When women’s lacrosse coach Karin Brower arrived at Penn in 1999, she inherited a team that had put up only one winning season since 1984.
Today, they’re one of the best teams in the country.
The Quakers ended the 2007-08 season with a 17-2 record (that’s 33-4 over two seasons) and, for two consecutive years, has won the Ivy League Championship. In the regular season, Penn served Northwestern their first defeat in 36 games and handily beat Princeton by a score of 9-5 on the Tigers’ home turf, making Penn the first team since 1996 to beat them at home.
Though Penn fell in the NCAA finals against Northwestern, the fact that the Quakers were there at all proves that the University’s winning program is no fluke.
“Last year, when we lost in the semifinals to Northwestern, one of our juniors at the time said in the locker room that they had set a precedent for what this team was about and we were going to come back next year and win it all,” says Brower. “I really think that’s what drove them all fall. They worked really hard and knew what it takes to get there. The difference was, we couldn’t be an underdog anymore.”
Brower says that as Penn’s team has improved, there’s now a big target on their backs, as more schools want to take on—and try to beat—the Quakers. “We always want to win,” says Brower, who played field hockey and lacrosse at William and Mary and was a member of the U.S. Women’s Lacrosse Team. “The top teams in the country—that’s what they aim for every year, and we’re in the mix and hope to stay in that mix and be a lacrosse powerhouse for years to come.”
A former assistant coach at Princeton, Rutgers and Villanova and head coach at Drew University who holds the first endowed coaching position in a women’s sport at Penn, Brower sees herself as a straightforward coach who is upfront with potential recruits about the realities of playing a college sport. “I try to be really realistic with them in explaining what Division I lacrosse is about,” says Brower. “You have to love it in your gut and you have to want to play, and with no scholarships, clearly these kids love it—they love being a part of this team and they need to love the girls on this team and they need to love the culture and the coaches or they’re not going to stay.”
Q. What will the 2008-09 team look like?
A. We graduated seven starters. It was a very good senior class—not only were they good players, they worked really hard to get to their potential. They also had a belief in themselves and this team and they set the standard for this team. Continuing on, I know a lot of kids are still disappointed at the final game and know they’re going to have to work even harder next fall. Every year is a new year and you’ve got to push yourself to be better every year, and I think they understand it. I have a great coaching staff who really gets all the kids to their potential. We have a great freshmen class coming in and I think we’ll push a lot of kids, but we have a core [coming] back.
Q. You have a target on your backs now. Does that present any unique challenges?
A. Last year, I felt the expectation of proving that we’re not just one and done—that we’re here to stay, and I think that’s what this year proved. People didn’t really think that we could get that far, beat some of the teams that we beat, and I think that we proved to the world that we have a team that works really hard and that deserves to be there. We have more people who want to play us now. ... Being able to be back [in the NCAA tournament] for two years in a row is not an easy thing and not a lot of teams do it and it shows that we’re on the map.
Q. What’s your recruiting pitch to kids? How do you sell Penn and sell the program?
A. I can say we’re good! Trying to get them, first thing, on campus. I think a lot of people have a vision of what Philadelphia is and it’s not correct or their parents came here 25 years ago and it was not a good place, nor was Penn’s campus and I think it’s changed and every kid that I bring on the campus is just amazed—‘Oh my gosh, this is so pretty. I never thought about this.’
Sometimes it’s just trying to get a kid to think about a city school who never has. Of course, we’re selling the fantastic education and the professors here, the tradition of excellence in everything that Penn does. For us, [Franklin Field] is very important. I think that kids love playing here and it has such a history.
Q. What do you look for in young players?
A. It’s trying to get to know the kids and what they want in a program, what they’re looking for, what our program is about, what the schedule is like throughout the year, what our goals are as coaches and our philosophy as coaches. A lot of kids are very entitled who play lacrosse and I think it’s weeding through those, trying to find those kids that understand working hard. A lot of high school kids have a vision that it’s all fun and games—and it’s a lot of work, it’s a job and kids have to love it, especially here at Penn. We don’t have an indoor facility right now, so we’re out here in 15-degree weather in February. They really have to find the fun in the hard work.
Q. What makes a great player?
A. My best kids probably have a little chip on their shoulder and they’re out there to prove something. When you’re watching them play in a high school game, they get checked, they get the ball taken from them and what do they do about it—do they hang their head and bang their stick or do they feel, ‘I have to get that back. I made a mistake and I’m going to hunt this kid down and get it from her.’ Those are things you can’t really teach. Also when the team is losing, the kid that wants to put the team on her shoulders, that is willing to take that risk for that last shot in the game to win it or to lose it, the kid that loves to push themselves and works really hard up and down that field—those are the kids that we really like. Definitely, there are kids who look great at tournament time, but you coach them and they don’t really engage in what you’re saying. That’s just not going to work here. For us, camp is really important for us to gauge the potential of the kid and their work ethic and footwork. I think quick feet are really important.
Q. There’s been a lot in the media about the rise in injuries to young women athletes. Have you seen more injuries?
A. I definitely have. There are many more girls who blow out their knee than boys the first time, and I think it’s because when boys are little, they play tag more and are less sedentary so they’re building up muscles and lateral movement and [when] girls are thrust into organized sports, they’re just not used to that.
I also think that playing a variety of sports in middle school and high school is really beneficial. It changes what your body is doing and it makes you a better athlete. I think you’ve seen a lot more overuse injuries. We try to change our style of running throughout the year so we’re not doing the same thing all year. We haven’t had overuse injuries. We’ve had a couple of blown-out knees. No one really knows how to prevent it. We had one on grass this year, some people say it’s the turf, but we went out to Stanford, we had it on grass—it’s just kind of happening everywhere. It’s becoming more and more commonplace. I think it’s rare to have a team go through a season without one.
Q How did you start playing lacrosse?
A For me, it was just a natural thing. My older sisters played. One of my sisters, who is nine years older, played field hockey and lacrosse at Princeton, another played field hockey and lacrosse at Lehigh. It was just sort of a natural thing to fall into and we all just really loved it. In 5th grade, we started and then I went on to play in high school and actually got a scholarship in field hockey to William and Mary. I played two sports. That’s rare these days.
Q. How important is the camaraderie of the team, or do skills and practice make up for any differences in the clubhouse?
A. It’s really key. I think we have a lot of kids that are very different, yet they all have that goal of what they want lacrosse to be in their life and how important that is and how hard they’re willing to work for it. It’s what we really try to figure out in the recruiting process. We don’t want lacrosse to be the be-all end-all, we want them to thoroughly want to study and succeed in the classroom.
I think that a typical thing for teens is hierarchy. We really try to combat that on our team. I’ve had a lot of recruits say to me, they don’t know where the class lines are and that’s very unique.
At the end of the season, we do this traditional thing where we pass this ball of yarn around and talk about everybody and it’s very emotional and shows how much they all mean to each other and how they’ve touched each other in ways their teammates wouldn’t know or coaches wouldn’t know. It’s an opportunity to say how important people have been to them. We’re doing all of this to make them better as players and better as people.
Originally published July 3, 2008
Originally published on July 3, 2008