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Sports Person of the Week
Santa Barbara Helps the Grizzlies Make History
MJ Santa Barbara scored 28 goals as a sophomore to help the Guilford girls’ lacrosse team put together a campaign for the ages in 2021. (Photo courtesy of MJ Santa Barbara)
MJ Santa Barbara stormed on to scene this spring and had a great debut season playing both on the attack and in the midfield for the Grizzlies. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier)
The Guilford girls’ lacrosse team featured one of the most prolific attacks in the state during the 2021 season as the Grizzlies scored 334 goals on their way to claiming SCC and Class M state titles. Sophomore MJ Santa Barbara was one of the players who led the charge for Guilford by making crucial contributions on offense throughout the campaign, including scoring one of the biggest goals of the year.
In her first season competing for the Grizzlies, MJ scored 28 goals to go with 10 assists and 24 draw controls while playing both the attacker and midfielder positions. MJ helped Guilford finish its season with a record of 19-2, win its second-straight SCC title, and then earn a thrilling victory versus Barlow in the championship game of the Class M State Tournament.
“This season was awesome. It was so great to be a part of such a great group of girls. I’ve never experienced such a strong family bond between us on and off the field,” says MJ. “It was truly remarkable. My favorite aspect of the sport is the team experience and being a part of something bigger than yourself, like a family.”
MJ experienced about as a magical moment as any athlete could ask for when Guilford faced Barlow in the Class M state final. With just 1:06 remaining in the game, MJ netted the go-ahead goal to lift the Grizzlies to an 11-10 win that marked the first state championship in program history.
While she felt ecstatic to score that historic goal, MJ credits her teammates for putting her in the right position make the play.
“My favorite moment as player was celebrating on the field after winning the 2021 state championship. I was recognized as one of the top USA performances of the week when I scored the game-winning goal in the state championship,” MJ says. “It was a surreal feeling. I couldn’t have done it without my teammates. They’re the ones who really set me up for the goal.”
Head Coach Wendy Epke praises MJ for improving throughout the season and was especially pleased to see her perform so well for the Grizzlies in the playoffs. Epke believes that the best is still yet to come for the rising junior.
“MJ gained more and more confidence as the season went on. And when the games mattered the most in the postseason, she stepped up big-time,” says Epke. “MJ scored six goals in the state semifinal and three goals in the state final, including the game-winner. I’m very excited for her junior year and all the continued success.”
MJ started playing lacrosse 11 years ago when her sister Skylar got her into the sport. As a kindergartner, MJ met Epke, who was her coach in lacrosse. MJ views Coach Epke as someone she can always go to whenever she has a question about either lacrosse or school.
“Coach Epke has been coaching me since kindergarten and has taught me all aspects of the sport,” MJ says. “She is always cool, collective, and competitive, which reflects on the team, and she really has helped me love the sport.”
Aside from playing for the girls’ lacrosse team, MJ is a member of Guilford’s varsity field hockey squad, which posted a record of 12-1-0-1 on its way to capturing the SCC Division A title last fall. MJ also competes for her club lacrosse team, Nor’easter Lacrosse, on a year-round basis, in addition to training and lifting at Breakout Athlete in North Branford. Whether or not she’s playing sports, MJ just likes to stay as active as possible.
“Outside of sports, I enjoy surfing in the summer,” says MJ. “I also like spending time with my friends and going to the beach.”
MJ couldn’t have asked for a better experience on the lacrosse field this spring. After missing out on her freshman campaign, MJ felt fortunate that the Grizzlies were able to get back out there and compete in what turned out to be a dream season.
“I wasn’t really worried about playing during the COVID year,” MJ says. “I knew everything would work out the way it was supposed to.”