PHOTO BY JOHN STROHSACKER

Kelly Larkin the ‘Dynamic Difference’ in Navy’s Rise to Prominence


If Navy junior attacker Kelly Larkin’s family had stayed put in her original hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, instead of moving to the Washington, D.C. suburb of Alexandria when she was in pre-school, Larkin still might have discovered the sport of lacrosse.

After the family relocated to Northern Virginia, the odds of Larkin being introduced to a new game and passion increased greatly. That is exactly what happened, and a budding lacrosse star soon was born.

Larkin took to the sport immediately as a fourth-grader. Her athleticism, work ethic and natural talent — especially her gifted field vision and feeding ability — took her through recreation and club levels and ultimately to a burgeoning girls’ lacrosse dynasty at Bishop Ireton High School.

It brought her ultimately to the U.S. Naval Academy, where Larkin wasted no time establishing herself as a lefty scoring and passing force. A starter since day one for the Midshipmen, Larkin has been in the thick of the Midshipmen’s rapid rise to the upper echelon of Division I, highlighted by Navy’s stunning vault into the NCAA tournament final four in 2017.

By the time she graduates in May 2020 and is commissioned a U.S. Navy officer, Larkin likely will own school and Patriot League career records in points and assists, and by a wide margin.

As the 13th-ranked Mids (9-2, 4-0) prepare for Saturday’s regular-season showdown at No. 10 Loyola (8-3, 4-0), a game that likely will decide the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in next month’s conference tournament, Larkin leads the league comfortably with 68 points (38 goals, 30 assists).

Not that you’ll hear the political science major say much about the numbers that underscore her impact in Annapolis.

“I’m out there because I love playing with everyone and I want to have fun. I really don’t think about the numbers,” said Larkin, who entered 2019 with 116 career goals and 109 assists. “I think about what I can do for the whole team.”

“It’s special being at the academy. There aren’t many girls here and most of us are athletes. We have a strong bond,” she added. “As a plebe, I couldn’t see myself in the spot where I am now. It seemed like such a long shot. The weeks go by slowly. But [nearly three years] has gone by like the blink of an eye.”


“She sees seams that are going to be open. She sees slides before they come. She feels the game.”


It has been a junior season of adjustment for Larkin, who is the undisputed primary target of opposing defenses for the first time in her college career. After losing three of last year’s top five scorers, led by graduated stars Jenna and Julia Collins — senior Meg O’Donnell declined to play this season — Larkin is regularly receiving the face-guarding, shutoff treatment.

“But [Larkin] is not just standing around,” Navy coach Cindy Timchal said. “She’s setting picks to get other teammates open, or working off-ball or breaking open for that split second [to receive a pass] so she can go to work. It’s still about creating a great offense, and Kelly obviously is a big part of that.”

Larkin entered her freshman season comfortably in the shadow of the exceptional Collins twins. Jenna Collins was the Patriot League’s most imposing finisher and ended her career last spring as a four-time, first-team all-conference performer and three-time Patriot League Midfielder of the Year.

But Larkin was anything but a pedestrian in 2017. As the orchestrator from the X position behind the net, she adjusted rapidly to the speed of the Division I game and ignited the set offense with well-timed, pinpoint passes and slick dodges and shots with either hand.

In her first collegiate start, Larkin dropped seven points on Longwood in a blowout. She would score at least four points in 13 games and become the first Navy freshman ever to crack the 100-point barrier with 54 goals and 54 assists — also the most helpers ever by a plebe.

“As a lefty, [Larkin] was the dynamic difference the offense was missing. She meshed quickly with the upperclassmen,” said Aly Messenger, Navy’s third-year offensive coordinator who took the job in 2016, having just graduated from North Carolina.

“She knows the right time to go [to the goal], the right time to dish it off,” Messenger added. “The way she makes big plays in big moments is special. She always wants to learn more and get better.”  








Larkin saved her best in 2017 for the month of May. Navy entered the postseason having never won an NCAA tournament game. That changed dramatically, as Larkin put up three hat tricks in the NCAAs — for starters.

Her season-high nine points fueled a second-round rout of UMass. Her season-high six assists pushed the Mids toward their historic 16-14 upset over second-ranked North Carolina in their first quarterfinal appearance.

Playing in its fifth NCAA tournament during its 10th season in Division I, Navy became the first service academy team from a women’s sport to advance to a final four. Larkin’s six goals were not enough to help the Mids avoid a one-goal loss to Boston College and end the year at 18-5.

A Division I star was definitely born. Larkin’s teammates saw it coming way before then.

“It’s hard to stand out right away in fall ball, because everyone gets mixed in there,” recalled junior midfielder Kayla Harris, on Larkin’s entrance following their plebe summer together in 2016. “We had studs all over the field. Kelly made them all look better. She blended in right away with a team she’d never played with before. She was never shy.”

Larkin, who was conference rookie of the week seven times in 2017, earned Division I Rookie of the Year recognition, then brought more polish to the Mids as a sophomore in 2018. She finished with a team-high 117 points (62 goals, team-high 55 assists).

Navy knocked off Loyola handily for the second year in a row — it still has never beaten Loyola in the regular season — to win the league tournament. The Mids later beat the Greyhounds in the second round of the NCAAs to advance for the second straight year to the elite eight. Navy finished 18-4 after falling to defending champion Maryland 17-15.

“I remember [as a freshman] being surrounded by stellar players who gave 100 percent every single day. I had to get better,” Larkin said. “We saw what we were capable of that year. That set a new standard. I’ve gone from looking up to juniors and seniors to being in a senior kind of role. I’ve had to step up as a leader.”

 




PHOTO BY JOHN STROHSACKER


Ann Welhaf Larkin, Kelly’s mother and a Department of Justice attorney, laughed as she recalled the way her middle child of five children was introduced to the game.

Kelly was already winning Presidential Physical Fitness Awards in grade school. She had shown promise in basketball. And she was getting quite good at competitive cheerleading.

“Our neighbor had put her daughter on this rec lacrosse team [in Alexandria], and she suggested taking Kelly along,” said Larkin, who agreed to the arrangement. “I grew up in Florida, didn’t know anything about lacrosse. Next thing I know, Kelly is on the team.

“I didn’t even go to any games at first, being a full-time lawyer with five kids at the time,” she added. “But I kept hearing that I needed to come watch Kelly play, because she was really good. I started to feel like a guilty mom. It turns out Kelly just had this natural gift for it.”

One of those encouraging voices was Rick Sofield, a fellow DOJ employee and also an A team coach with Fort Hunt Youth Lacrosse. He watched this new player fall in love with the sport and master basic stick work quickly. Years later, Sofield would guide Bishop Ireton, with Larkin’s help in part, to four state titles in five seasons (2014-18).

“Kelly absolutely became a standout quickly at Fort Hunt, and we had a bunch of great players,” said Sofield, adding that 15 future Division I players played on his seventh- and eighth-grade squads. A number of those, including current college seniors Kaitlyn Luzik (UVA), Charlotte Sofield (UNC) and Kelly Mathews (Boston U), played at Bishop Ireton.

“Kelly plays with freedom and confidence. Her smarts, the way she recognizes patterns in the defense, set her apart,” Sofield added. “She sees seams that are going to be open. She sees slides before they come. She feels the game.”

“Her natural ability was amazing,” said Jill Larkin, Kelly’s older sister by 18 months. “Kelly excelled right away. She could make split-second decisions and make the perfect feed. She’s never been selfish.

“I was jealous of how gifted she was, because I started playing two years before she did. But I remember being amazed the first time I watched her as a freshman [at Bishop Ireton].”

The sense of sisterhood remains strong between the two, as they have been reunited at the academy.

Jill was so interested in medicine and helping others as a teenager that she earned emergency medical technician and pharmacy technician licenses at West Potomac High School. She chose to enlist in the U.S. Navy, determined to become a corpsman. While stationed in Norfolk, Va., she decided — with Kelly’s urging — to apply for a Naval Academy appointment.

Jill Larkin spent a year at the Naval Academy prep school, then headed for Annapolis to go through plebe summer in 2017. She is now a 22-year-old sophomore at Navy, in her second season as manager for the women’s lacrosse team.

“I didn’t want to have to salute my sister for the rest of my life,” Jill Larkin quipped.

“It’s really great having my sister here. We’re here to support each other every day, and we’re actually going through this experience together,” Kelly Larkin said.

Kelly Larkin could have played at a number of Division I schools. Florida and Virginia were real possibilities. But having been exposed to the idea of Navy lacrosse and the academy — in part by knowing some families with academy graduates in her neighborhood, in part by going to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial to watch football and lacrosse games — Larkin feels she was destined to stay close to home at that special institution.

“Being part of something bigger is important. And it was hard not to fall in love with the campus the first time I visited this place,” said Larkin, who verbally committed to Navy the summer following her freshman year of high school.

“It was Kelly’s desire to serve, and wanting to serve goes far beyond playing lacrosse at the highest level,” Timchal said. “There is the educational piece, the free education, the life after this game. And she does want to compete like crazy.”