Girls are just smarter than boys, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said, drawing giggles, nods and sounds of affirmation from the 180 female high school athletes in the audience.

Sensing a winning theme with the crowd, Harbaugh went on to describe how those in the audience were much further ahead than he was at their age and explained how female athletes are wiser when dealing with wins and losses than his players. He encouraged the girls to use those smarts and that wisdom to make those around them better.

“The opportunity as a leader is to help somebody else feel good about themself,” Harbaugh said. “... That’s a real powerful thing. I think these girls understand that.”

The Ravens hosted their ninth annual LIFT (Leading and Inspiring Females to Thrive) Conference on Thursday at their practice facility in Owings Mills. The goal of the event, according to a news release, was “to empower the next generation of female student-athletes and develop their leadership skills, helping them succeed both on and off the playing field.”

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While Harbaugh did not interact with the athletes one on one but rather as an audience in a lecture hall, he said he was impressed with the group. The girls, freshmen to juniors in high school, applied and were selected to attend the event. Many were referred by coaches and athletic directors. Most were from Maryland, although there were some from Virginia and New Jersey.

The girls weren’t afraid to quiz Harbaugh or any of the other speakers. They asked him about a range of topics. How does he balance football and life outside work? How has being a father made him a better coach? What is a play he wishes he had back? And the kicker (literally): Does Justin Tucker practice, or does he just kick all day?

Michaela Breit has been sidelined by a concussion from her freshman lacrosse season at Baltimore City College, but this conference was a silver lining. While other girls referred to the conference could not attend due to preparation for a rivalry game, she got to take advantage. She did her research and was ready to ask the coach of her favorite team questions. She asked how to build trust; Harbaugh told her you have to take care of things on your own end and be trustworthy.

Harbaugh was followed by a panel of Ravens employees: Kelly Tallant from community relations, Ilsa Marden from the entertainment and events staff, Haley Timple from the broadcasting team, Raven Jones from ticketing, Megan Rosburg, who is Harbaugh’s assistant, and Cassie Cherigo from the social media team.

“It was inspiring to see,” said Jakhiya Alston, a track athlete from Overlea High School. “Normally, when you watch football, you see males in dominant positions. And just to see how women are here and active.”

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One of the attendees of the Ravens LIFT Conference participates in a rope drill led by female Ravens staff members in Owings Mills on Thursday, April 4, 2024.
Conference attendees participated in drills on the practice field. (Giana Han/The Baltimore Banner)

Her classmates, Chim Awujo, Sophia Bernard and Menyein Mahn, agreed. Awujo said she didn’t know just how many opportunities there were for women to work with an NFL team. Mahn said it gives her hope, and Bernard added that it made her consider a future working for a team.

The athletes eventually headed to the fieldhouse, where they shed their Crocs and pulled back their hair as they participated in exercises and drills. Assistant strength and conditioning coach Kaelyn Buskey, who led the session, was hired three weeks before last year’s LIFT.

“I was over the moon that the Ravens were taking that initiative to expose professional football, in any capacity, to [girls],” Buskey said. This year, she connected the activity to what the Ravens players actually do.

The girls fueled up after the drills with a meal prepared by team nutritionist Sarah Snyder, who spoke after lunch. The girls again peppered her with questions, from what to eat before games and practices to whether Liquid I.V. is healthy (it’s approved). They also asked about quarterback Lamar Jackson’s favorite snack and how tight end Mark Andrews manages his diabetes.

But the finale, which Breit was anticipating with excitement, was former University of Maryland and WNBA star Marissa Coleman’s speech. It was the 18th anniversary of her national championship with the Terps, and she spent it giving back to girls in her community.

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The athletes were too young to remember the title run, but they were fascinated by Coleman’s stories of struggles and triumphs. They looked to her for advice on how to stay confident, how to persevere and how to be a leader.

Speaking to the girls “was a full-circle moment,” said Coleman, who has held various jobs in business, “because that moment was a defining moment for me and my basketball career and just my trajectory as a whole. And to still be in the area and be able to come talk to these young athletes and share my experience and, to your point, when women’s sports are having their moment, it is really special.”

Ravens coach John Harbaugh answers questions from local high school female athletes at the Ravens LIFT Conference in Owings Mills on Thursday, April 4, 2024.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh answers questions from athletes Thursday at the LIFT Conference. (Giana Han/The Baltimore Banner)