Johns Hopkins women’s lacrosse graduate attacker Mackenzie Heldberg recently spoke to PressBox about growing up in a lacrosse family, why she returned to Hopkins for a fifth year and more. The Kings Park, N.Y., native posted 31 points (18 goals, 13 assists) in an injury-shortened 2019 season and 28 points (16 goals, 12 assists) in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Heldberg’s brother, Matthew, plays lacrosse at Bryant, and she has six cousins who either play or played lacrosse in college.
PressBox: How did you become interested in lacrosse?
Mackenzie Heldberg: Growing up, I was surrounded by it. I’m from Long Island, so it’s kind of a big sport there. My siblings and my cousins all played, and watching them I just fell in love with the game and knew that that was something I wanted to do. Eventually got a stick in my hand and haven’t looked back since.
PB: Much of your family plays lacrosse. How did that impact how your growth in the game?
MH: I think it made me as competitive as I am today. While we always support each other within my family — they’re my biggest fans, I’m their biggest fan — they definitely pushed me to become the player I am and challenge me every day. I always learned something from them. They constantly reach out before and after games and they’re tweaking my game and telling me what I can do, so it definitely has made me the player I am, and I couldn’t be more thankful that I am surrounded people that are as involved in lacrosse as I am.
PB: Is there one memory in particular that stands out from growing up with all that lacrosse in your life?
MH: Actually, we would eat together on a Sunday. Me and all my cousins, we hung out every Sunday and we would just have fiddle sticks in our hands. I’m one of nine cousins. Me and my sister are the only two girls, so I got a touch of the boys’ side of lacrosse as well. So constantly every Sunday, stick in our hand, we’re shooting on each other, we’re playing with each other, super competitive. So I think that’s something that I’ll always hold with me and I’m so grateful I get to do.
PB: Who was the biggest influence on your game growing up?
MH: I would say my sister was. She is four years older than me and she has constantly been my role model. I tried to always strive to catch up to how great she was and beat her in whatever she was doing. She kind of paved the way for me in women’s lacrosse growing up. I would say she kind of got me into lacrosse and helped me pursue and reach my goals of eventually ending up at Hopkins.
PB: Why did you choose to come to Johns Hopkins?
MH: I can’t say enough about the coaching staff. Janine Tucker is the most amazing person in the entire world. No one has one bad thing to say about her. So she kind of reeled me in with just her positive energy and awesome vibe. That trickles down through the team, through the coaching staff, [as does] the sense of family, community. She’s my mom away from home. I can go to her for just about anything. The second I arrived on campus, I turned to my mom right after my official visit and was like, “This is where I want to be,” because it just kind of felt like Hopkins was home. That stemmed from Coach Tucker and the coaches. The team at the time just all felt like family.
PB: What’s your favorite memory so far at Hopkins?
MH: There’s so many. I don’t think I can pick one specifically, but I think every time we take the field. The pregame locker room tradition, it’s just such positive energy. Coach Tucker preaches playing with joy, and every single time we get to step on the field I think that radiates through our team. So I would say my favorite memories are in the locker room before games or before practice with my team and being able to step on the field every day with them by my side.
PB: Why did you make the decision to come back for a fifth year after the 2020 season was cut short?
MH: I think for me personally, I know I had some unfinished business here. I tore my ACL my junior year, so that was another year cut short. And then senior year, the whole COVID pandemic unfortunately happened as well, so I feel like it was my time to come back and finish what I started now five years ago. It wasn’t even an option when Coach Tucker said we can have you come back. I was like, “Yes. That’s exactly what I wanted to do.” We love this sport. We love what we do. So having an opportunity to prolong my season and my career was just a gift, and I couldn’t be more thankful that I got the opportunity.
PB: What happened when you tore your ACL and how did rehab go?
MH: It was one of those freak things where I just planted my foot, kind of had a little bit of contact and right away I knew. I think I was on the ground screaming, “No, no!” Then I stood up and my [left] knee buckled. I kind of had a feeling right then and there. Obviously it’s devastating. But at that point I realized there’s nothing I can do except for get back and get ready for the next season … with the support of my teammates — who were great, obviously. I relied on them a lot to get me through that since it’s such a mental challenge as well as a physical challenge. You’re basically teaching yourself how to walk again and eventually how to run correctly again. Our trainer, Erin Long, she was great. I stayed at Hopkins [during the summer of 2019], took classes and just basically worked on my rehab. She was there every step of the way. She was there for me physically but also mentally she was a big aspect [of my recovery]. The coaches were as well. All hands on deck. It was a long road, but obviously I had the sight of getting back on the field come my senior season. That was such motivation for me, and I obviously had such a great support system with that. While it was so challenging physically, mentally and emotionally, [it was] very rewarding that I eventually got back to where I was and was able to step back on the field for my senior season.
PB: How difficult was it that you worked so hard to get back and then the pandemic cut short the 2020 season?
MH: I think just tearing my ACL had [the] effect on my mentality of, “All right, work for the next season, work as hard as you can every day at being grateful for everything I have every day.” I think, in a way, working so hard to get back helped me with this whole COVID pandemic. Once I heard I was going to be able to come back for a fifth year, [I was] like, “All right, let’s just focus on the future, take it day by day.” So obviously it was extremely devastating, but at that point I think everyone was feeling that devastation. I had a bit of experience of getting my season cut short, so I think it was just important to help others through and lean on people and use my support system and use my team, constantly talking with them. While it was another devastating situation for me, I think tearing my ACL kind of prepared me mentally to appreciate the little things and be grateful for every day.
PB: What’s your favorite thing about Hopkins and Baltimore?
MH: I think the sense of community Hopkins has. Especially being a lacrosse player, we have people constantly coming up to us and saying that they’re big fans. Because it’s such an academically-intense school as well as lacrosse being the heart of it and the tradition, I think it’s so cool to see the community that Hopkins brings. You see little kids at your games and all this sense of community surrounding Hopkins lacrosse, so I think that that’s pretty awesome.
PB: Who’s your best friend on the team and what’s a story that underscores your friendship?
MH: Me, Lexi Souder and Maggie Schneidereith are the returning fifth-year [players]. I think that we’re all three best friends. I think I know with Maggie, we always kind of strive for that celebration picture on the field. I just remember we got one, and we were constantly texting back and forth like, “I’m going to post it on Instagram. No, I’m going to post it on Instagram.” … I know me and Lexi have a bunch of celebration pictures together, too, so celebrating their success on the field and off the field and how close we are really kind of illustrates our friendship.
PB: Who was a player you looked up to early in your career at Hopkins?
MH: Haley Schweizer. She was a senior captain when I was a freshman. She was just the epitome of a Hopkins lacrosse player and someone that I know Coach Tucker was extremely proud of. Obviously, she was our team captain. So many people looked up to her. She just played with such energy and such joy. She empowered her teammates. She was gritty and a hustler and just someone that to this day I brag about and I brag that I got to know her and that she was my captain. She’s just everything I want to embody as a teammate and as a player.
PB: What advice would you give to younger players?
MH: Be a leader. Don’t be afraid to use your voice. I think that anyone can lead regardless of your age or anything like that. I think being a leader is all about the confidence you have. Being confident, using your voice, being a great teammate and play hard.
PB: What are your goals for after lacrosse?
MH: Right now I’m in graduate school for health-care management, so I think just really trying to find a job that I love and that I really enjoy doing and just reaching out, networking and trying to find somewhere that I can call home for hopefully a few years after college and then we’ll take it from there. But definitely taking it one day at a time and finding the right fit for me.
PB: What did you do last spring as far as lacrosse after the season was canceled?
MH: I constantly kept a stick in my hand. I had few girls locally that were on other college lacrosse teams. I’d get together with them and pass the ball around. We couldn’t do much, obviously, because of quarantine and social distancing and all that stuff. But definitely keeping a stick in my hands, hitting the wall — that was super important, that was something that I could always do. So definitely taking time to go up and either pass around with people that are local or just hitting the wall and playing some wall ball and just making sure I come back this spring and hit the ground running by preparing in the time that we had off.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of JHU Athletics
Originally published Feb. 17, 2021