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It doesn’t matter what else is going on in the game or where the ball is. Things can change in an instant for Lynchburg field hockey.

Junior midfielder Emily Dudley has seen it happen multiple times. The second her classmate Jackie Lerro gets the ball, the Hornets could be off to the races. And Dudley better book it to catch up with her teammate, she said.

In a matter of a few seconds, Lerro can gain major ground in UL’s offensive attack, Dudley said before practice this week. Lerro, who stands just 5 feet tall, can weave through defenders without any resistance, Dudley added. So as the Hornets’ other major offensive weapon, Dudley better get going in a hurry to find a place near the cage.

Lerro’s speed is impressive to her teammates, without a doubt, but even her coaches have looked on in wonder at times.

For longtime coach Enza Steele, Lerro’s dazzling quickness caught her eye several years ago.

“[She’s] just gonna be explosive,” Steele said this week, recalling the time she spent recruiting her junior star.

Five years ago or so, back when Lerro was a junior at Pope John Paul II High School in Royersford, Pennsylvania, Steele saw Lerro’s athleticism on display not only on the field, but also on the track.

The times Lerro put up in her sprint events on the track then, Steele said, would rival the best times among runners in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference. Lerro’s times in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, in fact, still are some of the best marks in her high school’s history.

And some of Lerro’s performances then, without a stick or ball in sight, demonstrated her potential to Steele.

“She’s gonna kill it on the hockey field,” Steele said of her thoughts on Lerro, now a two-sport athlete at UL, at the time.

Lerro, of course, has proven all of Steele’s intuitions right.

Immediately, Lerro made an impact for the Hornets field hockey team. As a freshman, she started all 20 games and scored 28 goals, good for ninth place on the program’s all-time single-season goals list. Since then, she’s tallied 37 more goals, putting her at 158 career points when her 28 assists are added in.

“She’s been a stable force for us,” Steele said. “I think she’s been an offensive leader, not just by scoring, but I think she helps people with their positioning.”

Lerro’s 18 goals this season lead the team and are good for a tie atop the ODAC statistics.

She’s also tied atop the ODAC leaderboard for points (49) and leads the league with 114 shots, 80 of which have been on goal.

According to Steele, Lerro is “the ringleader” this season for the Hornets, who head into today’s ODAC tournament semifinals as the top seed.

After losing three major scoring threats to graduation, including one of the program’s all-team leading scorers in Nikki Simpao, Lerro’s role has taken on a different form.

This year, she’s depended on to score, which has become a more difficult task without the skilled passing of Simpao, who masterfully fed Lerro for goals on multiple occasions the past two seasons. But Lerro’s speed has helped to close the gap.

Despite not having the height that generally means longer strides and the ability to cover ground quickly, Lerro still can leave defenders in the dust.

“I think I use it as motivation,” Lerro said of her size and the potential for opponents to underestimate her because of it.

Lerro also has become a facilitator herself with 13 assists in 19 games this year, up from 12 in 22 games a season ago and three in her freshman season.

And on some occasions, Steele explained, Lerro might not get credit for an assist, but makes other moves to set up her teammates. In overtime against Shenandoah in the regular season, for example, Lerro drew a defender near the cage and did just enough to distract the goalkeeper, giving teammate Alexis Brown a one-on-one chance with the goalie she buried for the game-winner.

“She’s like, ‘I’m gonna move the defender so one of my teammates can score, as opposed to, ‘Give it to me,’” Steele said of Lerro’s decision.

For all of Lerro’s obvious talent, though, — as evidenced by a laundry list of ODAC, state and region accolades — Steele said she knows Lerro isn’t satisfied. And for now, Lerro added, the next accomplishment on her list is another ODAC title.

Lerro and the Hornets, who for the second year in a row are the No. 1 seed for the tournament, will put their 11-game winning streak on the line as they go for their second straight conference crown.

The road starts with fifth-seeded Roanoke at 4:30 p.m. today at Shellenberger Field. Win today and the Hornets — ranked 18th in the nation — will pick up their second victory of the season over RC after a 2-0 win in the regular season and their 21st straight in the series, a streak that dates back to 2004.

After that, only third-seeded Washington and Lee or second-seededShenandoah — who meet in the other semifinal today — would stand between the Hornets and a 20th conference title and 21st NCAA Tournament appearance.

Emily Brown covers the Hillcats, ODAC and high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5529.

Emily Brown covers the Hillcats, ODAC and high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5529. 

Emily Brown covers the Hillcats, ODAC and high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5529.

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