SI's May High School Athlete of the Month is Madison Schulte, a senior lacrosse player from Seneca High School in Tabernacle, New Jersey.
Check back here each month for more stories of student-athletes who display strength and character on and off the field. To nominate a candidate, fill out the form at bottom.
It was spring in South Jersey and another Seneca High girls’ lacrosse practice had just ended with a shout of “Team!” that echoed off the scrubby pitch pines and tall white cedars of the surrounding Pinelands. As the varsity athletes in identical mesh practice jerseys filed off the practice fields towards the low-slung brick school building, a gaggle of younger girls, their hair in bright bows and their cleats and shorts a rainbow of colors that don’t exist in nature, straggled onto an adjacent field from the opposite direction.
Madison Schulte, a senior midfielder at Seneca, disappeared inside the varsity locker room along with the rest of her high school teammates and emerged back on the practice fields a few minutes later wearing sweats and a pair of bright pink Crocs clogs. She was there to coach practice for her youth team of fifth grade girls.
“Braces! When’d you get those?” Madison asked one of her players. “Today!” the 10-year-old girl grinned back with a mouth full of metal, clearly proud that her coach had noticed her new look.
As a freshman, Madison had led the Seneca varsity in scoring with 59 goals and was named first team all-conference. But in her sophomore year, overwhelmed by the recruiting circuit and the pressure she put on herself to perform, she says, she abruptly walked away from lacrosse and a likely Division I scholarship.
“It all got too serious too fast,” Madison says.
She had barely picked up a lacrosse stick for the last two years before this spring, but now Madison has not only rejoined the high school team—where she recently scored her 100th career goal, accomplishing in two seasons what most players do in four—she is also teaching the sport of lacrosse to girls almost half her age. With no expectations on her but to give it her all and have a great time in her last chance to play high school sports, she has rediscovered her love for the lacrosse and is passing it on to another generation.
“This year has been all about bringing the fun back to the game,” she says.
Maddy, as her friends call her, grew up playing lacrosse with her two older brothers, a lacrosse net permanently parked in the front yard.
“That net’s been there probably for 10 years. It moves just to get the lawn mowed,” says Madison’s mom, Megan Schulte.
Maddy first picked up a lacrosse stick in kindergarten and soon found herself tending goal while Dylan and Tyler, who now both play in college, took turns shooting on her in glorified target practices.
“From when I first started walking I always wanted to follow my brothers around and do what my brothers did,” Maddy says.
A natural athlete, she competed in just about every sport over the years—field hockey, basketball, soccer, cheerleading—but lacrosse stuck. She was naturally good at it, it was fun and by the time she was a freshman, between making the varsity high school team and competing for her South Jersey Select travel squad, she was playing the sport year-round.
Her freshman season was a smashing success by the numbers. With hardly any effort, recalls Seneca High varsity coach Morgan Crothers, Maddy was clearly the best player on the team right from the first scrimmage.
“I remember coming home from that scrimmage and thinking, ‘Wow. This will be my next star lacrosse player for the next four years,’” Crothers says. “I’ve had two other All-Americans come through the program and she was on the path to definitely be an All-American.”
In her conference, it was unheard of for a freshman to score nearly 60 varsity goals in one season.
“After the first couple weeks of playing, I knew she could have been a D-I athlete,” Crothers said.
Only Maddy wasn’t so sure she wanted to be a Division I athlete. She felt intense pressure that she put on herself, she says, to one-up her previous performances.
“If I wasn’t scoring enough or I wasn’t making enough steals, I always thought that I wasn’t doing my best,” she says. “I felt that it was the stats that described you as a player and not your efforts. For me it was difficult to realize the difference between being the best and giving your best and which one you actually had to do.”
But as she booked flights across the country to look at college programs that had expressed interest in her, she looked around and realized that she was literally on a ride she wasn’t so sure she wanted to take.
“Scheduling the flights to go to different states to look at different schools and then talking to different coaches, it all just overwhelmed me very quickly,” Maddy says. “I just realized my heart wasn’t fully in it and if I stepped back, I’d be able to take a bigger look at it and see if that’s really where I wanted to be or not.”
Coming back from a college recruiting trip she said to her mom in the car, “I don’t even know if i want to play lacrosse in college and I certainly don’t want to pick my college because of my sport,” Megan remembers.
“Madison just wasn’t enjoying it anymore,” her dad Paul says. “She even used the phrase, ‘It’s more like a job.’”
It was difficult for her parents to hear that Maddy wanted to stop doing something that she had excelled in for so long.
“It was kind of gut wrenching,” Megan says. “As a parent, you enjoy watching your child succeed at something. You hated to see her give it up when she was naturally talented at it but if she’s not having fun, we’re not going to force her into something her heart wasn’t into.”
They immediately put a halt to college recruiting trips, calling one college coach in Ohio to cancel just two days before their planned visit.
It’s rare for a high schooler to have the confidence to deviate from the expected path. Maddy was deeply worried about disappointing her teammates and coach but she knocked on Crothers door while she was in the middle of teaching a math class and told her she needed to talk.
“I knew it was pretty important because kids don’t usually interrupt your classes,” Crothers recalls. She had Maddy come back during her free period. “You could tell that she was very upset about it and she was in tears. And she said, ‘I’m just going to not play anymore.’”
Crothers was surprised but offered to stand by her star player. “I said if you ever want to come back, the door is still open and you can come back to the team whenever you want,” she says.
Her coach’s sympathy and support was a relief.
“(Crothers) played two sports in college and she knew how the pressure could get so she was very open to the idea of me taking time off,” Maddy recalls. “She wanted me to get myself back on my feet and do what was best for me.”
“Madison came into her own when she stopped playing,” her mother says. “She felt like there was a weight lifted and she was still confident in herself but able to move on and do different things and have fun and just be a 16-year-old girl.”
She kept busy, playing soccer in the fall and basketball in the winter. Those sports were different, Maddy says. She wasn’t the backbone of the team, just a dependable off-the-bench player.
“Even if I was a starter, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh there comes Maddy Schulte, she scores 10 points every game.’ It was more like I was just a team player, I wasn’t the team.”
It was a lot easier to enjoy sports when she wasn’t putting pressure on herself to light up the scoreboard. “I was just expecting to go out there and have fun with it,” Maddy says.
Meanwhile, she joined student council and became involved in the National Honor Society. She got into Penn State, her dream school, and volunteered with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, accompanying a group of terminally ill children on a trip to Disney World this winter, an experience that helped her decide to return to lacrosse.
“It made me realize that time is so precious,” she says. “I realized I’m not going to get this opportunity again to play high school sports. After this it’s not even guaranteed that I will ever play a sport again.”
One day before the start of the season this spring, Crothers saw her former star in the halls at school and half-jokingly asked, for probably the millionth time, if she was going to come out for the team again. It had become a running routine but this time, Maddy told her coach that she’d be take her up on the invitation.
“At first I thought she was kidding around but when she showed up at the meeting I knew she was actually going to play,” Crothers said.
Maddy announced to her parents that she would be returning to the lacrosse field the day before tryouts.
“I picked up the stick a week or two before practice and started messing around in my front yard again and at first I was a little rusty but as soon as I walked out on the field it was like riding a bicycle, it all came right back to me,” Maddy said.
Erin Kerstetter, a sophomore midfielder at Seneca, is playing her first year with the lacrosse phenom she grew up hearing about.
“I saw her in the paper a lot,” Erin says. “She scored 59 goals her freshman year, which is insane, so everyone was always talking about her—even my parents and my friends. Everyone was always like, ‘Maddy Schulte, Maddy Schulte.’”
Now that they’re friends and teammates, Erin says Maddy is so much more than her impact on the stats sheet: she makes the rest of the team better.
“She brought a lot of things to the table, above and beyond what I expected. She’s first one to a ground ball, always working as hard as she can, last minute left in the game she’s the one running back and forth making sure we’re all, ‘Let’s go! Let’s go!’ — she’s that extra oomph that gets us going.”
“I’m here to make everyone have a good time and just have the most fun before my senior year ends,” Maddy says. “Whether it’s for me and my teammates, messing around at practice, trying to put smiles on girls’ faces when they miss a shot and let them know, you’ll get it next time and it’s not a big deal, or to the fifth graders that I coach, that this is all for fun right now, you guys don’t have to put that much on yourselves. That’s what I’m here to do.”
After her first goal, Maddy says she felt like she had never left, she says.
“It was like I’d been out there all four years with my team—they treated me just like any other girl that would score a goal,” she says. “It wasn’t like, ‘She’s back!’ or anything, it was we’re out here, we’re a team, we’re scoring together, defending together, winning or losing together.”
But it’s clear to her parents and coach that the old Maddy is back, in a sense.
“She’s playing with no expectations which is making it fun for her,” says Megan. “She’s enjoying the game, she’s enjoying the practices, the whole team, just everything about it now. She’s back to having fun."
While specializing and playing year-round have become increasingly common in high school sports, Maddy is the rare athlete who knows the value of playing purely for the love the game. But her decision to take a break from her sport is not one she would necessarily recommend for everyone. More than anything, she says the takeaway from her unorthodox path is to be true to yourself.
“Now I know that I can step back from things and it’s not going to ruin everything. I know now that I have the opportunity to make my own decisions in life and do what’s best for me,” she says. “That’s what I’m going to base my whole life on now. Whatever decision I’m going to make I’m always going to follow my heart because it worked out best for me now and I know that in the future that’s what I’m going to need to do: what’s best for me, not to hurt anyone else, but I know I have to put myself first.”
It’s a valuable life lesson Paul is glad his daughter learned now while the stakes are high school sports. One day not far off in the future there will be career, relationship and life decisions to weigh. “She’s going to change, just like she did with sports, everybody does,” he says. “It’s not quitting, it’s changing from one thing to the other until you get set in a spot you like.”
Somewhere between her natural ability to read the field and her outsider perspective from taking two years off of the intense high school sports and recruiting merry-go-round, Maddy discovered a talent for teaching and coaching. She’s like another coach on the field in her varsity games, Crothers says.
“Maddy understands the game and how to play the game and how to teach others. She’s a natural teacher on the field with her high school teammates,” Crothers says.
She’s also a natural with her youth players. As the sun started to sink below the horizon on the Seneca High fields as the U-11 practice wrapped up, Maddy announced that the day would conclude with a game of Steal the Bacon. She tries to end every practice with a game. Squeals of glee erupted from the pack of fifth graders.
“We’re just volunteer parents, it’s hard to get coaches that know the game so she’s been a great help this year,” said Tom Capraro, whose daughter Isabella plays for the team. He and another father volunteer as assistant coaches, taking over if Maddy ever has a varsity game that conflicts with practice.
“It’s hard for them to connect with us,” Tom says of the dynamic between fifth grade girls and middle-aged dads. “They love having Maddy out there.”
It was an easy decision to volunteer her time coaching, Maddy says. “I jumped at the opportunity. It made me think back to when I was 10 or 11 years old playing lacrosse and how much fun it was to play and start learning the game.”
Who knows if she would have found her way to the sidelines as a youth coach had she stuck with her intense lacrosse schedule all four years. But no question, she’s a different coach than she might have been if she had never taken a step back from the environment of competitive lacrosse.
“I would have thought back to—you need to know now that freshman year you guys are going to start getting recruited,” says Maddy, who is considering one day becoming a coach and teacher. “So it might have been a little more intense. But that’s not the way it should be at age 10. You should be able to have fun at all of your sports practices. The skills will come along the way as long as you’re having fun and enjoying learning them.”
Waiting in line for their turn for Steal the Bacon, the girls shrieked with laughter over some private joke and sang the lyrics to a Taylor Swift song:
“She wears short skirts, I wear sneeeak-ers. She’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleeeach-ers.”
Their sweet, goofy behavior would probably not be tolerated at a higher level, but no one scolded them that afternoon. They weren’t on an elite team—maybe one day some of them would be—but for now, they were just kids playing a game.
“It’s supposed to be fun,” Coach Maddy says.