Practice is over. Women’s lacrosse is ready to compete.
Willamette’s new sport debuts at 1 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24, with the Bearcats playing the Wildcats of Johnson & Wales University Denver at Sparks Field. Head coach Sarah Lautenbach encourages the university community to attend the game and join the Office of Advancement, which has informally “adopted” the team.
“We’re excited. This is what we’ve planned for and worked so hard for,” Lautenbach said.
For the uninitiated, lacrosse involves the use of a long-handled stick topped with a cradled net to catch, hold or pass a solid rubber ball down the field to maintain possession and get a shot off on net. The main object is to score more goals than the opponent.
Laura Kelly ’22, a midfielder, describes it as a cross between basketball and soccer. Her position demands that she runs as often as she would in soccer, while also participating in attacks and offensive sets, similar to basketball. She said, “I like that not only can I work a transition, I get to be part of a settled attack.”
As a college sport, lacrosse is common at East Coast universities but less so on the West Coast. Only a few programs exist in Colorado, California, Washington and Oregon. However, the sport is expanding. In addition to Willamette, one of seven teams in the Northwest Conference, Whitworth University, added lacrosse this year.
The conference itself adds more incentive for Bearcats to do well: the team that wins the conference automatically heads to the NCAA tournament.
As it’s a new program, Lautenbach says her approach is to improve each game and build a culture of positivity — that means practicing a “winning mentality” every day, regardless of the game’s outcome.
“You have to be resilient and be able to bounce back,” she said.
Player enthusiasm is off the hook. Kelly, who has played lacrosse since high school, said she never thought a sport could be this fulfilling.
“I feel so supported in that environment and comfortable making mistakes,” she said. “We’re all working together as a team for the first time. None of us have ever played a game together as a Bearcat, ever won or lost or celebrated in the locker room afterward as a Bearcat, and that just makes this really special.”
The team has held unofficial practices before this fall and adjusted to varying experience levels. Some women have never seen a game while others have years of experience, but everyone is pushing hard for each other, Kelly said.
Lautenbach, who played lacrosse from fifth grade through college, said it’s an “athlete’s game” — female athletes will find it relatable from other sports. Lacrosse has also given her many opportunities, including the chance to compete at a high collegiate level, travel and make connections with new organizations, she said.
“I look back and see everything lacrosse had given me and I feel it’s important I’m able to give back.”