Chris Kiefer knew full well what had just happened.
The West Forsyth girls lacrosse coach, newly installed in his position at the end of the last school year, was in a nice spot, with the Wolverines coming off an appearance in the second round of the state playoffs and returning the vast majority of their roster, thanks to their youth.
But when the news dropped that Ella Madson was moving to Florida for her senior year, West suddenly was confronted with losing its best player. Madson was one of the most talented and productive attacks in the state, having scored 91 goals in 2018. Few defenders could match her flat-out speed, and she was the unquestioned top option for the Wolverines.
Kiefer hadn't coached Madson, but he knew of her from his previous position, as head coach at Pope. And he couldn't simply ignore her departure.
"Any time you lose a player like that, it changes the team dynamic," Kiefer said.
But not so much that the Wolverines haven't been just as good, if not better, than they were last year. West is young again, but the success of their locally renowned Lady Laxers youth program means those underclassmen are among the most talented in the state. They're area champions for the first time since 2010 and begin the state playoffs as a No. 1 seed on Thursday against Brookwood. And in the loss of Madson, the Wolverines might have gained something, too.
"By not having her, it made every girl on the team step up," Kiefer said.
The most important of those has been a sophomore on pace to be one of the county's best players ever. Cami Merkel was Madson's right-hand companion on the Wolverines' offense in 2018, scoring 50 goals and totaling 41 assists, and she's already easily surpassed both those marks this season.
Merkel currently has 80 goals and 47 assists, 13 short of West's single-season record for points, and her career points total of 218 is already second on the Wolverines' all-time list. Her blend of scoring and assisting has no rival in the county and few in the state.
"She's just unbelievable," Kiefer said. "That's the best way I could put it."
Merkel's success starts with her mind for the game: She has a leg up there thanks to the fact that her father, Erik, played in college at Penn State and is one of West's assistant coaches.
Kiefer sees Merkel not just find the right teammates with accurate passes, but do it in a way where she anticipates teammates’ cuts and leads them. She has the speed and stamina to slot in at midfield on occasion, the toughness to cope with being one of the smallest players on the field, and the composure to lead, despite her youth.
"She's stone-cold on the field," Kiefer said. "The pressure does not get to her."
Merkel seems to have risen to the status that Madson occupied with the Wolverines, but as the players see it, she doesn't fill the same role. As much as West was thankful for Madson's production on offense, the Wolverines could end up leaning on her to the point of monotony.
"This year, everyone's contributing, and everyone has stepped up more than last year, because (back then) we were just saying, 'Oh, Ella's got it,'" Merkel said.
Perhaps the best demonstration of the came in West's 19-10 win over Creekview, which completed the team's undefeated run through Area 6-6/7A. In that game, the Wolverines' first seven goals came from seven different players.
"Last year, (that) just really wouldn't have happened, I don't think," West senior midfielder Kate Pullman said.
Pulliam is among the other main contributors for the Wolverines, providing solid numbers as well as important leadership and strategic contributions as a senior. Freshman Keila Reid, sophomore Bella Steigerwalt and junior Sarah Beth Juneau help lead the Wolverines' defense, and in freshman midfielder Jenna Burrow, who has eclipsed 50 goals and has been dominant on the draw, they have a player with a ceiling that Kiefer said could compare to Merkel's.
West's 10-6-2 record doesn't look like a dominant one, but it's come from a very tough schedule. The three in-state opponents to whom they've fallen – Lassiter, Johns Creek and Starr's Mill – all have No. 1 playoff seeds. The Wolverines also have losses to three Florida programs that have just 11 defeats between them.
And one of those – Ponte Vedra, just south of Jacksonville – happens to be Madson's current team. The Wolverines saw that they're missing that game: They led coming out of halftime, but then Madson scored three goals in quick succession to tie the game, and the Sharks went on to win.
"I guess I didn't realize how good she was until I saw her up close and personal," Kiefer said.
And yes, the Wolverines sometimes imagine how good they'd be if Madson hadn't left. But Merkel said she does the same with other players that have gotten hurt or moved. And most importantly, she recognizes that there's no point in doing so.
"I definitely think, 'What if we had two extra middies? That would help us a lot,'" Merkel said. "But at the same time, that will never happen, so why sit here and worry about it?"