Marie McCool has scored 10 goals and won a league-leading 35 draw controls this season. (Courtesy of Athletes Unlimited)

For Athletes Unlimited midfielder Marie McCool, this summer has been a whirlwind.

In July, McCool helped Team USA to a gold medal at the World Lacrosse Championships. A few weeks later, she was back on the field in Maryland for the second season of Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse.

As she’s navigated each event, McCool has been aware of the toll the competitive games are taking on her body. It’s the most lacrosse she’s played consecutively since college, and she’s been taking steps in her recovery to ensure she remains in top shape each week.

“I kind of look at it as like a gift and an opportunity today to be able to play the sport that I love,” McCool tells Just Women’s Sports.

That mindset has resulted in some gutsy chances and highlight-reel performances.

At the world championships, McCool’s behind-the-back shot, which made SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays and caught the eyes of women’s sports figures like USWNT legend Heather O’Reilly, was actually the first that she’s ever taken in a game. That the assist came from Kylie Ohlmiller, her United States teammate and friend over the years, was an added bonus.

After winning a World Championship with Team USA in 2017 as a soon-to-be college senior, McCool entered this year’s tournament as a veteran. She embraced the role and, after leading Team USA to an 11-8 win over Canada with three goals in the title game, was named to the 10-player All-World team. She finished the tournament ranked second on the team with 20 goals, first in shooting percentage at 76.9 percent and third in draw controls with 17.

Through the first three weeks of the Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse season, McCool has leaned on that worldly experience — as well as her learnings from last AU season — to help guide the many talented rookies. Though she is 36 spots off the lead entering the final week of the 2022 campaign, with 607 total points through nine games, McCool has shown flashes of the attacking brilliance that have characterized her entire career.

“I think when something’s new, it’s really important to keep confident in yourself and your abilities. But sometimes you’re put in uncomfortable positions that can be challenging, so how can we build their confidence and help them maintain it when they’re still in that adjustment period and feeling a little bit uncomfortable?” she says of the younger players she’s mentored.

“I think that’s another really important piece that a lot of us veterans and people who played in the league last year are trying to help the rookies out with.”

McCool can also provide a unique perspective on the transition from college to the pros. After a standout career at the University of North Carolina from 2015-18, McCool entered the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League (WPLL) and won a championship in 2019, one year after being named WPLL MVP as a member of the Baltimore Brave.

Despite enjoying immediate success, she admits it was difficult to navigate a less structured athletic schedule, and she leaned on her U.S. teammates for advice.

“That year after I graduated, that summer into that fall was probably one of the toughest periods of time in my life,” McCool says. “You go from not having time to do stuff because you’re on such a set schedule to OK, I have time on my hands, but I don’t know what to do with it.

“I’ve always been a pretty determined person, and I was working out. But I think trying to figure out what workouts worked best for me on my own was the biggest challenge.”

A unique element of Athletes Unlimited, beyond the weekly drafting structure and points system, is that former collegiate rivals can be teammates at different points of the season. McCool, a two-time finalist for the Tewaaraton Award given annually to the best women’s and men’s college lacrosse players, has grown close with players from Boston College, Maryland and other top programs.

Building those relationships within lacrosse has helped elevate her level of play, too. After appearing for Team Waters and Team Arsenault earlier in the season, she’ll suit up for Team Moreno for the final three games. Each week she’s adjusted to her new environment, scoring 10 goals and winning a league-leading 35 draw controls. She’s also tied for second in shots saved alongside Charlotte North with 21.

Getting to play with former Boston College standout Dempsey Arsenault on Team USA and during Athletes Unlimited has been a highlight for McCool, who said she was elated to be drafted by the midfielder in Week 2.

“I was like, ‘Thank goodness it’s been so long,’” she says. “As much as I hated matching up on defense to Dempsey in college, it has been so nice to be able to be on her team.”

While she’ll go up against Arsenault once again this week, McCool remains thankful for the opportunity Athletes Unlimited affords to form relationships that will last long past her days playing the sport that she loves.

Emma Hruby is an Associate Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @EHruby.