SPRINGFIELD — It's been a long time since Bridget Whitaker felt like the new girl on the Springfield lacrosse block.
That was the situation for the Springfield freshman at the start of her high school career some three long months ago. But as the Cougars' season meanders toward its conclusion in Saturday's PIAA Championship Game at HersheyPark Stadium, those kinds of class distinctions have lost all meaning between the lines.
It's far from the usual clichÃ©s about a freshman possessing the experience of a sophomore at this late juncture of her debut season with 26 high school games under her belt.
Within the atmosphere of the Springfield squad, it's something bigger altogether, a cohesiveness that helps inform the District One champion's success.
Whitaker is part and parcel of that. On a senior-heavy team — Springfield's class of 2014 is 12 members strong, nine of whom have played in every game this season — there are still roles requiring underclassmen to rise to the occasion. And few have done so as regularly as Whitaker.
Whitaker has played in every game this season, making six starts. The attacker is one of only four underclassmen to have appeared in at least 20 games this campaign. Her total of nine goals ranks eighth on the team; she's also chipped in six assists (tied for sixth-best) and 45 groundballs (sixth).
Those types of numbers, especially given the lopsided nature of many of the Cougars' regular-season victories, would seemingly mark Whitaker for a bright future. But she's producing plays that are vital to the Cougars' state title run in the present.
She notched goals in the PIAA semifinal win over Great Valley and the opening-round dispatching of Downingtown East, neither of which were laughers. She added an assist in the District One title game win over Garnet Valley, a taut 10-9 decision that will be repeated Saturday in Hershey.
For Whitaker, the adjustment has been undeniable. But she's been willing to work through the rough patches.
"It's definitely different because I'm used to playing with girls my own age," Whitaker said Thursday as the team practiced at Halderman Field. "But (the seniors) help me. They always encourage me. In the beginning of the year, my confidence wasn't really built up. But now, everyone is encouraging me."
She's hardly the only underclassmen making an impact. The conversation with Springfield begins with Emily Santana, the junior who has tallied 96 goals and 44 assists this season. Midfielder Caitlin Gormley (18 goals, six assists) and defenseman Noelle Morrissey have also made major contributions as sophomores.
"I don't think any of us would be anywhere without the help of our underclassmen," Morrissey said. "... I guess as underclassmen, it's harder for us to step up. Whenever we take like a simple groundball, it helps us out on defense. Whatever we can get is what we get."
Much of the credit for allowing those young, talented players to flourish goes to a senior class willing to provide the necessary mentoring and encouragement. Both Morrissey and Whitaker mentioned Emily Verica, one of the Cougars' senior captains, as among the most vocal aids in acclimating to the high school game.
In attack, Santana has also played a vital role in guiding Whitaker's progress.
"I think we just had to get her out of her comfort zone," Santana said. "She was a little shy in the beginning. We just had to let her know that she's not a freshman; she's just part of the team. We're all equal, and we all work together. It doesn't matter what grade you're in. If you get playing time, then you work your hardest to help us win."
That egalitarian attitude is pervasive on the squad. While the seniors may do most of the dirty work and get most of the spotlight, without the underclassmen to reinforce that effort, it's likely that the Cougars wouldn't be sitting with a 24-2 record on the precipice of a state title. The balance afforded by the many contributors of all ages has proven so important that those designations tend to be rendered meaningless on the field.
"I think we've gotten stronger, incorporating our underclassmen with our upperclassmen," Morrissey said. "But it doesn't really matter grade-wise. We're all the same skill-wise."
Given the proven track record of that blueprint, it's likely that the Cougars will use a similarly holistic approach to surmounting one of the last obstacles in their way: Coping with the bright lights of Hershey in what many Springfield players agree is the biggest lacrosse game they've ever played. "I think in a few of the bigger games, it's definitely a 'wow' factor we overcome at a certain point,' Morrissey said. "At the beginning of the year, it was harder to adjust with everyone and get used to everything. But now it's kind of coming to all of us easier."
It's just another new challenge to tackle, together.