A decade ago, the Chieftains girls lacrosse team knew they had potential. Little did they realize their play would define success for prep lacrosse in the state of Michigan.
OKEMOS, Mich. – The Okemos High girls’ lacrosse team thought it’d be an easy road back to the State finals in 2007, after suffering a tough loss in the regional final. The players were partially correct, as they went on become more than state champions.
The Okemos team would go on to set Michigan girls’ lacrosse history, as standing behind the girls was a coach who knew the sport well and parents who would do anything for their daughters to succeed.
“It was very shocking for us, but it also served as a wakeup call for our senior year to come,” said Darby Dudley, about their disappointment that transformed the team. “This was something we weren’t just going to be able to expect to happen. We had to work for it. So, then that’s when we put in the work and set higher standards for ourselves.”
In 2009 and 2010, the Okemos girls’ lacrosse team won back-to-back state championships, set all-time MHSAA records, and remained undefeated for two seasons. The team has the longest winning streak in Michigan girl’s lacrosse history with 64 games. Okemos High school recognized the team in late September, inducting into the Okemos High School Athletics Hall of Fame.
“They were a real group of hard-working girls, they had good coaches, they honored the game and the way they played it. I was just a coach coming in who was able to put their talent together, it was already there,” said head coach Bill Prahler.
The Okemos program produced two U.S. Lacrosse All-Americans, Dudley in 2009 and Mackenzie Lawler in that year, as well as 2010. Those recognitions were followed by six Okemos lacrosse players being named Academic All-Americans, five of them for at least two years: Olivia Hudson, Mallory Flanders, Breanne Stockall, Lawler, Casey Hall, and Betsy VanWiernen.
With their performances previously and in those championship seasons, five players rank top 40 on several all-time individual record lists in the MHSAA. Dudley, Lawler, Sarah Lowe, Kristen Hull, and Carly King all appear in the top 10 within several categories at least twice. King appears in the top 10 six times, Dudley and Lawler both appear five times. Hull is the only player with double appearances on more than one list.
“It’s really exciting, there’s a lot of hard work that goes into winning those individual awards and I was honored to be recognized, but I think what we were always most proud of was the 64-0 record and the back to back state championships. Those are definitely memories that you hold with you more than those individual awards,” Lawler said.
Prahler was inducted, as a coach, into the Okemos Hall in 2013. He is humbled to be inducted again, this time in 2018 with his team.
“To me it’s a tremendous honor,” Prahler said. “You’re around the game and coach the game, I would have never had this idea that we’d win so many games in a row.”
Dudley agreed the moment is very special, and it set them as the precedent for Okemos girls’ lacrosse.
“I think that we really set a standard for Okemos lacrosse, not only putting the sport on the map for the whole city and state, but also for young girls,” she said. “The sport really did pick up after that, so it felt like we were really setting the standard…It’s a wonderful feeling. It’s something that you don’t really plan for, but when it happens it feels really special.”
Prahler played lacrosse for MSU’s first team in 1963. From there, he started a boys’ club team for Waverly Community Schools. When he retired from teaching, he also attempted to retire from coaching before getting the opportunity to coach women’s lacrosse at MSU. After his time with MSU was finished, he was offered the chance to coach the budding girls’ lacrosse program that made history.
“Coach Prahler was an awesome guy. He always kept it cool, calm and collected,” Dudley said. “There were times where we got worried or felt like our backs were against the wall and he always made us feel that needed relief because he’d been in big atmospheres and on big playing fields. I think he just gave everyone that sense of relief but also such a positivity that we hadn’t seen in a while there. It was just a breath of fresh air when he came along.”
The Okemos girls’ lacrosse team began as a club sport, which is separate from varsity sports within the high school. Due to the club not receiving full funding from the school, the team found self-sufficient ways to find the money they needed. Prahler said one of their best fundraisers was selling mulch.
“It was just fantastic. A lot of the times the mulch would be very cheap, or we could get it for free,” he said. “It just gets bagged and we would take a little bit of time after practice to deliver the mulch. Then, your program reaps the rewards…That’s the creative thinking you need to support girls’ athletics.”
While other varsity sports could rely on the athletic department for certain costs, Okemos girls’ lacrosse had to do things on their own.
“The money that was raised would go toward spraying equipment and paint, so we could mark our fields,” Prahler said. “We had to have a little walk around spraying unit and then we had to have 12 cans of spray paint, and we were doing it. We also had to provide nets for our goals. We would get the nets and string them ourselves. We’d have a net stringing party, get all of that taken care of for all the goals in the program.”
The parents on the team were a behind the scenes force and support system. When the team started, they would drive their daughters to tournaments all over Michigan. Dudley praised the parents’ unity in making the team’s experience memorable.
“Our parents were some of the best,” Dudley said. “We had parades when the buses would leave to go to the state games. They would decorate the bus, we had multiple team dinners, I mean they truly went above and beyond.”
Lawler, a member of the back-to-back state championship team and the current head coach of Grand Valley State’s women’s lacrosse team, credited her father, Charles Lawler, for helping the team during its early stages. Before playing a pivotal role for the high school team, he coached the middle school girls club for his daughter.
“My dad didn’t have any experience with lacrosse, he liked baseball, but he wanted to be of help any way he could,” Lawler said. “So, when it was discussed about bringing a boys’ program to the high school one of the stipulations was to add a girls’ team. They looked to the parents that helped start the boys’ program and my dad was the only one who had a daughter. He played every role possible to support us, even was our coach for a while. He really did anything to help the program grow and keep it alive.”
As lacrosse was still making its way across the state of Michigan, there was a style of play that was familiar with the winning teams in the Metro Detroit area. As the Okemos girls began to dominate, their different style of play stumped other teams.
“We used to have a shooting drill where you would always cut down hard and you’d cut down, receive a ball and score,” Prahler said. “What we would do is we wouldn’t have a goalie in, we put out a trash can. So we could have fun, they would receive the feed and if you hit the trash can you had to do a few pushups. We practiced that religiously.”
“When we would get in games against the teams, we’d have these hard-cut downs and I can still remember officials on the sideline, saying ‘Oh my God’, because they could see what was happening. I mean their shot is amplified because of the speed at which they’re running. And teams had no answer for it.”
Prahler attributed the team’s success on everyone being prepared. Instead of approaching the game with 12 starters, his philosophy was having 17. He compared the team’s substitutions to line changes in a hockey game.
“We always keep players on the field. We would substitute players the way you’d see a hockey team substitute and that really paid off on the field,” Prahler said. “When things really get going you see a completely different competitive environment. I would say a vast majority of our games we had all our players in well before halftime. Everyone.”
As for their legacy, Prahler describes his team as dedicated, driven and fun loving. The girls enjoying what they did is what set them apart from the rest.
“I think whenever you’re playing sports, the fun-loving piece is very important because if you’re having fun doing what you’re doing you’re going to put a lot more intensity into your sport,” he said. “You just have to have those ingredients. When enjoying the play there’s something that happens dynamically. Your team can get past a mistake and then you can get forward with the business of winning.”
“Some athletes and some teams can’t get past a mistake. In athletics, you have to learn to play beyond that. You have to be forward thinking. That team was.”