When Kayla Wood picked up lacrosse for the first time at the age of 8, she was already a few years into participating in soccer, basketball and track. Fast forward 15 years, and the Catonsville High School graduate admitted she is mildly surprised she has carved out a career playing professional lacrosse and coaching and training young lacrosse players in North Carolina.
“As a woman, it’s already hard to make a living out of it,” she said. “And when I was younger, there weren’t professional leagues for women, and I never thought I would even have this opportunity to play professionally and coach kids who also love the sport.”
Wood, who turned 23 last month, is poised to compete in her second season of the Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse League, which opens Thursday at the US Lacrosse headquarters in Sparks. Wood, a defender who helped North Carolina capture three Atlantic Coast Conference championships, was selected by former Loyola Maryland goalkeeper Kady Glynn in a player draft Monday night and will play in her first game against a team headed by former Boston College attacker Sam Apuzzo on Thursday at 6:30 p.m.
Wood credited her passion for lacrosse to close friend Brittany Stevens, a classmate at Catonsville and attacker at La Salle who died suddenly three years ago.
“She was always pushing me on the field, and maybe she didn’t realize it, but she was always pushing me as a person,” Wood said. “She was always my biggest competitor and my No. 1 fan, too. So I think about her very often.”
Cantey Bailey, who began coaching Catsonville in 2015, saw first-hand the bond between Wood and Stevens. But the Crofton native and South River graduate who played lacrosse at Roanoke College also said Wood seemed fated for success in lacrosse or any field she selected.
“She is one that never stops,” Bailey said. “She is one of the hardest workers ever, and it does not surprise me at all that she is out there. I’m just so proud that she’s able to continue to do something that she loves.”
Wood was somewhat of a late bloomer in lacrosse. Even though she started when she was 8, she took a hiatus for several years before resuming as a seventh grader.
As a ninth grader at Catonsville, Wood was one of only three freshmen to earn a spot on the Comets’ varsity team. That was when she began a “life-changing” friendship with Stevens and Trinity McPherson, the other two freshmen.
“In my freshman year of high school, I didn’t really have a lot of close friends because I had gone to a different middle school than everybody else, and I just had a hard time finding friends and feeling like I could be myself,” Wood said. “Brittany and Trinity were the first two people that I really felt like I could be myself. When all three of us were around each other, it was just so easy for us to get along. It wasn’t forced. It was always just this genuine connection.”
The trio was so tight that they nicknamed themselves “Triple Threat.” Stevens called Wood “Hollywood” and was McPherson’s stretching partner. If the threesome wasn’t practicing lacrosse, they were hiking in a forest behind Stevens’ home.
“We were always just running around outside doing something mildly dangerous, but usually sports related and outdoorsy,” McPherson said. “I think we were drawn to each other because the rest of our class was doing other things, and we weren’t really interested in it.”
After their sophomore years, McPherson and her family moved to Manila, Philippines, and then Lusaka, Zambia. McPherson’s absence further strengthened the bond between Wood and Stevens.
Bailey said the chemistry between Wood and Stevens rubbed off on their teammates. She said the varsity squad in 2017, their senior season, was so close thanks to scavenger hunts and movie nights organized by Wood and Stevens that she and her assistant coaches half-jokingly ordered the players to briefly avoid each other during spring break.
After graduation, the trio went their separate ways. Wood went to North Carolina, Stevens to La Salle, and McPherson to Johns Hopkins.
On Dec. 8, 2019, Wood was studying for finals when she received a phone call from her mother Kay. Wood tried to tell her mother she was studying, but stopped when her mother couldn’t find the words to inform her daughter that Stevens had died at the age of 20.
“She just said, ‘Brittany,’ and didn’t really say anything after that,” Wood said. “Somehow, I just kind of knew. I just remember sitting there and saying, ‘No, that can’t be it, that’s not it.’ My mom couldn’t even get the words out.”
The funeral for Stevens — who was fond of asking her family and friends, “What made you laugh today?” — drew an outpouring of support. Bailey said mourners filled three buses. Wood and McPherson returned to attend the funeral but found themselves unable to process their emotions with anyone else but each other.
Efforts to reach the Stevens family were unsuccessful.
McPherson said the death of their friend prioritized her and Wood’s focus.
“I think everything that happened put our lives into perspective, kind of put our relationship with each other into perspective,” she said. “I think that happened for a lot of people, but I know that especially for Kayla and me, it just really made us try to be more present and care about people who we care for a lot more deeply.”
Bailey said Wood was so driven that she rarely needed motivation. But Bailey said she could envision Stevens playing a role in Wood’s career arc.
“Brittany was the one who was telling her, ‘Kayla, you are amazing. You are so good. You need to show everyone all of this,’” Bailey said. “She lives every day in Kayla in the sense that she is living it to the fullest and taking advantage of every opportunity and enjoying it for what it is and not thinking too much into it.”
Last summer, Wood was one of the top-four players for three consecutive weeks, earning captain status and choosing her own squad in each of those weeks. She eventually finished sixth on the Athletes Unlimited leaderboard — a rarity for a defensive player.
Stevens has continued to have an impact on her friends. McPherson graduated from Johns Hopkins in 2021 with a bachelor’s in psychology and will pursue a master’s in social work with a concentration in mental health at Denver, where she will use her final year of eligibility.
Wood stopped wearing a yellow wristband in honor of Stevens, whose favorite color was yellow, because she didn’t feel the need to materialize her friend’s memory. She said she lets her words and actions speak about her love for Stevens.
“Gearing up for this next season, I’m going to play for her and share my story so that people don’t think that they’re alone,” Wood said. “She definitely still has a presence in my life.”
ATHLETES UNLIMITED LACROSSE
Team Glynn (Blue) vs. Team Apuzzo (Orange)
Thursday, 6:30 p.m.