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Manatee girls lacrosse headed to playoffs ranked No. 5 in Florida. They haven’t lost

Just a few seasons ago, the Manatee High girls lacrosse program was bounced from the second round of its district tournament.

Now the Hurricanes head into this year’s district tourney doing something they’ve never done: finish a regular season undefeated.

And it’s due to the strong chemistry forged before the team was ever assembled at Manatee High School.

The Manatee Wildcats youth team has served as a feeder program for the Hurricanes with many of this year’s roster playing lacrosse together at the youth level before bonding together at the high school level.

“I’ve been coaching for probably 25 years, 24 years. And I could just tell that they were sound,” Manatee head coach Jeff McGuigan said. “All they needed to do was have direction. They could catch, they could throw, they could shoot. They were really good.”

The five-team Class 2A-District 11 tournament starts Wednesday with a play-in game between Sarasota and Venice. The winner faces Manatee on Friday in the district semifinals.

The Hurricanes are ranked No. 5 in the state and No. 3 in Class 2A.

Manatee lacrosse team is undefeated

“We’re going to refocus now,” McGuigan said. “We’re going to talk about our record right now is zero and zero. We’re in the postseason now. We want to make sure our intensity level stays up high. Probably higher than it’s been.”

Grace Knowles, a junior midfielder, leads Manatee’s high-powered attack with 5.3 goals per game. Knowles has a team-leading 74 goals in 14 games — all wins — for the Hurricanes.

Manatee’s girls lacrosse team during practice at Manatee High’s football stadium on Thursday, April 4, 2024.
Manatee’s girls lacrosse team during practice at Manatee High’s football stadium on Thursday, April 4, 2024.

Luana Engel (39 goals), Isabella French (36 goals), Zoe Stewart (31 goals), Mallory Adams (26 goals) and Gabrielle Waples (26 goals) are the other players producing double-digit goal tallies this season.

“We don’t argue, we don’t fight on the field,” Knowles said. “We kind of are like actually sisters. I guess playing with each other since elementary school, that’s really shown in our play at high school.”

And with the exception of a double-overtime one-goal win over Saint Stephen’s in March, the Hurricanes are averaging a victory margin of 12.69 goals.

That’s due to the defense, which features captain Darian Ewing.

She’s one of three seniors on the team along with a core group of juniors and eight freshman.

Hurricanes promote friendship

To incorporate the newer Hurricanes into the fold, the players held several team bonding events just to hang out and not necessarily bring lacrosse into the mix.

And it’s pushed the Canes into an unbeaten regular season for the first time in the program’s history.

Mallory Adams works on her skills during girls lacrosse practice at Manatee High’s football stadium on Thursday, April 4, 2024.
Mallory Adams works on her skills during girls lacrosse practice at Manatee High’s football stadium on Thursday, April 4, 2024.

“It helps us know each other better,” Ewing said. “So we know how to make each other feel more empowered, know how to lift each other up. How to say the right words, what words to say. ... To be closer to them, you know what’s kind of going on at home or how to help or stuff like that. So, outside of lacrosse, there’s always another life. So it’s good to have people there for you who know what you’re going through and also are there for you when nobody else can be on the field as well.”

If Manatee wins Friday’s district semifinal against the Sarasota-Venice play-in game winner, then the Hurricanes would face either Sarasota Riverview or Lakewood Ranch at Hawkins Stadium on Tuesday, April 16 in the district championship.

Mallory Adams works on her skills during girls lacrosse practice at Manatee High’s football stadium on Thursday, April 4, 2024.
Mallory Adams works on her skills during girls lacrosse practice at Manatee High’s football stadium on Thursday, April 4, 2024.
Leighton Francis trains during girls lacrosse practice at Manatee High’s football stadium on Thursday, April 4, 2024.
Leighton Francis trains during girls lacrosse practice at Manatee High’s football stadium on Thursday, April 4, 2024.
Manatee’s girls team trains during lacrosse practice at Manatee High’s football stadium on Thursday, April 4, 2024.
Manatee’s girls team trains during lacrosse practice at Manatee High’s football stadium on Thursday, April 4, 2024.
Manatee’s girls lacrosse team during practice at Manatee High’s football stadium on Thursday, April 4, 2024.
Manatee’s girls lacrosse team during practice at Manatee High’s football stadium on Thursday, April 4, 2024.