So You Want to Play Lacrosse?

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Kent State University’s Athletic Director, Joel Nielsen give a high five to members of the wrestling team during a recognition of 3.0 GPAs for the Fall 2018 semester.

 

Hi there, my name is Austin Mariasy and I am a senior at Kent State University. I will be graduating in May with a degree in photojournalism and I have been very active over the past couple of years with Kent State athletics as a photographer and sometimes as a writer. I have spent this current basketball season getting to know a couple of our women’s players and even writing a story for Prizm Magazine in Columbus about one of the players who is bisexual and has found total and unequivocal acceptance at Kent.

 

I was given an assignment for a class taught by NPR affiliate WKSU’s Amanda Rabinowitz to do a short 2 minute spot about anything I could get my hands on. I had access to the athletic department and the timing was perfect for me to do a spot previewing the first ever home lacrosse game for the Golden Flashes. I sat down with the coach and the player who scored the first ever goal for Kent in their first game at Cincinnati the week earlier.

 

After that interview and with inspiration from a podcast we were listening to as a class (I will not mention the name of the podcast because we as a class really do not like it) I saw an opportunity. I decided to create a 5 part podcast about Kent State’s first ever lacrosse team told over 5 weeks. I really hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed creating it.

 

So you want to Play Lacrosse?

 

When you hear the phrase “America’s game” What comes to mind? Football? Baseball? Basketball? BOWLING? When asked this question, most Americans will probably think of either baseball or football. What qualifications do we consider when we assign the title of “America’s game”? The sport with the most following? That’s football. The sport with the most international participation? That is baseball. Or do we look at other characteristics? When we look back in the history of sports in America, the NFL was founded in 1920, the MLB in 1869, NBA in 1946, NCAA 1910..

 

One sport out lasts all of the others in America. In fact, it out lasts America itself. Tracing as far back as the 1630s, people on the American continent, namely native Americans in the Great Lakes, Atlantic Seaboard and the American South Regions have played Lacrosse. It went by different names depending on which tribe you talked to. da-nah-wah’uwsdi, or ‘little war’ in Eastern Cheroke, Begadwe ‘little brother of war’ in Mohawk, baaga`adowe ‘bump hits’ in ojibwe and many others. To anyone in any of those nations, I apologize for any mispronunciations.

 

For a long time, Lacrosse has been a niche sport that was predominantly played either on reservations or by the relatively few fans the sport was able to attract mostly on the coasts or in a few small pockets inland like Denver. The sport has seen an incredible uptick in participation over the last couple of years. The growth of lacrosse is affecting the Midwest, one of its original birth places, in a very positive way. Ohio State created the first division 1 program in Ohio 1953 but the first D1 women’s team did not come to Ohio until 1996 when Ohio State announced the addition of the women’s team.

 

The NCAA competes in three divisions. The first is the most competitive and higher caliber and the third is the least competitive.

 

Before this year, there were only 4 division 1 lacrosse programs in Ohio. Ohio State has both men and women, Cleveland State has a men’s program and Cincinnati has a women’s program. This year, that number starts to change and by 2021, the number of women’s teams will more than double.

 

Kent State added a new team this season, the University of Akron will join the ranks next year and Youngstown State announced the addition of their team on Feb. 25 and will be playing its first game in 2021.

 

With all the Lacrosse news in Northeast Ohio you start to ask questions and wonder how the teams work and how a team is created. It seems like an incredibly daunting task with so many moving parts that it’s impossible to handle.

 

I asked Joel Neilsen, Kent State’s Athletic Director to take me through, step by step the process of adding a new team.

 

“First, you identify the sport obviously and then from that point forward you have to start planning for everything, facilities, equipment, coaching staff was important. That was probably the first the first piece of it was identifying when we were going to hire our first coach. Even back up a step when was our first competitive season going to be? Cause you didn’t know when to hire a coach unless you knew when our competitive season was going to be.”

 

Kent state hired Brianne Tierney as the first ever lacrosse coach and made the announcement on May 1, 2017, almost two years before she was to coach her first game for the golden flashes.

 

“The identification of a head coach was critical to the process and we think we got one of the best ones in the country with Brianne and her background and her ability to work with a start-up program which she has done in the past. We really hit it out of the ball park with her.  It’s been a lot of fun to watch her do the recruiting and all the other logistical requirement to starting a program because she has done it before.”

 

She has done it before. Brianne started a new lacrosse program at Lebanon Valley College just outside of Philadelphia in 2010. By 2012 she was named the commonwealth conference’s coach of the year.

 

To hire a coach 2 years before the first game seemed a little premature to me. Why so early? What could she possibly be doing for those two years that warrants her hire that far in advance? As it turns out, there is A LOT she had to do.

 

“It was basically tour guide around Kent campus. I really got to know campus well. It was daily just touring recruits doing camps and clinics as much as I could getting word out about Kent state getting word out that we have a team and really getting people on campus to see what we’re all about.”

 

One major difference between her start-up at Lebanon Valley and Kent State is time. At Lebanon Valley, Brianne was hired in June 2009 and her first game was in March 2010. That gave her only 9 months to do a job she was given almost 2 years to do in Kent.

 

“I was hired in August and basically had a couple kids who knew coming in we had a team but basically recruited on campus to fill out the rest of the twelve spots, starting spots that we needed. So kinda recruited off of intramural flag football and recruited from the soccer team and field hockey team and talked some kids into playing that maybe wouldn’t have otherwise.”

 

Most players on a roaster have committed to a program well in advance of the start of the school year and in some cases, years in advance. I went to high school with a guy who verbally committed to play basketball at Ohio State in his sophomore year. The NCAA does not allow players to fully commit and sign paperwork until your junior year of high school. Players who sign commitments are considered on the roster well before the season starts and are able to practice with the team and have to follow certain rules even before the school year begins.

 

Sometimes, players are added to the roster after the school year starts and those players are called walk ons. They often times have not played in a while and may be out of practice but they certainly were not recruited for the team. This in no way means they are bad players it simply means they will not be on scholarship and it is harder to build a team with walk ons.

 

Brianne’s team at Lebanon Valley was about half walk ons. At kent she only has 3 out of 26 girls who have walked on after the school year started. A lot of times, especially in the lower divisions and not so much in D1, this means the players have little to no experience with lacrosse so they have to learn the sport, how it works and how it is played on top of learning how to control the ball in the stick, scoring and strategy. It is definitely much better if you have a team made up of few walk ons. That happens when you have a coach on staff for a while before the season starts so she can recruit and build the team, build a relationship and get the team ready for game time. That job is a lot easier when you have players who already know the sport.

 

Kent was able to hire Brianne earlier in the process than Lebanon Valley partially because of budgeting. Kent State is a D1 program and Lebanon Valley is a D3. D1 programs typically have much larger budgets than D3 schools.

 

When looking for a new coach, the folks in charge of hiring turn to a list of names they keep year-round. The list contains names of coaches they admire, and think might be a good fit for the program should the need arise.

 

“A lot of us who have been in the business have those lists. Unfortunately, when it comes to women’s lacrosse I did not have much of a list. It’s not a sport like football or basketball that I’ve been involved with for 35 years, so I was a little bit green from that end. I was fortunate Janet Kittle was our senior women’s administrator and deputy athletic director at that time and Janet had considerable experience working at Syracuse and Indiana and some of the places she had worked previous and had a lot of experience in women’s lacrosse and men’s lacrosse space so she was able to get to her contacts quickly and get the word out.”

 

Once Brianne was hired she mostly took the reins and started recruiting players, looking for assistants, and working to make sure she had a place to practice and a facility to play in when the time came to start competition. She hit the ground running and took full advantage of the time she had. She hired her first assistant coach, Amanda Glass, in January 2018 and Morgan Fee in the summer of the same year. She had already basically had an entire roster set and ready to go when the assistants were hired but they will certainly play a huge role in recruiting the next class.

 

Brianne was given the full support of not only the athletics department but also the president’s office. That full support sometimes came in the way of funding. The athletics department raises funds in a number of ways. Two of the major ways are through a portion of the general fee built into the student’s tuition and fundraising from external donors whether they be massive donors like the Schoonover family (the Kent State baseball diamond is named after them) or individual donors who give throughout the year.

 

“We actually worked with the university and the president in understanding that there wouldn’t be a lot of outside external support for a start-up program initially. Now we saw women’s lacrosse had a great deal of success fundraising during our crowd funding campaign, so we do know there’s donor’s out there and people that are willing to help but the president and senior vice president understood that we wouldn’t have that money going into the process year one. And so, they’ve helped us along with some funds from some of our external vendor contracts on campus to help us get our feet on the ground with women’s lacrosse so it wouldn’t be a detriment to our other sports.”

 

A good way to look at the growth potential of program, especially a startup, is to look at the scholarships it has to offer. The NCAA sets a cap on the number of scholarships a certain sport can provide to its student athletes depending on the size of the roster. This cap is to prevent programs like Clemson football, who has now won 2 national championships in 3 years and has a LOT of funding to play with, from offering full rides to every single student they are interested in recruiting.

 

The NCAA has set the limit for lacrosse scholarships to 12. Schools are allowed to give up to 12 full ride scholarships to student athletes at any given time, but they do not have to use all of them at once.

 

“You look at the total number of scholarships you can offer per the NCAA and with lacrosse that 12 scholarships. So you have to look at that and say how do we build this program and build this team using those, assuming we have 12 scholarships when we are fully funded how do you build a roster based on that. Some people will say why didn’t you offer 12 scholarships the first year? The problem with that is for the next three years, you couldn’t offer any scholarships and 4 years from now you are with a whole new team again.”

 

Let me help you understand this. Scholarships are a HUGE bonus and sometimes they are THE deciding factor between two schools and their athletics programs. Coach Tierney, and every lacrosse coach in the country, can offer a grand total of 12 full ride scholarships at any given time to her athletes. She currently has 26 people on her roster. She has a multitude of options here. She could, hypothetically split each scholarship in half and give each player half off their college for four years. Let me tell you, half off college is a deal no sane person would pass up. But the issue with that, is she would not have a scholarship to give to any potential new recruits coming in unless she were to take a scholarship away from one of her current players. She does not want to do that.

 

Another option she has is hold on to most of them and use them in pieces to help out as many players as she can.

 

“When we were at Wake Forest”

 

I should probably mention here that from 1993 to 2001, Joel was the associate Athletic Director at Wake Forest in Winston-Salem North Carolina.

 

“When we were at Wake Forest when we added volleyball and women’s soccer, those are 12 scholarships also, so we went 3, 3, 3, 3 so three the first year, three the second year and so on and built it up that way and that way it evens out your classes also. But lacrosse is an equivalency sport so the coach has three scholarships but the coach can split those three scholarships up and give them to anywhere from 3 people to 6 people to 9 people to 20 people. It doesn’t mean that everyone that’s is on scholarship has a full scholarship they are on some kind of a partial.”

 

Splitting up the scholarships like that allows for the coach to be competitive with who they give a scholarship to and who they can recruit in the future. If you are a graduating high school senior and you are looking at schools to continue playing lacrosse at, all else being equal, you will likely go where they are able to offer you more scholarships and that is why it is really important for a coach to be able to hold on to those scholarships and be picky about when she gives them out.

 

This is one huge difference between coaching at the D3 versus the D1 level. Division 3 players do not get scholarships but D1 players can.

 

“The beauty of Kent state is that we offer a lot of academic scholarship money. And bringing in high academic kids We are able to balance out a team of 26 kids on 3 scholarships because of the academic money.”

 

The lacrosse team had a combined 3.5 GPA in the fall with eight 4.0 students on the team.

 

“my goal is to reward the kids who are high achievers on the field but also end up being leaders for us off. So the kids who end up in a leadership role who end up with 4.0 GPAs who do all the right things culturally leaving a little money for them to benefit from the hard work they are putting in and increasing scholarships over 4 years where its warranted.”

 

It’s a numbers game when the coach is trying to figure out how to spread that money around. Kent State is a relatively inexpensive school. Coach Tierney graduated from Colgate University in New York and their tuition is listed as $55,530. Kent’s out of state tuition is listed at $18,714.

 

What does this mean for a lacrosse program? It means it is easier for a coach to spread the scholarship money to more players while still having a larger benefit if they are at a university with a lower tuition. I know this seems like a little bit of a tangent but I promise, it is a really important part about starting a team and the recruiting process, especially when you have schools like Notre Dame and Michigan who are both ranked in the top 25 in the country recruiting from a very similar pool.

 

Brianne is not the only one who was busy the last couple of years to get the team ready to compete. The athletic communications department has been hard at work creating an online profile for the team and getting ready for game day 2019.

 

“Probably our first major step was the press conference and the hiring of Brianne. And getting the word out there and getting people there and letting everyone know about lacrosse and that we have it. And then kind of getting with Brianne and about what all we need to do.”

 

That’s Aaron Chimenti, the Director of Athletic Communications. He oversees the department and was the point person for lacrosse information before the responsibilities were given to one of his Graduate Assistants, Taylor Czajkowski.

 

“We are the caretakers of stats and history but also reporting the news and spreading the good word of Kent State Athletics for our 19 varsity sports whether its promoting through our website, through all our different social media outlets or helping promote through external means of media. But really, it’s all about the student athletes and trying to tell their story.”

 

The Communications Department takes a lot of time, energy and pride in getting to know the players throughout the season and they try to do so as early as they can.

 

“As soon as we get the roster finalized, we want to get that up as soon as we can. Get everyone’s jersey number, name, hometown, high, school position. We get head shot pictures taken so people can identify them easily. The way our website is set up now on your phone, you can scroll up and down real easily to find out who’s who on the lacrosse team.”

 

It is really easy to read on a phone. I scrolled through on my phone and it works exactly like Aaron said it would. You see a thumbnail photo of each player with their name, year, high school, hometown, position and jersey number in numerical order. It is very easy to use.

 

“We go and send out bio forms for each of the players to fill out so we can get to know them a little bit better. Number one for our purpose to keep in the back of our minds on, are the any good little feature stories on these players we can tell down the road. And then 2 just kinda their bio information. When you click on their name now, you can get a little background on what they did in high school in lacrosse maybe in other sports maybe academic awards maybe anything like that.”

 

All of this is handled by the SID (sports information director) in charge of that sport. Taylor Czajkowski joined the office in August and is serving as the first SID for Lacrosse. The responsibility kind of fell into his lap but next year, it might be someone else’s.

 

“Every year we kind put all 19 sports kinda on the table and look at who all we have in our office and just try to decide based on one people’s previous experiences where they would be most helpful and time commitments, you got your fall, winter and spring sports. With Taylor being new to us in August, we thought it would be good for him to kinda take the fall to really get to know lacrosse. We didn’t give him a ton of individual sports responsibilities in fall. He went to the exhibition back in the fall and got to know the players a little bit better through their bios and went to photo day and video shoot day. If you would have asked him a year ago at this time he never would have guessed that he never would have guessed that he would have been this involved in lacrosse that’s for sure.”

 

Taylor is learning a lot about the sport on the fly. He did not have much experience or knowledge of lacrosse going into the season. But he has taken the sport in stride and things are running as smoothly as one can hope.

 

“I hadn’t even watched a game like seen a game. It’s a north eastern sport Im from the Midwest, like the mid mid west Kansas I mean they have a couple club teams maybe in like Kansas city and the bigger area but IM from Topeka just I never heard any of my friends go I gotta go to lacrosse practice like it just wasn’t a thing growing up and I’ve never really been familiar with the sport until I came here.”

 

That’s Taylor. He is a graduate assistant in the communications department and he oversees the lacrosse team in terms of communication and information. He is the one in charge of stats, media requests, press releases and anything else you can think of in terms of communications regarding lacrosse, gymnastics or cross country.

 

I have been working with Taylor quite a bit regarding this podcast and getting access to the coaches and players.

 

After his arrival in August, Taylor’s main responsibility was to get to know Brianne and the team in order to prepare for the season. His first big responsibility was the Fall Scrimmage.

 

“We had a fall scrimmage here, just an inter squad scrimmage and I had to be in charge of you know, statting that and you know getting all the stuff set up with facilities. And we actually did that at Murphy-Mellis that was before we switch to playing the games at dix stadium but yea that was a lot of fun to interact with the coaches and players and to watch lacrosse really for the first time.”

 

Murphy-Mellis is the home of the field hockey team and was built in 2005. The lacrosse team was going to play their home games at Murphy-Mellis but, for a number of reasons, they switched the games to Dix Stadium where the football and soccer teams play.

 

Right now, the most challenging thing for Taylor to balance is the media requests for all the different outlets who are looking to do interviews with players and coaches. With the program being brand new it can be pretty daunting to try and match up his schedule with Brianne’s and the media person’s. The SID’s try to sit in on the interviews just as kind of a backup for the coach or the players unless they know and trust the media person well. They especially like to do this for the players who may not have any experience talking with the media. So when an outlet reaches out and asks for an interview, Taylor has to look at 3 different schedules to try and set that up.

 

Despite all the work, Taylor seems to really enjoy his job and he seems to really get a lot out of being the first. He is also the SID for the gymnastics team which was established decades ago.

 

“Well I think with the new team It’s a lot of fun. You get to come in and create things how you want it for gymnastics everything’s been done kinda the same way for so long and they want it that way and that’s fine that’s established but with lacrosse you know, I kinda get to help establish that what the coaches want as far as on game days. Like we have already had a change in the order we do intro videos from one game to two games. Seeing those things and how we can improve from those and then actually improving on them and seeing some success from it.”

 

In order to establish a new way of doing things, Taylor has to know the team well enough to be able to look at a jersey number and immediately know who that player is. This comes into play numerous times a game any time stats need to be recorded and especially when a goal is scored.

 

Every player has designated a goal song they want to have played over the PA system after they score a goal. Even the defenders and goalies have designated songs in case they score during a game which rarely happens, but this is a crazy world. One song stands out to Taylor and he really looks forward to playing it sometime this season.

 

“We havn’t gotten to play it yet I’m hoping it does. I believe its Alexa Parker she’s kinda a midfield, defender hybrid. She has the John Cena theme song and when I was putting it in there I was kinda excited hoping she gets a goal this year, so we can hear that played.”

 

I think I speak for everyone when I say we all hope to hear lots of goal songs in the stadium this year and for many, many years to come because lacrosse is here at Kent and it is here to stay. Who knows, maybe one day a goalie’s  song will play.

 

Next week I sit down and introduce you to Hailee Andry, a captain and defender who came from Orange County California to brace the frigid winters in north east Ohio strictly so she can make history as a Golden Flash.

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