Marie McCool was jealous.
As a third grader, she felt like she was falling behind all the other girls her age. Her friends played lacrosse and talked about it often. McCool didn’t. She’d never even picked up a stick before.
“Even though that seems really early, I was later,” McCool said. “They were attending all these camps, clinics, and I didn't really know what any of that meant and I didn't go with them.”
At 8 or 9 years old, it’s hard to be old for anything, but Moorestown, New Jersey, had a famed lacrosse reputation to uphold. McCool wanted to learn how to play, so the next Christmas, she asked her parents for a lacrosse stick.
It was only the start of her journey toward a decorated career as an All-American North Carolina women’s lacrosse player. More than a decade later, now that she’s a senior, she has one of the most recognized names in college lacrosse. But back then, she had no idea what she was doing.
With her father, Michael, on the other end of the backyard with a baseball mitt, she learned how to toss and catch with her new equipment. The following year, she upgraded to a PitchBack and put up the lacrosse net behind the house.
By then, she’d attended a beginner's summer camp at Moorestown High School, the school where she would later make her name as a three-time All-American, three-time state champion and two-time New Jersey state player of the year.
She learned the fundamentals of the game alone, working hard in the backyard. It became a routine to go out and catch 50 balls in a row from her left side and her right side, no matter the weather, before finishing up her training.
If she dropped it, the count started over again. Today, that drive shines through to those who know her best.
“She is very focused,” said Naomi Lerner, McCool’s teammate and roommate of three years. “I just think in all her endeavors, she kind of just gives into them in the fullest and seeks to be the best at whatever she puts her mind to.”
At the beginning, it only took a little push. But she was hooked.
Marie McCool was a few years older, but she wasn’t playing in Chapel Hill yet.
She was sitting at her high school lacrosse team’s banquet, coming off her first state championship win. After losing in the same game her first year in high school 363 days before, her team rebounded for a 12-11 win — the culmination of a season when McCool scored 84 goals and had 17 assists. It was only the start of her success.
“I lost the state championship my freshman year of high school and then I never lost a game after that in high school,” McCool said. “I went 77-0.”
And now, as she sat at her team’s banquet to commemorate the year, her senior teammate Stephanie Toy, who’d play lacrosse at Notre Dame, handed her a small handwritten note.
She wanted McCool to know that the number 51 would now be hers, the seventh person to wear the number, and that was not an honor to take lightly.
“In Moorestown it's an honor to be able to wear the No. 51 jersey, just because it's been passed on throughout to so many great players who've gone through the program,” McCool said. “It's not only just great players, but also people who were great leaders for Moorestown.”
Since 2000, it has been a tradition in the program for the number to be passed on from one key player to the next. It’s an honor everyone knows about, but few get to wear. And McCool earned it.
As a sophomore, she had already garnered a reputation as one of the nation’s top recruits. All the major programs, including North Carolina, were after her.
She took the jersey and ran with it.
In her final two seasons, she led the state of New Jersey in goals scored, finishing her career with 268 goals and 94 assists. In her final game, she topped it all off by scoring four goals in four minutes and 32 seconds at the start of the second half to clinch Moorestown’s sixth state championship. To this day, it still remains one of her favorite performances.
McCool was a natural athlete, but when it came time to commit to a school, she didn’t just want athletics. A future ACC Scholar-Athlete of the Year who is majoring in management and society, she wanted top-tier academics.
Off the lacrosse field, McCool enjoys other sports and is a big Philadelphia Eagles and 76ers fan. It was important to her to go to a school where other sports were popular as well — narrowing her search to two schools, Maryland or North Carolina.
“She was a highly-touted recruit and we felt like we had a really good connection with her,” UNC head coach Jenny Levy said. “She'd be a great fit for our program.”
In the end, McCool couldn’t say no to how much she loved Chapel Hill. After watching the 2012 UNC-Duke game, when Austin Rivers sank a buzzer-beating three for the win, she realized UNC was her dream school.
“As a college town, it just felt like home to me,” McCool said. “I love Franklin Street. I love Chapel Hill. It is a beautiful town and obviously, lacrosse-wise, they've had a lot of success.”
Marie McCool stepped onto campus in Chapel Hill and made an almost-immediate impact.
With eight minutes left in her very first game against James Madison in 2015, she scored her first goal.
“I remember being like, 'OK, there's the player that we've been looking for,’” Levy said. “When we put her on the field, she did what she did best, which was compete.”
For most of her first season, she came into the game at midfielder off the bench, but after a few injuries to the team, she stepped into a starting role for the last 10 games of the year. Since then, she’s never missed a start and has become a team leader.
"She's been incredibly reliable,” Lerner said. “She earned her way onto the field her freshman year, and ever since then, she's just been a great contributor on the team. I have always been blown away with just how she just gets the job done.”
She came to the University shy and quiet, but she learned how to let her big, loud personality shine through. It’s hard to imagine how she could have been quiet when she scored a goal and assisted two others in the 2016 national championship game — as big a part as anyone to the 13-7 win over Maryland.
“That was an unbelievable year,” McCool said. “We had a lot of ups and downs, but in the end we still came out on top, and so that's just a memory I'm never going to forget.”
That season she scored 46 goals, had 17 assists and secured 49 ground balls. And after celebrating a championship, she returned as one of the team’s main leaders on and off the field.
Marie McCool doesn’t have much time left.
With only a few games left in her waning senior season, she has proven to be one of the most complete players in the country.
“Nothing fancy, nothing that necessarily wows you, but at the end of the game, you're like, ‘Holy shit, she is incredible,'” Lerner said. “You don't notice her necessarily for what she does in a single moment, but you notice her for the culmination for everything she does throughout the game.”
Up to now, McCool has scored 166 goals, collected 50 assists and secured 136 ground balls. She also has a long list of accomplishments under her belt.
In her first season at UNC, she earned a spot as the youngest player on the women’s lacrosse U.S. National Team. When she became a national champion as a sophomore, she was named First-Team All-ACC and selected to the All-NCAA Tournament Team for scoring six goals and having six assists in the title run.
As a junior, she was named the 2017 ACC Midfielder of the Year and First-Team All-America by multiple organizations. And last summer, she scored a goal to contribute to the national team’s gold medal win over Canada in The World Games.
But McCool isn’t done yet. She wants another championship.
On Saturday, she and the four other seniors will be honored at Senior Day before their final conference game of the season against Duke. Then, the postseason will start for the (11-3, 5-1 ACC) Tar Heels.
If No. 5 UNC has any success in the postseason, it will include McCool as a key part of the offensive and defensive efforts.
“When you look back on it, I just never would have thought I’d be standing in the position that I'm in now,” McCool said. “It has been an amazing ride.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.