At the start of their 2018 season, the Cathedral Fighting Irish traveled from Indianapolis to Louisville for a pair of weekend games against two top teams from Kentucky.
The program traditionally played against a few out-of-state opponents every year, and those games always promised to be some of the toughest Cathedral would play all year, head coach Mary Ann White remembers.
The Fighting Irish were strong in their own right. They were fresh off a 2017 state title and often outscored many of their in-state opponents by double-digit goals. But out-of-state foes like Eastern and Kentucky Country Day — two of that state’s top programs — posed difficult, more intense challenges.
But Kate Burnside, Cathedral’s star midfielder, wasn’t fazed. She took every matchup as an opportunity to show up and play her best game. While the Fighting Irish lost the pair of games, Burnside finished with a team-best eight goals, two assists and 10 ground balls. The scoreline might not have revealed it, but she sent a message: Indiana could compete with the best.
Two years later, Burnside is still making a name for herself and all lacrosse players from the traditionally overlooked Hoosier State. Since trading Cathedral’s blue and gold for Colorado’s black and gold, she’s broken onto the scene as one of the top draw control specialists in the West — and in the country.
As a freshman in Boulder, she tallied 56 draw controls in 17 starts. Through five games in her shortened 2020 sophomore campaign, she averaged 6.8 draw controls per game, ranking second in the Pac-12 and 15th in the nation.
“She’s such a competitor and such a workhorse,” Buffaloes coach Ann Elliott Whidden said. “Everything she does, she does at full speed and full intensity, whether it’s practice or a game. And that’s just something we just really loved about her from the recruiting process on.”
Burnside grew up in Carmel with four older brothers who all played lacrosse and followed them into the sport in middle school. She fell in love with the sport’s competitive nature, but lacrosse was only — and still is — in its growing stages in Indiana.
The whole state has less than five girls’ club teams. Burnside played for Indy United, the state’s first girls’ club program established in 2011. According to the Indiana Girls Lacrosse Association, only 37 of the state’s more than 400 high schools sponsor girls’ lacrosse, well short of the threshold required for lacrosse to become an officially recognized high school sport.
It’s a tight-knit community of players, but one that doesn’t have a huge track record of sending players to the Division I level. Burnside played alongside current Notre Dame midfielder Kelly Donnelly for two seasons at Cathedral and was coached by 2006 Tewaaraton winner Katie Chrest Erbe there for three years. But there weren’t many other examples of Hoosiers at the sport’s top level. Even today, Donnelly and Burnside are the only two players from Indiana on the rosters of teams in US Lacrosse Magazine’s Early 2021 Rankings.
So Burnside focused on being the best she could be inside the state. Burnside helped Cathedral to four state championship appearances and state titles in her freshman and junior campaigns. As a senior, she recorded 109 goals, 31 assists and 130 ground balls, earning All-American honors.
“You could tell that she put in a lot of work outside of practice and really valued being the best at what she wanted to do,” White said. “She made everyone on the team a better player by how she played.”
The Buffaloes came calling her junior year, and it was too good an offer to turn down. Colorado made a point of looking all around the country for players in its recruiting searches. Whidden is from Ohio and played for Northwestern, and she saw the potential in players from Midwestern states.
An opportunity to make an immediate impact came about as soon as Burnside arrived in Boulder. The Buffaloes had just graduated Darby Kiernan, one of the program’s all-time greats and the team’s star draw control specialist. Burnside had taken the draw all four years for Cathedral, so she took a chance and competed for the starting slot in the circle.
“She was just so competitive in that circle that you knew even if she wasn’t going to control everything, she was going to be out there fighting for the ground ball and give our team a chance,” Whidden said. “From there, she’s just developed into a great midfield player for us.”
The college game brought different challenges than she’d seen in high school. Taking the draw became not just about winning, but fighting for the ball, and working with her teammates on the circle once the ball was in the air. But she adapted quickly. She finished with the second-most draw controls by a freshman in program history in 2019.
In 2020, her average of 6.8 draw controls per game was on pace to challenge Kiernan’s single-season record of 7.95 per game, set in 2018. Colorado had been poised for a strong campaign. The Buffaloes held a steady position on the fringe of the Nike/US Lacrosse Division I Women's Top 20, and Burnside tallied 31 draw controls in their last three games.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, and with it the cancellation of the 2020 season. Whidden encouraged her players to go home and turn their focus toward the next year, and Burnside took that message to heart. She went back to Carmel, but didn’t take a break from the sport, working on shooting, running and staying in shape.
When the summer rolled around, she started coaching Indy United’s Class of 2022 side. Burnside brought valuable drills and concepts that she’d learned in her two years at the college level and even played alongside the high schoolers in practice. She put back into the sport what it gave to her.
“It was really fun to be a part of that team and tell them, ‘You guys can be good enough to be in college, too. Just because a lot of girls from Indiana don’t go D-I doesn’t mean you can’t,’” Burnside said. “It was fun just to be part of lacrosse again, and it made me remind myself how fun it was.”
The pandemic cut short those players’ sophomore seasons, a key time in the recruiting process out of high school. By bringing her own wealth of knowledge and experience, Burnside helped instill new levels of skill and confidence in the state’s next generation.
“The younger girls were able to see, ‘Kate’s just like the rest of us,’” said White, who also coaches for Indy United. “‘If she can do it, if I want to that bad, I can do it as well.’”
Burnside is now back in Boulder, waiting for word on the 2021 season and practicing with the Buffaloes, who ranked No. 22 in US Lacrosse Magazine’s Early 2021 Rankings.
As she enters her junior year and takes on a larger leadership role, she’s focused on not only showing the rest of the country that teams from the West like Colorado can compete with the best, but also that players from regions like the Midwest can, too.
“There were enough people in Indiana that said, ‘You can do it. It’s really just about having confidence and showing them what you can do,’ and that’s helped me,” Burnside said. “This has been such a great experience for me, and I would hope that other girls could have the same.”