CHATHAM, NJ - When it comes to girls lacrosse, Catherine McNiff has made the saying "the luck of the draw" irrelevant.
The draw is how every girls lacrosse game starts and is restarted after a goal is scored. The ball is placed between the head of the stick of two opposing players in the center circle and when the referee blows the whistle, the players lift the ball in the air and it's up for grabs.
McNiff, a senior midfielder for Chatham, has dedicated herself to learning all the nuances of the draw and her hard work paid off last week in a road victory at Mountain Lakes. McNiff won nine draws in the game and also scored the winning goal in Chatham's 8-7 triumph.
Catherine McNiff is the Hawk Allstate Chatham Athlete of the Week.
"I think if you work hard at it, it's not as much about luck," Chatham coach Hilary Renna said. "I know Kit works really, really hard at the draw. She does extra work by herself, she does draw clinics. For her, it's not so much about luck, it's about putting in the hard work."
Chatham trailed at halftime against Mountain Lakes, 6-2, and needed a 6-1 second half to pull the game out. Possession of the ball is crucial in such a situation and it all starts with the draw.
"If you're behind, it can be a momentum builder," Renna said. "We started to come back and the momentum kept building and building because she was winning the draws. She also had a big turnover on defense with a one-handed interception, which was awesome."
McNiff is all about winning. When teammates mentioned the athletic interception, she told them she didn't remember it.
"I don't do a lot of thinking about specific plays," McNiff said. "I don't remember a lot of plays. What I remember is the intensity and working hard with each other and for each other. Getting the goal or the assist is important, but so is every single play. We're all working together. It was an awesome feeling to win that game."
The score was tied 7-7 against Mountain Lakes when McNiff went on the offensive late in the game. Twice she was on her way to the goal when "shooting space" was called. That set up an 8-meter shot that McNiff put away for the winning goal with about five minutes left in the game.
"The best part of my game is in transition," McNiff said. "I'm getting the ball up field and passing to the attackers. I'm working on being more of a threat to help the offense. So much teamwork goes into a goal."
McNiff has been putting extra time in with former Penn State player Tatum Coffey on the many different techniques that can go into winning a draw. Through the first seven games of the season, McNiff has controlled 27 draws and has accumulated 26 ground balls.
"Tatum Coffey has taught me that you need more than one thing that works for you," McNiff said. "The important thing is to not put yourself in a box and think there is only one way to win it. All the little things like how the ref puts the ball in the stick, boxing out, getting that first step and the drive to get the 50-50 ball go into it."
Whether it's a game or a practice, Renna doesn't see much difference in how the 17-year-old McNiff approaches the game.
"She's working hard all the time," Renna said. "She's the kid in practice who you know is always going her hardest, holding herself accountable and always pushing herself to be better. She's selfless, a great team player. She's not a jokester at practice. She's very intense. When she's here, she's got her game face on and is ready to work."
The oldest of four siblings, McNiff, along with her twin brother, Peter, her freshman sister, Jennifer, and her youngest brother, sixth-grader Christopher, all play lacrosse.
"Being one of four kids it can be intense," McNiff said. "We're a family with lot of moving pieces."
McNiff played varsity soccer for two years before switchng to cross-country this past fall, she also was a captain for the girls indoor track team, running the 800. But she'll continue playing lacrosse at Washington and Lee University in Virginia next year.
"I'm just trying to have my best season possible and not leave high school with any regrets," McNiff said. "Washington and Lee is having their best season in school history right now and I'm excited about joining them."
Editor's note: The Hawk Allstate Chatham Athlete of the Week is sponsored by the John Hawk Agency. John and his team have been protecting local families and business owners for over 12 years. Call them at 973-635-9494 for a new auto, home, life and business insurance quote this week and if you mention the Hawk Allstate Chatham Athlete of the Week they will make a $20 contribution to the Chatham Booster Club! To learn more, visit the agency website.