LAX Dreams: Coming True

By David Porter | There are many components that go into the rebuilding of an athletic program, which is probably why the rewards are so rich when they finally come. For players in Penn’s men’s and women’s lacrosse programs, those rewards are being bestowed more often these days, thanks to an administration with vision and a pair of coaches with royal pedigrees and ability to match.

 Seniors Lindsay Cassidy and Will Phillips.

There are no George Steinbrenners lurking in the corridors of Weightman Hall, checkbook at the ready, to entice a new roster of free agents, so Brian Voelker and Karin Brower have had to achieve their successes the old-fashioned way, player by player, practice by practice, film session by film session. Their hard work helped put the Quakers back on the national lacrosse map with groundbreaking seasons in 2004. Voelker, in only his second season, led Penn to its first NCAA tournament berth since 1989. Brower’s team won nine games and finished with the women’s first above-.500 season in 10 years.

The two coaches share a common lineage that only the most diehard members of Red and Blue Nation could find quarrel with: both were assistant coaches at Princeton, the program that has set the gold standard in collegiate lacrosse since the early 1990s. Voelker also played for Johns Hopkins and went to four consecutive NCAA tournaments from 1988 through 1991. The last one was under head coach Tony Seaman, who was the last Penn coach before Voelker to take the Quakers to the postseason.

Lofty credentials got both coaches in the door, but then came the hard part: the men’s program had won or shared four Ivy titles and been to six NCAA tournaments during the 1980s, but none since Seaman left in 1990; and the women’s team hadn’t had a winning record in the Ivy League since 1988.

Change tends to occur gradually, and rarely during the heat of competition but instead in the locker room, the film room, and the practice field. Brower spoke of altering the culture around the program and instilling a new attitude in her players, starting with how they approached the sport off the field. The sea change seemed to truly take hold this year.

“In the past, we’d get kids who worked hard, but they weren’t highly recruited players,” Brower said. “They had a different idea of where lacrosse was going to fit into their college experience. Now, the kids are on the same page as the coaching staff. They’re determined to go out and fix what’s wrong.”

Voelker admitted that even he didn’t envision an NCAA tournament berth this season, which means the Quakers are ahead of schedule.

“We didn’t say anything like, ‘Look, if we don’t make the tournament, the season’s a failure,’” he said. “But we planted the seed in their heads that Penn should eventually be one of the best places to play lacrosse in the country.”

A season-opening game against No. 1-ranked Johns Hopkins put Voelker in the unaccustomed position of receiving more plaudits via e-mail than he’d ever received, considering the Quakers lost the game. But the 10-9 defeat, coming on the road and after two uninspiring scrimmages, gave Penn’s players a jolt.

“It did a lot for our confidence,” Voelker said. “It woke them up a little, showed them we could play with these guys.”

The women had their own tone-setters early in the season. Against Rutgers, the Quakers started slowly—“We panicked and didn’t take good shots,” according to Brower—and fell behind 7-1 before ultimately losing 11-4.

“We learned a lot from that game,” Brower said, and the lesson took hold in the next game as Penn raced to a 6-0 lead over Boston College and eventually won 11-2. A 10-6 win over Temple followed—the Quakers’ first over the Owls in 10 years—as freshman Emily Cochran scored four goals in a physically demanding game.

Cochran, the team’s leading scorer at the time, went down with a knee injury against Cornell on March 27, but the Quakers showed their resiliency by defeating the Big Red 13-7 in a game in which nine players scored goals. “They realized they didn’t have to rely on one or two people,” Brower said.

The men beat No. 9 Cornell and No. 10 Brown late in the season to finish undefeated at Franklin Field. The wins carried considerable weight when it came time to select the NCAA tournament field, as did a killer schedule that included five teams ranked in the top 10. An 11-5 loss to eventual national runner-up Navy was hardly a demerit for a team that made progress in leaps and bounds.

Brower is taking steps to ramp up the women’s schedule, adding Ohio State and Northwestern next year. By then, she will have a team composed entirely of her recruits, including a freshman class she termed her most athletically gifted yet. Lindsey Cassidy C’04, the Quakers’ leading scorer, will have graduated, but everyone else is back, including the high-scoring freshmen Cochran and Chrissy Muller, junior Katie Spofford, and sophomore Ali Ryan.

“We asked a lot of them, and they responded this year,” she said. “They played hard until the last whistle.”

Voelker will continue his rebuilding project with players who now have a little more spring in their step after this year’s successes. Honorable mention All-Americans Will Phillips C’04 and Ryan Kelly W’04 are gone, but a wealth of talent in the sophomore and junior classes returns.

There’s another goal to shoot for, too: the NCAA Final Four, which will be played in 2005 and 2006 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia with Penn as the host school.

“It’s great that our athletic department was interested in doing that,” said Voelker, who helped make the pitch to NCAA representatives along with Athletic Director Steve Bilsky and representatives of the Philadelphia Eagles. “It’ll be great for the sport and for the region, and hopefully we can raise awareness for the sport.”

David Porter C82 writes for the Associated Press.

2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 07/01/04


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