PHOTO BY STEVE SPOONER

Mariemont (Ohio) girls' lacrosse players douse assistant coach Graham Harden with ice water after their 15-13 victory over Chagrin Falls on June 2 to capture their first Ohio Division II state championship.

Coach Battling ALS Inspires Mariemont (Ohio) Girls to Rally for State Title


Those that wrote off Mariemont in Ohio’s Region VIII girls’ lacrosse championship forgot about the influence and impact of a coach on the sidelines, Graham Harden.

Harden, a captain of the unbeaten 1991 NCAA champion University of North Carolina men’s team and William F. Schmeisser Award winner as the Division I Outstanding Defenseman of the Year, has kept coaching the Mariemont girls — and the school’s boys’ team, too — since being diagnosed in August 2016 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say there were times when it was tiring, but you get a night’s sleep and you come back the next day and it’s so much fun watching the kids grow,” said Harden, who served as an assistant coach to both teams this year. “Do what you can while you can.”

The Mariemont girls found new energy after trailing defending state champion Indian Hill, 12-7, with 4:20 left in the regional championship May 25, with a spot in the state semifinals on the line. Mariemont scored four goals in a 1:28 span, then tied it with 57 seconds left on a goal by Kyra George and won in overtime, 13-12, on a goal by Courtney Robinson.

“It hadn’t hit me this could be my last game,” said Robinson, who was a senior captain along with George. “Coach Harden says, ‘You have to keep fighting. This is the type of adversity we talk about all year, and you just can’t give up.’ The whole team and the coaches kept a surprisingly upbeat attitude. Everyone was believing in each other. Everyone was like, ‘We’re going to fight through it.’ No one was giving up. It was a special fight and special comeback. We’d watched and learned from Coach Harden. He takes everything and runs with it. He’s such a warrior and fighter.”

Mariemont took the momentum of the win over Indian Hill and rallied in the May 29 state semifinals from a three-goal deficit in the second half to overcome 2016 state champion Columbus St. Francis DeSales, 15-14, behind six goals from George. Mariemont had lost to DeSales early in the season, part of a 3-3 start before winning 14 of their final 15 games to finish 17-4.

The last of those wins was a 15-13 victory over Chagrin Falls on June 2 to capture their first Ohio Division II state championship in their program’s first appearance in the state final. The wins were emotional for the small-town school, where everyone knows Harden as a brilliant lacrosse coach as well as a volunteer firefighter who is in the fight of his life.

“It was special in my last year we could do it for Coach Harden,” said Robinson, who set a state championship record with six goals and will play at San Diego State next year. “It was so special to do it for someone who always believed in us. He was always the one that believed in us through everything. It was special to do it for him, especially after he’s been diagnosed. We made it clear that it was for something bigger than us.”


“Do what you can while you can.” — Graham Harden


Aptly named the Warriors, Mariemont has seen in Harden what it means to battle. His physical condition may be in decline — he walks with a cane now — but nothing else is.

“He has this lighthearted, easygoing outlook on life that’s kind of infectious,” Warriors head coach Kevin Ferry said. “That doesn’t change with him. I’ve never heard him say a defeated word about his circumstances. He’s always positive and upbeat around the girls. It’s amazing.”

The team and the town, and even rivals and college teams nationwide, support the GForce Initiative that was organized to raise money to offset Harden’s costs in fighting ALS and to raise awareness of the terminal illness that has no known cure.

“Everyone cares deeply about Graham, particularly in the lacrosse community,” said Shea Harden, his sister and spokesperson for GForce. “In the Mariemont community and lacrosse communities that support Mariemont, it’s heartwarming to see them reaching out for Graham. Sometimes we initiate it, and sometimes they do. We’re reluctant to over-fundraise there because everyone is so generous and kind.

“I get checks from neighboring towns,” she added. “Indian Hill, Loveland, they do their own fundraisers, they order GForce socks and then wear them. It’s cool, the bond and the respect from the other coaches and other players. It’s been beyond lacrosse. It’s teaching more than life skills, it’s teaching values that parents and all these adults should be super proud of. I’m super amazed. Some of these kids carry it on to college.”








The ALS community picked up a victory just a couple days before the Mariemont girls won their championship when President Donald Trump signed the “Right to Try Act” on May 30. It gives terminally ill patients access to drug treatments not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

“It’s an important piece of legislation especially for people with terminal diseases, because not a lot of money goes into research for those diseases. And if you ever try drugs in Stage 2 or Stage 3 of the process, it’s important,” Harden said. “A lot of drugs find their way to uses not originally intended in the original trial.”

PHOTO COURTESY OF SHEA HARDEN

From right, Graham Harden and his sister, Shea; Andrew Fuentes, legislative aide for Sen. Dianne Feinstein; and Lisa Deegan, advocate and friend of the Harden family.

Harden is making a push to get more money committed to ALS research. He wants funding for ALS to more closely match the funding level for HIV/AIDS, and believes that pairing efforts with similar diseases to ALS — like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntingdon’s — could promote more funding. Harden and his sister made their pitch on Capitol Hill in February, two months after he was turned down for a clinical trial because his ALS had progressed too much for him to be included. With Right to Try enacted, the family is looking again for a promising treatment that could help Harden combat his ALS symptoms.

“I feel good,” Harden said. “It’s obviously progressing. My voice is obviously affected. It takes a lot to generate the air to get out words. I can still walk. I can still talk. Do it while you can and enjoy every moment.”




PHOTO BY STEVE SPOONER

Harden, a former Schmeisser Award-winning defenseman at North Carolina who previously coached boys' teams to titles in Connecticut and Georgia, was diagnosed with ALS in 2016.


Especially the victories. Harden is no stranger to championships. He won one coaching the Wilton (Conn.) High School boys in 1992, won another at The Lovett School in Atlanta in 2005. He and his wife, Dawn, moved in 2006 with their children, Kendall, Lindsay and Cole, to Terrace Park, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati with a population of about 2,500.

“For all these years, he was Cole’s dad,” Robinson said. “As I got older, he was involved in the program. He became a never-ending lacrosse resource.”

Harden started coaching in the Mariemont boys’ program in 2006 and started helping the girls’ program in 2014, when Kendall was a senior. He can do both because field space is limited, so the boys and girls practice and play back-to-back, never overlapping. Harden has shared a part in four Mariemont boys’ state titles, including in 2017, when Cole was a junior.

“Each championship has its own flair and uniqueness,” Harden said. “Last year, when it was the boys and my son, that was a great experience. This year with the girls, seeing them grow and develop as a team was just as special. If you can’t enjoy a championship, you have a problem. Something’s not right in your head. It’s too much fun not to enjoy.”

Harden almost doubled up on championships this season. Cole and the Mariemont boys lost, 15-13, to DeSales in the state semifinals.

“It was a fun ride,” Harden said. “They just ran into a very good team in the state semifinals. They gave them a good run and they ended up winning it. You can’t be ashamed of losing by two goals to the eventual state champion. We could have won that game had a couple bounces gone the other way.”

PHOTO BY STEVE SPOONER

Mariemont poses with its trophy after a 15-13 victory over Chagrin Falls on June 2 to capture its first Ohio Division II state championship in the program’s first appearance in the state final.

Harden served as head coach of the Mariemont girls’ team in 2016 and 2017 and got the team to the regional final last year. He stepped down to be able to follow Cole’s senior year more closely and allow Ferry, head coach until 2014, to return to the top post. Ferry was thrilled when Harden stayed on as an assistant.

“He does so much,” Ferry said. “Tactically, he knows the game so well because he personally played at such a high level. He loves to study the game. Every year he reads and re-reads the new rulebook. He gives the girls quizzes on the rulebook because he’d get a kick out of them not knowing the answer. He’d help break down zone defenses. He’d help kids set up ways to break down a face guard, anything from a tactical standpoint.

“More than that, he’s a relationship guy. The girls know he cares about them. From an inspirational point of view, you watch the way that he deals with adversity, and he has such a positive demeanor through it all. It helps us when we get down five goals with four and a half minutes to go to have the guts to fight adversity too and get there in the end.”

Donations to the GForce Initiative that go directly to The Harden Family Trust in support of Harden can be made here.