It could have been just another night taking orders and serving food at Totopo’s, except for the fact that Morgan Cheripko is the type of server who likes to get to know her customers a bit. And the conversation she struck up on that particular night last year helped transform Cheripko from a typical working student to a pioneering East Carolina student-athlete.
One of the tables in her section was filled with young women wearing Pirate athletic gear, and they looked young enough that Cheripko assumed they were athletes. A one-time college athlete herself, she asked them what sport they played.
“We’re actually the lacrosse coaches,” one of the women answered.
That in itself was a happy coincidence, since Cheripko had played lacrosse in high school in Maryland and as a freshman at the University of Tampa. She told them a bit about her lax resume, and they encouraged her to come to the August tryouts for the inaugural ECU lacrosse program.
Cheripko enjoyed her chance encounter with the coaching staff, but she didn’t initially think the tryouts were a good idea. After all, she told herself, she hadn’t played competitive lacrosse in close to two years, trying the ECU club team briefly after she transferred as a sophomore and quitting to focus on her schoolwork in exercise physiology.
She was sure she was too rusty to make a college squad.
Her sister Taylor, who is a year older and the reason Morgan decided to transfer to ECU, had other ideas, and she gave her younger sister a pep talk and nudged her out the door to Johnson Stadium that hot summer day.
“I owe it to my sister, she was the one who gave me the pep talk letting me know I could do it,” she said. “The coaches, they gave me this opportunity and I couldn’t be more thankful. I didn’t know how much I missed lacrosse until I was back out on this field.”
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Of course, Cheripko made the team, and in this first-ever ECU lacrosse season she is the only senior, sharing the roster with 23 freshmen, three sophomores and one junior. As the elder of the group, she has filled a valuable role as a guide for the younger players, especially those experiencing college for the first time.
But Cheripko’s knowledge extends far past how to sell back textbooks or where to eat near campus. She also understands exactly what it’s like to be a freshman on a brand-new team, because she has done it before.
At the University of Tampa, she led Division II in total draw controls (155) and draw controls per game (9.2) and scored a team-high 38 goals as part of a brand-new lacrosse program.
Despite her success there, she realized that she needed to go to a school that offered exercise physiology, and since her sister was at East Carolina it was an obvious choice. What was less obvious was the possibility that she could blaze a lacrosse trail twice.
“It’s really different going from being a freshman on an inaugural team to now being a senior on an inaugural team,” she said. “But it’s nice because I knew what it was like to be a freshman on such a team, and I was able to pass that experience down to them.”
A look at her family’s athletic pedigree makes Cheripko’s unique college lacrosse trajectory less surprising. She comes from a rich heritage of collegiate athletics, including her sister Brooke, a four-time national champion for the University of Louisville cheerleading squad, and three football players — her brother Drew (Towson), her cousin Patrick Lazar (West Virginia) and her father Darrell (Yougstown State.)
She might have been unsure about her ability to compete after such a long break from lacrosse, but Cheripko has been a valuable and consistent contributor to the 2-10 Pirates squad, said head coach Amanda Barnes. In the past four games Cheripko won 34 draw controls for an average of 8.5 draw controls per game, an average that puts her in the top five players nationwide in that category.
“I think that kind of puts in perspective what Morgan is putting out there for us in games and her contribution to this program,” Barnes said. “Her maturity on and off the field has really lifted our program.”