Back to Her Roots: Virbickis Returns to Phoenix Lacrosse

Itching to quantify her love for the sport, assistant athletic director Jennifer Virbickis made her second debut as head coach of the Phoenix girls varsity lacrosse team after starting the program when the school first opened.


Alyssa Yoon

Jennifer Virbickis huddles up with her team to discuss the game plan during a timeout as the Phoenix took on the Stone Bridge Bulldogs on April 19.

Tanishka Enugu, Sports Section Editor

From Rock Ridge’s inaugural year, to the split in school population to Independence High School, to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is hard to reflect on Phoenix athletics without acknowledging Jennifer Virbickis and her unwavering dedication to the student body. A former elementary school teacher, Virbickis took up the role of the school’s first girls lacrosse head coach in the 2015 season. Her strong leadership had quick results, as the program reached a peak record of 10-6 in the 2018 season. 

However, after receiving the position of assistant athletic director, Virbickis had to step back from her role as head coach due to scheduling conflicts. Although she was no longer directly guiding the team, she continued to assist the program behind the scenes, even sometimes stepping in to run practices. Virbickis’s presence and passion for lacrosse is nothing short of admirable, a primary reason she could not stay away from coaching for long. 

While balancing her duties as a mother with those of being athletic director, she decided to add one more commitment to the mix, reclaiming her role in the sport that she owes her athletic career to. The choice to return was preferred, not only by Virbickis, but also by the players on the team. “She pushes us and truly wants us to succeed, her passion for lacrosse motivates us [to be better players],” junior defender Sanya Baig said.

With the season now underway, Virbickis hopes to turn a new page for the Phoenix girls lacrosse program.

Q: What made you want to return as girls lacrosse coach?

A: When the girls lacrosse team was trying out this year, I offered to help because we had someone who was not very familiar with the sport. That didn’t end up [working out], but it was funny because when I went out there one day of practice, I kind of realized how much I missed coaching and being involved with lacrosse. I get to still watch it [as assistant athletic director], but it’s different when you’re coaching and teaching it. I told the girls this too, I said there’s kind of like an “itch” to get back into coaching in some way. I was either going to officiate or something, so I think it was kind of meant to be, because then I have the opportunity to be able to coach. Not a lot of assistant [athletic director’s] are able to coach, but since we had 20 girls willing to go out there and learn, Mr. Duellman, [in a way,] made that happen.

Jennifer Virbickis searches for a pass as she plays the Midfield position in high school. Virbickis attended Herndon High School, playing on a team that fostered her love for lacrosse. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Virbickis)

Q: What initially drew you to lacrosse and what do you enjoy most about coaching it?

A: A little backstory about lacrosse for me is that my parents liked us to play sports, so I always did soccer up until about middle school. I really wanted to make this soccer team, it was a club team, and I kept trying out, [but] I always got cut. I [brushed it off] and would say it’s okay and keep trying out, [until] one year my mom was like:  ‘Why don’t you play lacrosse?’ because she had played it in college. Since I was pretty new, I started playing with older kids, then as I grew, I kind of found it to be a niche for me. I had played basketball growing up, and I felt like the game skills [translated] to lacrosse and came a little bit quicker. That’s why lacrosse has a special place in my heart, I have so many memories tied to sports, but especially [with] lacrosse.

Q: How have you been balancing coaching with being the Assistant Athletic Director?

A: I think the greatest thing about the administration at Rock Ridge is that it’s all family, but they also will adjust things so it benefits the students. [That’s why] going into this Mr. Duellman was like: ‘are you sure? I know it’s a lot to handle,’ but there are times where we have morning practice and I’ll let them know that I might be running a little bit late to cafeteria duty [or other obligations]. It’s a team task. The administration here works to help me and adjust with me for home games, away games, and meetings. [However], it’s so enjoyable for me and I think it’s important for the girls to talk about the cool thing about sports, which is that the girls would have probably never talked to me unless I was their lacrosse coach. Even if they had played another sport, they might’ve seen me, but we would have never been able to connect on the level that we are going to if we hadn’t had this experience together. [Ultimately], I think it’s all worth it, but it’s a team thing, the girls know the other responsibilities [I have,] so they are flexible with me, and I appreciate that so much. Also – they can tell you — my kids are always coming with us, and they don’t always behave, so they get to see me grow frustrated in that sense. Overall, it’s a team thing, so we just have to have that mutual understanding, it’s worth [the extra responsibility].

Jennifer Virbickis pounces on her opponent with possession of the ball. Virbickis played lacrosse throughout high school and continued her athletic career at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, MD, where she was a member of the team for four years (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Virbickis)

Q: What has been a challenge so far this year?

A:  A challenge has [definitely] been getting everyone to buy-in [to committing to the sport]. I understand we have morning practices, and those can be tough, but it’s the buy-in of coming to practice that is going to pay off. We do have a lot of girls that need to learn lacrosse, so it’s [somewhat] of a teaching moment. Of course, games are the most exciting and it’s where you see the eagerness to play, but [I have to keep] telling the girls that if you come to practice you’re going to get better in games, and [just] being at a game is not going to make you a better player. I want them to understand that practices weren’t always my favorite either, but we do the things in practice for a purpose. Everytime we do a drill, I explain what exactly this is going to help them with and how they can [apply it to their game]. I don’t tell them to run around the field because I think it’s fun — everything [has a purpose]. 

Q: What has been a success?

A: The excitement and the want to learn has been a huge success. Lacrosse is a unique sport where you have about 12 girls that play, and you’re running the full football field. So in order to be successful in that sense, you not only have to be well conditioned, you need numbers. It’s not like you can have a team of 14, you need to have a lot of girls. The success is how many girls are coming out and how many girls want to play. I feel like they are enjoying it, and they’re learning, they’re getting better, and that’s what’s meaningful to me. I always tell them that you’re never going to remember wins and losses, you’re going to remember the memories you made with these people on the field. The energy and the spirit is something that I can tell them, but I can’t teach it, so I am excited that they [already have that excitement].

Jennifer Virbickis appears as the feature image in the Frostburg State University news magazine, introducing a spread celebrating 40 years of Title IX. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Virbickis)

Q:  What goals do you have for the team as a whole this year?

A: When I started the program here, I tried to put on my level of lacrosse and athletics to the girls, and I want to do that again. Like I said, I don’t care about wins and losses, but at the end of the year I want them to love lacrosse like I love lacrosse. I’m not saying they have to be the best player, but I want them to be able to go out on the field and just pass around with their friends. That was something I loved being a part of, that was such a big community and life for me growing up, because sometimes we’ll see officials and be friendly with them, it’s all that lacrosse community that I hope they can pass on to their friends and even their family.