Kenul Plays for her Mom as Hopkins Plays for the Cure
BALTIMORE – Emily Kenul had her pick of colleges where she could continue her lacrosse career, but ultimately chose Johns Hopkins because of the strong reputation of the school and the family-like atmosphere she felt while visiting the team.
Perhaps more than most, she was in need of a supportive environment.
It just so happens the sophomore midfielder from Brookeville, Md., found it at the university where her mother, Donna DiFalco Kenul, was treated for two years at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center through a battle with multiple myeloma – an incurable form of cancer that took her life on Oct. 4, 2008, when her daughter was in seventh grade.
Years later, Emily Kenul has become a key member of the Blue Jays' lacrosse family, having started all 28 games since stepping on campus as a freshman.
Her 29th start should come Wednesday when the Nike/Lacrosse Magazine No. 20-ranked Jays (7-3) host No. 8 Stanford (5-1) in a "Play 4 The Cure" game that will likely have special meaning for Kenul as it serves as a fundraiser for the National Foundation for Cancer Research.
"[Hopkins] has honestly been the best thing I could ask for," Emily Kenul said. "The atmosphere with the team, everyone is so close with each other, even throughout all the differences in classes. The freshmen are really close with the seniors and juniors."
"I think we can really attribute that to coach [Janine] Tucker and [associate head] coach Tara [Singleton]," she added. "They really do create a family-like atmosphere. Coach Tucker is like everyone's second mom. She really cares about you in every aspect of your life. She's always there, and that's helped create such a tight-knit community."
In her 23 years at Johns Hopkins, Tucker said she's made it a point of developing that type of atmosphere for the players. When recruiting Emily Kenul out of Sherwood High School, about 45 minutes outside of Baltimore, Tucker knew that care could be especially crucial. Her school also had the advantage of offering the recruit's father, Phil Kenul, the ability to regularly watch his daughter play. He attends every game.
"The way this program operates and treats its players, I think, was going to be important for Emily, as we tried to help her grow and meet her full potential," Tucker said. "Losing her mom was such a tough thing for a young kid, and I think we just wanted to do everything we could to be able to support her and care for her and be a really important part of her life. Nothing can replace a mom, but we just wanted to make sure we could provide Emily – as we do all our girls – the best environment as possible."
The Kenuls – Donna, Emily and Phil – have long been involved with lacrosse as Emily Kenul now plays for No. 20 Hopkins after her mother played at Hofstra and her father played in high school.
Tucker never needed convincing that Emily Kenul would fit in well on her team. Just five minutes into a 2011 Sherwood game that Tucker attended to watch KC Emerson, a 2015 Hopkins graduate and former starting goalkeeper, Kenul had grabbed her attention.
Kenul was later named first team All-Gazette that year while helping Sherwood to a 12-3 record and regional finals appearance as a freshman. She eventually became the Gazette Player of the Year as a senior, and the transition to Hopkins proved to be a smooth one.
The 5-foot-3 attacking midfielder stepped in and immediately made an impact in 2015, finishing with 25 goals and 19 assists. This year, she already has 18 goals and six assists with nine caused turnovers and 24 draw controls through 10 games.
"She's a beast basically," Tucker said. "She's 5-foot-3 and is just a player you notice on the field. She is everywhere. She helps us on the draw. She hunts the ball in transition. She is able to start fast breaks for us. She has excellent stick work. She just goes out there and plays 120 percent all of the time. She's a coach's dream, very coachable. When you are trying to make corrections, she's pretty much already processed it in her brain. And, she's someone her teammates want to play with and play for."
"I think that's a testament to how she was raised," Tucker added. "I think she probably plays a lot with her mom in mind, and she's had an incredible freshman and sophomore year for us. She is so heavily involved in every aspect of our game, but she is still just scratching the surface for her potential, and that's kind of scary to think about."
Emily Kenul credits her parents, but especially her mom, for her lacrosse abilities.
Phil Kenul had played in high school before wrestling in college. Donna DiFalco Kenul, a standout athlete, was a founding member of Hofstra's first women's lacrosse team in 1975, just three years after the passing of Title IX, the gender equity legislation that has since been a boom to women's athletics, and women's lacrosse in particular.
"Even though I grew up on Long Island, I had never seen the game of women's lacrosse," said the 1979 Hofstra graduate in a Pride media guide. "But with some gentle persuading and lots of patience from coach Nathalie Smith, I became a Hofstra women's lacrosse player. The experience instilled in me the love of the game, which I have tried to pass on to the girls I have coached, including my daughter."
Despite never playing before college, since her Farmingdale High School did not field a girls program, Donna DiFalco Kenul took to the sport well and then coached her daughter throughout youth lacrosse. Emily Kenul began playing in second grade with St. Peter's Athletic Association.
"She had always been a really big part of my lacrosse life," Emily Kenul said.
Witnessing the bond between his wife and daughter through lacrosse, Phil Kenul now watches the young Blue Jay develop into a star.
Phil Kenul affectionately called his wife a "lacrosse nut" and said that "runs right through to Emily," who received her first stick at age 5. When her mother passed away, Emily Kenul turned to lacrosse even more – returning to practice the very next day, according to her father.
"Lacrosse was kind of their thing. It was something they enjoyed doing together, and they were always out throwing the ball around," said Phil Kenul. "She kept playing after her mom got sick, and I think her mother would have liked that. It's one of those things I'm glad she had to keep her focused and to keep reminding her there were a lot of good times playing lacrosse with her mom."
Even today, she still thinks of her mom when she plays. It would have been hard not to, at least briefly, when Johns Hopkins played Donna DiFalco Kenul's alma mater – and won 17-3 – on March 13, as part of the Jays' current four-game winning streak. And, Emily Kenul most definitely will be playing in her honor Wednesday.
"I just try to make her proud," said Emily Kenul, who knows she will always have the support of her teammates, too.
After the Jays overcame a three-game losing streak to begin their current run of success, Tucker said they've all especially been pulling for one another. It's their last year playing an independent schedule before beginning Big Ten play in 2017.
Stanford could be the validation Hopkins needs moving forward, as the Jays are trying for their first win against a ranked opponent this season, but they've come a long way since their season-opening 11-8 win over Marquette. After playing Furman on Saturday, they enter a tough five-game stretch in April featuring four Top 20 opponents, three of which are on the road, as they battle for an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament.
"This team has been incredible," Tucker said. "We started out with three good wins, and then we had to fight through three tough losses, and what I've had to do is just galvanize around that. They are an incredibly close-knit bunch. They feed off each other. They uplift each other. They have each other's backs like I've never seen."
"It's amazing how three tough losses helped this group grow, and I think we're just starting to hit our stride, which is pretty good timing," Tucker added. "We have a very tough road ahead of us, and it's players like Emily who love their team, love their teammates, love their school, who have gotten us to where we are now going into our Stanford game, and hopefully, we can keep it going."
To donate to the cause, please visit the game's fundraising page.
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