Kelly Larkin isn’t one to dwell on the negative. One of the Naval Academy’s most decorated athletes ever, Larkin is working past the disappointment of collegiate lacrosse’s cut-short COVID-19 campaign.
It’s apparent in her voice the effort is still a work in progress.
“It’s like a cloud of sadness and some days it’s raining harder than others,” Larkin said from her home in the Northern Virginia suburbs.
It’s not in Larkin’s DNA to dwell on such things. That’s not how you become the Naval Academy’s all-time leading scorer in just three seasons and earn All-America honors four years in a row. It is how you feel, though, when your competitive heart is broken by circumstances beyond anyone’s control such as this pandemic.
“Some days, like when my calendar would notify me it was the day of the Loyola game or it was our Senior Day, milestones like that when I was just home, it was hard,” she said. “I got so much from the experience [at Navy], but now my career as a lacrosse player has ended, but my career in life is just starting.”
That’s because Larkin, who graduated last month, will soon head to Pensacola, Fla., for flight school to become a Naval Flight Officer, and she’ll also be hoping for more blue skies and less clouds in her new day-to-day life.
“I’ve just been one to always love a good challenge,” said the Alexandria, Va., native. “Flying isn’t the safest route I could have taken, but I’m really open to it.There’s some tension that goes along with it but I’m more excited than scared. I’ve had lacrosse my whole life and could channel everything into becoming an expert. Now I don’t have lacrosse anymore. I have to find a new place to channel all that energy and passion.”
And sadly, lacrosse doesn’t have Larkin anymore. She sets sail out of Navy with 12 school records, including career marks for points (376) and assists (177). Without a full senior season — Navy played six games before the season was canceled — she also finished as the Patriot League’s all-time scorer and assists leader. She was a three-time Tewaaraton Award Watch List member and was Inside Lacrosse‘s Division I Rookie of the Year in 2017.
“She was the ultimate attacking player on the field,” Navy coach Cindy Timchal said. “One advantage was being left-handed, and one was having such a high lax IQ, seeing open players. If you play man-on-man [defense], she can beat you one-on-one. If you double her to stop her, she can find the open player in the slide.”
Timchal also admired Larkin’s toughness in the big games. In one of her last home contests at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Larkin had five goals and three assists to key a 16-15 upset of No. 21 Duke, but then the Mids dropped three straight games. It made the season’s sudden end that much more gut-wrenching for a competitor like Larkin.
“The hardest part for me was I saw the potential our team had, and I knew we hadn’t quite hit our stride,” Larkin said. “After the loss at (No. 8) Florida, I could tell the energy in the locker room had changed. We were ready to turn things around and take off. The most heartbreaking thing is to have that potential and not know how it would have come out.”
Senior student-athletes at the service academies don’t have the option of coming back for an additional year. It’s part of the sacrifice they make to serve their country, this year exacerbated by the pandemic.
Timchal gets emotional talking about what happened to her Class of 2020, but she points to Larkin as the kind of player, the kind of person that can make things better even in these uncertain times.
“Kelly’s goal was to be the best lacrosse player she could possibly be at the Naval Academy, and now to be the best possible officer she can be now that she has graduated and is ready to serve,” the coach said.
And graduation, while not the wonderful, public celebration normally seen at the Academy, still worked out well for Timchal’s seniors. They all graduated the same day in Annapolis, Md., part of the 10-day, separated and safer ceremony. Larkin and her five classmates were part of the largest women’s class ever at Navy — 102 strong, commissioned among the full brigade in socially distanced waves of about 200 at a time.
They were able to gather together one more time that day, too, providing a little more closure. Larkin didn’t say goodbye to all her fellow seniors. Three of them are joining her at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in the flight program — Kayla Harris of Annapolis, Caitlin Blanche of Crofton, Md., and Annalise Heyward of Charlotte, N.C. – beginning July 31. They’ve rented a house together.
Other former teammates – twins Julia and Jenna Collins of Clarksville, Md., and Sarah Childress of Annapolis – all selected flight school, as well, two years ahead of the current group, and Larkin liked what she heard from them in making her decision. Her uncle, Mark Welhas, a former Air Force pilot who went into commercial flying, was also an influence.
Larkin will go through primary training first, learning more about airplanes before she gets to actually fly an aircraft. Then she’ll select what kind of plane she wants to fly from among jets to big cargo aircraft. More training follows. She thinks it’s going to be a two-year process and then it’s anchors aweigh, probably flying planes out of bases in Jacksonville, Fla., Norfolk, Va., or on the West Coast.
Larkin has always immersed herself in the fabric of Navy, and we’re not just talking the dress blues. The day she received word she had been accepted to the Academy in 2016 is another of her fondest memories.
“I was standing outside on my porch when I got the call, one of my first [scholarship] offers, and I walked into the kitchen where my parents were, and I told them the Naval Academy had offered me to come play lacrosse,” Larkin said. “I will never forget the reaction, the look I saw on both my parents’ faces. They both just exuded pride and they both started crying. Seeing that reaction, it was really a done deal.”
Her sister, Jill, who had enlisted right out of high school, will be a senior at the Academy this year, also serving as a team manager for the women’s lacrosse program. Younger sister Jessica, a rising high school freshman, looks like another Larkin lacrosse legacy in the making.
Kelly has already told Timchal to hold her number 7 jersey for Jessica.
“I don’t even think you can do that,” Larkin laughed.
That’s right. Larkin’s jersey might be in a case somewhere or flying over the stadium.
Better yet, flight officer Larkin might be flying over the stadium herself.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Navy Athletics