Fun-loving women’s lacrosse finds home on Midway

By Joe Katz

We may well be living in the golden age of lacrosse. Tomorrow night, Chicago’s very own Major League Lacrosse (MLL) club, the Machine, will play its league debut against the defending champion Baltimore Bayhawks. The Machine is part of the first wave of league expansion as the MLL makes a bid for major sport status. The league and its indoor counterpart have benefited from increased interest in the 18–35 age bracket, as the sport is one of the fasting growing among high schoolers. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s expanded from its stronghold on the Atlantic Coast. Chicago is one of four teams in the MLL’S brand-new Western Conference, and this month’s NCAA Division I tournament saw the first-ever appearance from the University of Denver. One of the few authentically North American sports is finally beginning to come into its own as a nationwide phenomenon.

Given this, it should come as little surprise that the sport has found a home in Hyde Park. While it may not be as much a part of day-to-day life as Cobb Hall yet, women’s lacrosse is now a well established presence on the U of C campus with 10 straight competitive seasons in the books. While the first version of the team in the late 1980s collapsed, the club was reformed in the spring of 1997 and has played short autumn and full spring schedules ever since. Playing its home matches and practices out on the Midway when the weather cooperates, the team’s 14 active members stay fit with indoor training sessions in Henry Crown over the winter months.

The sport’s recent boom at the high school level may have given the club a needed boost, but only about a third of its current membership had lacrosse experience before joining up. With the subtlety and intricacy of soccer and the frenzied scoring of basketball, lax is ideally suited for attracting new players from those sports, giving the club an ever-changing but durable foundation.

“It’s tough getting a sense of the game, getting a sense of the field and some of the rules. If you played soccer or field hockey, you’re going to get yelled at,” second-year attack wing Shula Bien said. “But if you’re in shape, you’re going to do OK. It’s fast and high-scoring, and it’s a lot of fun to watch.”

“It’s about finesse. It’s a pretty sport,” third-year center Jaclyn Yamada said. “When you see an awesome play in lacrosse, it’s really gorgeous.”

Aesthetic appreciation aside, women’s lacrosse is notable for being able to enjoy each other’s company and not just the sport itself. With a social schedule marked by potluck dinners and outings at the end of three-game Saturday play-days, the team’s first priority is having a good time rather than winning at all costs.

“We try to keep perspective. It’s not a varsity team, and nobody came here for lacrosse,” Yamada said. “Some of our opponents take it very seriously. We try to focus on having fun.”

“This is my sorority,” Bien said. “I hang out with girls from the team most every day. We have fun together, and when we lose, we just that we’re smarter than .”

Not that they always lose. Just two years ago, the club suffered through an awful fall without a regular goalie but rebounded in the spring with a massive turnaround that concluded with the women earning yet another Women’s Collegiate Lacrosse League (WCLL) national playoff berth. The club had frequently gone up against the best that the primary organization for women’s club lacrosse had to offer in the 1990s, but this was their first postseason bid in several years. The team lost six seniors to graduation from that squad and subsequently struggled to a 3–8 mark this spring.

The squad’s division in the WCLL features heavyweights like Wisconsin and Iowa along with some schools more comparable to the U of C in size like Wheaton and St. Mary’s. The women have also squared off against Illinois and Michigan State in recent years and play regular out-of-division games against the Chicago Women’s non-collegiate club, DePaul, and a number of other local schools. Along with a few wild card entrants, the top team in each division qualifies for the national playoffs each spring.

“You have to look at it in perspective,” Yamada said. “We pull from a lot of areas that don’t typically have high school lacrosse programs, and we’re pulling from a relatively small school. Our yield for our population is good.”

This laid-back group does face some challenges. After losing six players to graduation from last year’s playoff squad, this year’s edition had to go through its entire schedule without relying on substitutes. The relaxed attitude of the club does not extend to taking it easy at practice, and the six-day-a-week practice schedule tends to scare off some prospective members.

“It’s a lot of commitment. A lot of people at this school want to do a lot of activities, but they want to do each just two hours a week. It doesn’t work. You can’t stay in shape like that,” second-year first home Ritika Khilnani said.

“A lot of people think, ‘oh my god, it’s two hours per day,’ but it’s two hours of socializing and getting in shape,” Yamada said. “We try to offer people the incentives of having fun, having balance, and staying fit. Most of us played two or three sports in high school, and we come here and don’t have any.”

Still, the squad can be a lot of responsibility for its captains, particularly given that the coaching situation is still up in the air for the 2006–2007 season. While second-year med student and four-year Columbia varsity player Emily Georgitis and Carlee Tressel (A.B. ’05) shared the duty over the last academic year, neither will return to the team in the fall. If they can’t find a replacement in time, the women will operate without a coach, running captain’s practices as they did at the beginning of 2004 before Georgitis came aboard.

Whoever takes the role will have plenty to work with. After suffering through its rebuilding year, women’s lacrosse will only lose fourth-years captain Keri Robertson and Missye Brickell to graduation, and will feature a solid core of seasoned second- and third-years on the field as they bid to make their second trip to the playoffs in three years.

“Once you build up the stick skills and the field knowledge, all you need is experience. Then, you can get to the top of your game,” Yamada said.

With their young team growing stronger and their sport flourishing, the future looks bright for women’s lacrosse at the University of Chicago. With any luck, next April could see them once again proving that fun lives on our campus while taking on the best club teams in America.