten or first grade. She can’t quite recall which, but she remembers coming home from school and asking to try out for the rec program.

Now, she plays club lacrosse for M&D and last summer, she stood out against the best rising sophomores in the country, scoring eight goals to lead Baltimore to an 11-8 win over Long Island in the championship game of the All-America Underclass Tournament Command Division.

This summer, she’ll play in the Underclass Tournament in July with Baltimore’s team of rising juniors in the Burn Division. She’ll also play in many tournaments because, she says, “Summer is recruiting season.”

College coaches are already hot on her trail although they cannot contact Penczek directly until Sept. 1. She has a favorite but isn’t ready to reveal it.

Brezicki has heard from top Division I coaches and Maryland, Northwestern and Clemson coaches showed up to watch the three-sport athlete play basketball.

“I don’t think she realizes how good she is,” Brezicki said. “That’s the interesting part of the whole thing. We worked a lot this year on the piece of knowing how good you are and handling that pressure and handling everything that comes with that, because we have to remember she just turned 16. She’s young and there’s a lot for her to consider.”

Severna Park's Lilly Spilker, the 2023 Baltimore Banner/VSN Girls Lacrosse Defensive Player of the Year
Severna Park's Lilly Spilker, the 2023 Baltimore Banner/VSN Girls Lacrosse Defensive Player of the Year

Severna Park coach Annie Houghton calls Lilly Spilker the queen of knockdowns.

The senior defender caused 24 turnovers for the No. 9 Falcons, the Class 3A state and Anne Arundel County champions. Most of them came in the biggest games, including five in the 12-8 state title victory over No. 11 Towson.

“Lilly is an impeccable player,” Houghton said. “She has a great way of reading the field. She anticipates the next play, is quick on the slide and double and has such speed that she is uncatchable when clearing the ball… Lilly [is], by far, our best defender and who we would have mark a team’s best player.”

The Baltimore Banner/VSN Girls Lacrosse Defensive Player of the Year, Spilker helped the Falcons (17-3) finish the season with 13 straight wins. During that streak, they held all but two opponents to eight or fewer goals.

Her ability to disrupt offenses was the key to that stingy stretch and her performance was especially impressive because she had not played many high school games until this spring.

After COVID-19 stole her freshman season, Spilker suffered meniscus tears during her sophomore and junior seasons. She played through the injury her sophomore year when she didn’t start and the season included only 10 games. She didn’t want to miss club lacrosse, because so much recruiting happens the summer between sophomore and junior year, so she delayed surgery until November.

She played one game the next year and tore the knee ligament again. She missed the rest of the high school season and her final club season after surgery in June.

“It was awesome to have a full season,” Spilker said. “I think I was less tentative going into lacrosse season because I had already played soccer and basketball and my knee hadn’t really bothered me, but I was just really happy to be back with all my teammates.”

Confident that her knee would be fine, the 5-foot-9 Spilker stood out from the start of the season. In the third game, she caused a season-high six turnovers, including one that led to the game-winning goal, in a 9-8 win at Mount Hebron.

“Lilly’s height and wingspan really help on the defensive end, causing turnovers,” Mount Hebron coach Samantha Hall said. “She did have what turned into the game-winning-goal caused turnover in our game. She’s good at picking off passes so not only is she a good on-ball defender, she’s a good off-ball defender.”

Although her stats — one caused turnover and one ground ball — don’t show it, Spilker had another big game in the state semifinals when the Falcons rallied from two goals down with 27.2 seconds left to beat No. 12 Westminster, 13-12 in overtime. In the second half, her defensive assignment changed and she shut out the Owls’ Brinley Tozer, who had scored four goals in the first half.

Throughout the season, opponents weren’t the only ones she confounded with her skills, speed and what seemed like a sixth sense for the ball.

“She’s just the most frustrating person to pass around,” Falcons attacker Alyssa Chung said. “Charlotte (Diez) and I will be looking for passes and the throw looks wide open. Boom. Lilly has it and she’s down the field. By the time you realize she has the ball, she’s at the 50.”

Spilker said she’s always been defensive minded no matter what sport she plays. She remembers wanting to be just like her older sister Erika after seeing her play defense at Penn State.

“I love the anticipation of trying to steal balls and things like that,” she said. “I’ve just never really focused on wanting to get goals. I like the defensive side of things like communication-wise with my teammates and being an important part of the game by stopping plays. I like causing chaos.”

With three older lacrosse-playing siblings — Erika, Logan and Rachel — she picked up a stick early. She loved being around the game. Spending so much time at tournaments, she absorbed much more than she realized at the time.

“I spent a lot of time watching lacrosse,” Spilker said.”That was my favorite thing to do, staying in hotels for my siblings’ tournaments… I’m sure I did pick up a lot. Also, I think I was just more used to the competitive mindset of sports because I went to so many tournaments. I feel like I probably watched a lot more lacrosse as a little kid than other people had.”

Next year, she will play at Penn State with Rachel, who is taking a fifth year in State College. Although she considered other programs, she said she knew that after growing up around the program, she would play for the Nittany Lions if she had the chance.

In the meantime, she’s had time to reflect on a stellar season for the Falcons, who tied the state record with their 15th championship.

“Winning the state championship was an awesome memory,” she said, “just because we worked so hard for it this year and our team has been so close, so it just felt really special to win it together… Any of our defenders could have gotten this award, because we just worked so well together and loved working for each other. It made our team so much better to have such close relationships.”

Liberty's Tom Brandel, the 2023 Baltimore Banner/VSN Girls Lacrosse Coach of the Year (Katherine Dunn)

Liberty’s third straight girls lacrosse state championship capped an exceptionally emotional year for coach Tom Brandel.

The Lions, who had not won a state championship until Brandel took over, rallied around their coach and his wife Karyn, now in remission after being diagnosed a year ago with a rare form of brain cancer. They not only won another Class 1A title but also disproved the theory that large school teams are inherently better.

At the 4 Causes 4 Champions Tournament, which brought last year’s state champions together in April, Liberty, the team from the smallest school, defeated the two biggest — Class 4A champ Broadneck and Class 3A champ Marriotts Ridge. The Lions also defeated last year’s Class 2A champ Century during Carroll County league play.

The No. 8 Lions went on to finish 16-1 and beat Fallston, 14-10, for the state title.

“To be able to win a third state championship is just an outstanding achievement for these girls and to go 16-1 was something I didn’t expect to do in the county that we play in and with the tournament that we played in. That tournament is not set up for a 1A team to win,” said Brandel, who started the tournament last season.

Liberty lost only to No. 6 and undefeated Manchester Valley, the Carroll County and Class 2A state champion. After that loss, the Lions won their final 13 games, including seven over Top 15 teams.

Despite devoting a lot of time to his family, Brandel never missed a game and missed only a few practices. Family, friends and the lacrosse community helped with whatever the family needed, so he could continue coaching, something he said his wife wanted him to do.

The Baltimore Banner/VSN Girls Lacrosse Coach of the Year gives a lot of the credit for the exceptional season to assistant coaches, Kirsten and Todd Matthiesen who had been with him since the start, and to his eight seniors. They deflect it right back.

“He had a very challenging year, but he has this passion for the game,” Kirsten Matthiesen said. “You can see it in practice and on the sideline when he’s coaching. He believes in the girls, so then they start believing in each other and the team.”

At the beginning of the season, the players expected Brandel to miss more time, senior Jenna Evans said.

“It’s just the dedication he put into the team,” Evans said. “He has three kids of his own and everything he’s dealing with, but it was like nothing even changed. He was still out filming other teams and putting it up for us to see. Our other coaches help a lot too, but ultimately, it stems from coach Brandel. He’s just always putting 100 percent into our team.”

The seniors, including seven headed to Division I or Division II college programs, set the tone for the team’s success, Brandel said.

At one point, the Lions won four straight games by one goal. They nipped Oakdale, No. 13 South Carroll and No. 12 Westminster by identical 8-7 scores within four days in late April and then beat then-No. 12 Century, 6-5, five days later.

Handling that pressure showed Brandel that this team could make another run at a state championship, but he wanted to make sure they kept growing together.

“I always tell the girls, ‘When we lose, we don’t really lose, we learn,’” he said. “It was kind of like now I’ve got to tell them, ‘We’re winning by a goal, but we still need to learn.’ That really boosted their confidence, winning those tight games, and I think trusting in each other as well that we’re never out of it, because in those games, for the most part, we were down.”

When Brandel took over the program in 2019, his only experience coaching girls lacrosse was as an assistant for two years at Marriotts Ridge, where he teaches American government.

He has extensive experience coaching the men’s game including stints as an assistant at Liberty, Marriotts Ridge, McDaniel College and Howard Community College, but he was reluctant at first to take the job with the Marriotts Ridge girls program, knowing nothing about the women’s game. In two years as the Mustangs’ JV coach, however, his team lost just one game.

At Liberty, the Lions had just finished a 4-9 season with a 1-5 record in Carroll County. The program was in disarray and players wanted to quit, but a year later, in 2019, he guided them to a 7-8 season.

They lost the 2020 season to COVID-19, but in 2021, the Lions had a winning record (8-4) and won their first state title. In four seasons, he’s posted a 43-20 record.

“It all started with a meeting with all the girls and parents in the media center at Liberty five years ago,” he said. “I wrote a mission for the program that we were going to be a highly competitive girls lacrosse program and I kind of had a plan in place to do that.”

The Lions began running captains’ practices right after the fall sports season ended. They started a strength and conditioning program. He posted film on HUDL so players could analyze upcoming opponents. They started playing in an indoor league. This spring, they skipped three practices to participate in a leadership program.

“He’s an amazing coach,” Evans said. “I know I’m going to remember everything he taught us. I learned a lot from him and I’m excited for the future of Liberty lacrosse, because he really did change the program for the better. It was rough when my sister played before he came in. She wanted to quit, but when he came in, she loved it. He definitely turned the program around.”

Brandel enjoys coaching the women’s game so much that he hopes eventually to move to a higher level.

“I do aspire to coach college women’s lacrosse someday,” he said. “When I retire from teaching, that’s what I would like to do.”

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