Lax is Golden in California

By Nelson Coffin

Fifteen years ago when lacrosse players and fans said "The West" they were talking about Ohio Wesleyan and Denison and what is geographically the United States' Midwest. Over the past decade the term may have referred to Colorado, Utah or even Arizona. But starting this year, officially, the term "west" used in a lacrosse context, can only mean one place forever more. Westward expansion of the game has, of course, reached the Pacific Ocean and the sun and sand of CALIFORNIA and the country's westward continental limit.


Photo by Evan Kerr

Still, if you page through various publications, surf the internet or just strike up a conversation with your nearest bar-stool neighbor, it's highly unlikely that any team west of the Mississippi will rate more than a mention or two among avid eastern lacrosse fans. And the fact IS that the sport's stronghold remains staunchly entrenched along the Atlantic Seaboard, roughly from the Carolinas to New England. The real hotbeds are even smaller, namely upstate New York, Long Island, metropolitan Baltimore and Some of Pennsylvania for girls. There are "mini-beds" dotting the map in other states and regions like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Denver, Columbus, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis and a few others. But things change.


Photo by John Strohsacker

With a population twice that of New York or 7 times larger than Maryland and fair weather year-round the left coast could become very relevant to the national lacrosse picture in a hurry. California men's college lacrosse is already represented by the #1 DIII team, Whittier, and next year Notre Dame de Namur ads a program in DII that will feature no less than 33 recruited freshman from 10 US states and 3 Canadian provinces. Beyond that, USILA Club Teams are the norm for men in this title IX environment with national #1 Sonoma State leading the way. But the Golden State women are making big noises right now. Exponential strides in the successes of Stanford, Cal, St. Mary's and UC-Davis represent big gains for the national game. A few of these teams might even impact the NCAA tournaments in 2003.


Photo by John Strohsacker

Stanford is the current leader of the "California Girls" raising the level of visibility of Women's lacrosse out West. Big-time recruits are now the norm for Cardinal Coach Michele Uhlfelder, who has raided her native Maryland (7 players), New York (5), Ohio (2) and Pennsylvania (2) to fill out most of her roster. One player each from Virginia, Connecticut and Illinois are also on the squad along with single representatives from Colorado, California and Oregon. Stanford, in only its seventh season, has cracked the national consciousness and rankings, currently perched at 15 in the most recent IWLCA Division I poll after going 8-3 with wins over high-profile Ivy League schools Harvard, 10-7, and Brown, 16-7. An 11-10 victory at Ohio State, still ranked 11th, represents the Mountain Pacific Lacrosse League champs' most notable triumph over a higher-ranked opponent.


Photo by John Strohsacker

Conversely, losses by respectable margins to powerhouse programs at Duke, 12-7, Georgetown, 15-7 and #1 Loyola, 9-4, have not diminished what the young Cardinal club is brewing down on The Farm. "Momentum has been building for a long time out here," said Uhlfelder, a former U.S. Team member after an All-America career at Maryland as did her assistant Quinn Carney. "But for some reason, when you start to put up some wins against East Coast teams, that's how you're judged." Stanford is even flirting with an NCAA tournament bid this spring after a convincing two-game road swing through the Midwest beating Northwestern, 9-5 and Notre Dame, 14-13 in OT.

The Cardinal hosts archrival Cal tonight before embarking on another eastward trek to visit Cornell and Colgate at the end of the month. Stanford plays a pretty hefty division I schedule for an outfit that is as shy of seniors (3) as it is full of freshmen (7) and sophomores (6). The lone Golden State native of the group is midfielder Kim Cahill, a senior from Stockton who has made her presence felt after missing two seasons with knee woes. Attacker Jess Scott (Conshohocken, Pa.) and junior classmates Abbi Hills (Lakewood, Co.), Katie Grube (Hinsdale, Ill,) and Tiffany Chao (Chappaqua, N.Y.) are the other field players with some seasoning.


Uhlfelder with Carney and Stanford squad / Photo by John Strohsacker

What's left are youngsters, albeit some with impressive credentials such as Kelsey Twist (Cockesyville, Md.), the team's leader in goals (36), points (48), free positions (17), and draw controls (41) as a rookie on an 11-7 outfit. The sophomore scored the game-winner against Notre Dame in a four-goal, two-assist performance. The Calzonetti twins (Sea Cliff, N.Y.), Claire (21 goals) and Julia (28) are other sophomore scoring threats. The defense also presents a youthful flair with sophomores Nina Pantano (Wayne, Pa.), and Anthea Tjuanakis (Portland, Or.), Chao, Grube and freshman Nyerr Parham (Owings Mills, Md.) patrolling the area in front of junior goalie Larissa Conte (Bethesda, Md.). The point is, Stanford is young and really ready to make people believe that California dreamin' is all too real. Almost everybody will be back in 2003 for the Cardinal, who will have an even better chance to take the next step toward upsetting the uppity East Coast applecart.


Photo by Evan Kerr

"We're trying to walk the walk, and when you do that people notice," said Uhlfelder. "I feel secure that we have a great product and a great institution. We're on a par with Georgetown, Princeton and Duke academically, but when the kids come out here and see what we have to offer, it's like 'Oh my God, this is so beautiful.' Then those people go back and talk." Talk was plentiful around the picturesque Palo Alto campus following the recent Sports Her Way Western States Tournament that featured 50 women's college and post collegiate club teams and schoolgirl squads from California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona and Colorado. "I'd say that most East Coast people would be surprised by how lacrosse has grown out here," said Uhlfelder. "In San Jose (near Palo Alto) there used to be four high schools playing (girls' lacrosse) just a couple of years ago. Now there are 12." The latest estimates are that there are 50 high school squads in the Bay Area and about 30 in San Diego. That's progress.


Photo by Evan Kerr

It also helps that Cal is getting into the mix as well, fielding a team that is pretty competitive in its own right. The Bears are 9-4 despite two recent lapses at Boston University, 9-8, and at home against UMBC, 19-9. Like its archrival, Cal handled both Harvard, 7-6, and Brown, 11-5, for an invigorating Ivy sweep. The win over the Crimson was most welcome for Cal Coach Jill Malko, who remembered the shellacking the Bears absorbed from Harvard in 2002. "They spanked us," said Malko. "That's one of the biggest battles we've had here, trying to convince the players that they're good enough to beat big East Coast teams. But now we're starting to get kids who have higher expectations for themselves and for the team. It's been a huge shift."


Cal's Jill Malko / Photo by Barry Rubenstein

With only five scholarships to dangle in front of eager recruits, Malko won't have all of the advantages that fully-funded programs enjoy. Still, there are just enough resources to lure top players to the Berkeley campus. "We focus on the quality of education rather than scholarships," said Malko, a Philadelphian who played at BU. "We're at a competitive disadvantage in some ways (with Stanford), but we really don't recruit the same kind of kids. The schools are so different. One is a large public university and the other is smaller and private. The campuses are different. Even the weather is different." The one striking similarity is the desire to beat the stuffing out of each other.


Photo by Evan Kerr

The archrivals clash tonight in Palo Alto but will likely play again in the MPLL playoffs. The league winner does not receive an automatic bid to the Division I tourney, although the champ will obviously have a better chance than the runner-up. "You can lose all your games," said Malko, whose Bears hope to break a seven-game skid against the Cardinal in a couple of weeks. "But if you beat Stanford, you've had a successful season." The Bears will rely on much more home-grown talent to achieve that goal. There are seven Californians on the roster. The mainstays are imports, however. Junior attackers Emily Edwards (Des Moines, Ia.) and Colleen O'Meara (Camillus, N.Y.) are the biggest offensive threats while classmate Julianne Wu (Denver) is the leading middie. Senior keeper Eden Coelho (Needham, Mass.) has the best outlet pass in the country, according to Malko. Fellow MPLL members St. Mary's, Denver and UC-Davis have not fared quite as well on a national level. Yet St. Mary's stunned the Bears, 7-5, to open the 2003 campaign. Cal did take the rematch, 13-9. The Bears edged Denver, 12-10, and spanked Davis, 13-4 on April 19. DII Davis has already topped St. Mary's, 12-6, for its lone MPLL triumph.


Photo by Evan Kerr

But the DII University of California at Davis Aggies (7-3) traveled to Virginia and scored an impressive 13-12 upset of then-top-ranked Longwood College for a win that vaulted them to the head of the IWLCA D-II rankings. Making the feat even more meaningful is that Davis is an all-California club. The Aggies hail from all over the Golden State and nowhere else. Davis is ranked third in its final season in D-II following a tough 9-7 loss to West Chester.


Photo by John Strohsacker

The Aggies, who will move up to D-I after this season, went on to romp past Millersville, 10-5, and IUP, 16-3, on the Eastern sojourn and still dropped a couple of notches to third in the rankings behind reinstated Longwood. "We just didn't show up for West Chester," said Davis Coach Elaine Jones, a Baltimorean who prepped at Friends School and was an All-America selection on Virginia's 1991 national champs. "I'm not sure what happened." What Jones is sure of concerns her roster of Californians, several of whom never played the sport until enrolling at Davis. Scoring whiz Jaime Fitzpatrick is one the novices who doesn't play like one. The senior from Scripps Ranch in San Diego produced a program-best seven goals in the Millersville thrashing. She broke her own shared record.


Davis Coach Elaine Jones / Photo by John Strohsacker

Jones arrival at UC Davis prior to last year's campaign came too late to recruit at all. So she's not set on having an all-California club. It just happened. "We're bringing in eight more California kids for next year," said Jones, 8-6 in 2002 and 9-4 so far this spring. "We look in-state first, but we'll look out-of-state as well." Noting that some of the Californians require a little more coaching due to how late they first pick up a stick, Jones is nevertheless happy with her charges' ability to pick up the sport at a relatively rapid pace. That alone should help prove Uhlfelder's theory that "the biggest potential for growth in our sport is west of the Mississippi." If Uhlfelder is correct, the MPLL will become even more viable when it adds Oregon in 2005, which could eventually lead to an automatic qualification for the league champ into postseason play. By that time, the Continental Divide will seem far less imposing for lacrosse fans in the east. For, as the game gets bigger, the world gets smaller.


Photo by John Strohsacker


UPDATE: No. 15 Stanford Downs California, 14-6, 4/24





April 23, 2003