With the help of community coach Aubree Mancuso, a coach in the Hotlanta club program, Utt restructured practices by making it “game speed” and convinced the Lady Longhorns that they had it in them to win a state championship after hovering around the .500 mark in previous seasons.
With Mancuso’s extensive knowledge of the game, she and Utt formed a solid unit, and the players bought in.
Kell took a major step in Utt’s first year, winning a state playoff game for the first time in program history, and the state championship came this season with an 11-10 win over four-time defending state champion Westminster at home.
Not only did Kell win the Class A-AAAAA title, it did so with a 20-1 record — the only loss coming to east Cobb rival Lassiter.
“I think we came in with the mindset that we’re going to turn this program around,” said Utt, the 2014 Marietta Daily Journal/Cobb County Girls Lacrosse Coach of the Year. “We just changed the culture of the way the girls thought, worked and the way they practiced. We put a plan in place and we’re seeing the results.”
Several things factored into Kell winning a state championship.
With the Lady Longhorns not having as much depth as some of the top Class AAAAAA teams, Utt increased the offseason conditioning program to four days a week, with more intense practices designed to keep the players in good enough shape to play extended periods of time without tiring.
“They were always sore during the fall,” Mancuso said.
Also, some of the top players in Kell’s junior class — Haley Swift, Leslie Ferguson, Hannah Nemeck, Sarah Bialecki and Julianna Santrock — had breakout seasons this year after first getting noticed as freshmen. They had already had four years of experience in Kell’s junior program and started playing club lacrosse to prepare for high school.
Because of the increased playing time during the offseason, their games flourished.
To be prepared for the rigors of state playoff competition, Mancuso helped Kell schedule more experienced, and larger, opponents. The added experience of playing marquee programs only helped the Lady Longhorns win under pressure once the state playoffs came around.
Early wins over Mill Creek and Johns Creek were signs that a special season was ahead. Halfway through, Kell beat Charlotte Catholic by two goals, handing the North Carolina program its only loss of the season before it won a state title of its own.
Those wins helped Kell win the tight playoff battles. Its defense preserved a 12-11 victory over Blessed Trinity in the semifinals, after the Lady Titans took multiple shots down the stretch. Kell then went on to beat Westminster with 2 minutes left, on a game-winning goal by Bialecki, with an assist by Swift.
“I think the way we scheduled out of area, playing Lassiter and Charlotte Catholic, prepares us for that moment,” Utt said. “We work hard all year and put girls in situations where it isn’t going to be a cakewalk. The last couple of games were true tests of what we tried to work on throughout the year.”