This fall as a gaggle of eager freshmen arrive on campus in Boulder, a group of 20 women will also arrive, ready to make history as the inaugural members of the University of Colorado women's lacrosse team.
All 20 women are young, new to college and new to Division 1 lacrosse. Head coach Ann Elliott says she's anxious to get onto the field with her team, which will begin play next spring.
"In all honesty, one of the biggest challenges has just been not having a team right now," she said. "We're used to being on the field all the time and seeing that progress with the kids."
Assistant coach Hannah Nielsen agreed:
"It's tough just sitting in an office all day," she said. "That's why you get into coaching is to have the relationships with the athletes and to be out there actually teaching the game. I would say we're very excited to get the kids on campus."
Developing a group of green 17- and 18-year-olds will be a challenge, Elliott knows. But the huge grin across her face as she talks animatedly about her new team doesn't give away any nerves the young coach might have about starting a program from scratch. Elliott, 28, was hired last spring after the CU athletic department announced it would add women's lacrosse as its 17th varsity sport.
Now, she's faced with the task of making Colorado a competitive program as the traditionally East Coast sport grows westward. This spring, eight new programs started across the country, including at Southern California. In 2014 the number of Division 1 programs will reach 102 with the addition of Michigan and Colorado, and by 2016, three more teams, Furman, Mercer and Central Michigan, will up that number to 105.
The Buffs will join the four other Pac-12 women's lacrosse programs (Southern Cal, Stanford, Oregon and California) in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, which also includes the University of Denver. The Pac-12 will sanction women's lacrosse once a sixth team is added, according to Colorado associate athletic director Julie Manning, who was largely responsible for bringing women's lacrosse to CU.
The most recent statistics released by US Lacrosse, the sport's national governing body, show that more than 680,000 people participated in organized lacrosse teams in 2011, an increase of 60,000 players from 2010. That's the largest one-year increase since the organization began tracking data in 2001.
As the sport grows, Elliott said she feels like she and her assistant coaches will get the chance to make their mark on lacrosse history.
Adding lacrosse a 'once in a lifetime opportunity' for CU
Manning and the athletic department began talking about adding a sport before CU finalized its move to the Pac-12 two years ago.
The conversation kept coming back to women's lacrosse, Manning said, because it made sense given the university's needs and current facilities. It's a spring women's sport, growing quickly on the West Coast and in Colorado and eventually the university could sell tickets to matches, Manning said.
Colorado Girls Lacrosse Association President Kevin Mortimer said the sport is growing "like crazy" in Colorado, especially on the girl's side. He coaches the Grandview High School girls lacrosse team in Aurora, which has doubled in size in the last year. He's even adding a third "C" level development team to help with the overflow, he said.
Manning and other administrators visited Denver and talked with Stanford, Northwestern and Virginia to see what building the program would look like at a time when other schools are facing athletic budget cuts.
"As an administrator, this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Manning said. "Not many institutions are adding any sort of sports programs. Many institutions are going the other way."
The team will likely practice and play on one of three Kittredge Fields, which they'll share with the recreation department and CU club and intramural programs. Manning said the athletic department is working on plans to build a shelter and public restrooms near Kittredge.
Marquee games could be played at Folsom Field with the lacrosse team getting its chance to run behind Ralphie, Manning said.
The athletic department also plans to convert a Coors Events Center visiting team locker room for the team, Manning said, and the team will also use the events center conditioning facilities. The athletic department is currently working with Nike on several sample uniforms, and Manning said she hopes to have the logistical details worked out before the team arrives in August.
Challenges and a young team
Colorado has the support of the university and hype from the state's lacrosse fans, but Elliott will still face the challenge of acclimating 20 women to collegiate life and Division 1 lacrosse without upperclassmen mentors to look to for guidance.
Four of the new players come from Colorado, while the rest are from a mix of East Coast states, California and the Midwest.
Nielsen said it didn't take much to convince many recruits to commit to Colorado once they saw the campus. It helped that Elliott, Nielsen and Magarity had a handful of national titles between them, and spoke about unanimous lacrosse philosophies.
"When we're talking to recruits, we all agree with what everyone's saying because we've been part of the same program and we have the same beliefs," Nielsen said. "We've got that unique experience that not a lot of coaching staffs out there have. We know what works. We've been part of national championships. We know the right way to do things."
Nielsen said she's looking forward to starting new traditions at Colorado, an opportunity most coaches don't get with an existing program, and said her expectations for the team's first season next year are high.
"We're probably not going to win every game, but it's exciting when you have a new team and you haven't played a game, there really are not too many expectations," she said. "You can go out there and just kind of play really freely and enjoy every moment because there are no expectations at all of 'You should beat this team or that team.'"
Southern Cal head coach Lindsey Munday is one year ahead of Elliott in the process of building a program from scratch. Munday, a 2006 Northwestern graduate, played alongside Elliott for the Wildcats and was named the first head coach at USC in 2011.
USC's first women's lacrosse season kicked off in February. Coincidentally, the Trojans first game in school history was a tough 18-5 loss to Munday's alma mater.
Elliott said she and Munday have stayed in constant contact, running into each other on the recruiting trail and talking about Munday's experiences so that Elliott will know what to expect.
"The main challenge with the team is trying to get them as mature as possible as quickly as possible," Munday said.
Once Colorado begins play next spring, Elliott said her relationship with Munday probably wouldn't change much. They might not talk the week before the two teams meet, but other than that, they'll continue to bounce ideas off of each other as their young teams grow.
Look ahead: Women's lacrosse could achieve 'elite status' in near future
Colorado plans to bring in 10 new players for the 2014-2015 season, and Elliott said they "were close" to commitments from the players already. She, Nielsen and Magarity have the rare chance to spend all spring on the road watching high school games and recruiting since they have no team of their own to coach yet.
The plan is to scrimmage with local teams like Denver and Regis this fall, and take a trip to the East Coast for at least one tournament, Elliott said. The Buffs' first official game, an away match, is set for Feb. 13, 2014, while the first home game is set for Feb. 22.
Incoming Buffs freshman Maddie DeWinter, who plays for Chaparral High School in Parker said she chose CU over a more established program because she wanted to help create a completely new team atmosphere -- one that she'll have a hand in shaping.
"It is a unique opportunity to establish a program," she said, adding that she plans to study chemical and biological engineering, one other reason she wanted to play for the Buffs.
Associate athletic director Manning said she has no doubt Colorado will someday dominate the women's lacrosse scene, perhaps even winning a few national titles for Elliot and her staff, though this time in Colorado black and gold.
"In a very short time, it's a program we can develop an elite status at," she said. "Clearly is providing wonderful opportunities for women each year that come here, and we have the right leaders taking this program forward."
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