By Robert McKinney, Assistant Athletics Director, Communications
SALEM, Ore. -- Willamette University will begin competing in its newest sport -- women's lacrosse -- in the spring of 2019. The Bearcats are prepared for the start of intercollegiate competition after hiring Head Coach Sarah Lautenbach last summer, adding assistant coach Annie Longtain a bit later, and encouraging interested athletes to practice with the coaches during the 2017-18 school year. Lautenbach, Longtain and the Bearcats are well on their way to being ready for their first game next spring -- even before freshmen join the team this fall.
It's been an interesting journey for the coaches and players who have established the groundwork for future success. Among the student-athletes who have practiced over the past year are Lexie Andrade (So./Fr., ATT, Petaluma, CA/Casa Grande HS), Miya Konishi (So./Fr., DEF, Reston, VA/South Lakes HS), and Bridget Blaney (Jr./Fr., MID, Buffalo, WY/Buffalo HS). Each discussed her decision to join the Willamette women's lacrosse team and to be involved with the start of the new sport.
For Lautenbach and Longtain, looking for players who were already on campus required a special focus.
"A big challenge for us (in finding players this past year) speaks to the level of involvement of the extremely busy Willamette student," Lautenbach said. "Many current students on campus may already have a full plate participating in other sports, clubs, volunteering, sororities, and other outside academic responsibilities. This isn't a place where you have students walking around without an already packed schedule."
The process of becoming a Bearcat was a bit different for each player.
Andrade was ready to go when she learned that Willamette was adding women's lacrosse. "I was so extremely excited," she said. "Lacrosse has always been a huge part of my life and it has always been something that I wanted to continue playing in college. Willamette adding a lacrosse team definitely played into my decision of which college I chose to come to."
For Konishi, it was a chance to return to a sport she played in high school when she was a two-sport athlete. "Throughout high school I played lacrosse and field hockey.," Konishi noted. "When I entered college, I missed playing competitive sports."
Even so, she was somewhat reluctant to play lacrosse until she interacted with Willamette's coaches.
"Coach Lautenbach and Coach Longtain have done a great job to create an environment for lacrosse where everybody is driven to do well and compete, but we are able to still have fun," Konishi said. "I don't think I would have picked up lacrosse again if it weren't for Coach Lautenbach, Coach Longtain and my awesome teammates."
Blaney wasn't sure at first if she wanted to play lacrosse despite competing in basketball, track and cross country in high school.
"A coworker had been telling me that I should check out the lacrosse team," Blaney said. "Initially, I was skeptical, so I didn't think much of her suggestion. But then she told Coach Lautenbach and Coach Longtain that I was interested, or that maybe I was a good candidate. So, Coach Lautenbach sent me an email directly, asking me if I'd given any thought to checking it out. I felt bad turning down someone, whom I'd never met, via email. So I emailed back that I'd come to the team meeting and check out a practice just for the sake of doing so. After the first practice, I absolutely loved it, and here I am."
After deciding to join the team, Andrade and Konishi had to remember their lacrosse skills, while Blaney and other newcomers to the sport needed to learn the fundamentals. All of them needed to practice and be together enough to form a team.
"As a defensive player, this past year I have been able to improve not only my stick skills, but also my offensive skills, making me a more well-rounded field player," Konishi said."
"I'm a sucker for a good team sport," Blaney commented. "I've played both individual sports and team sports, and I absolutely love the team environment. Willamette lacrosse has provided me with a group of people that I work well with, get along with, and enjoy being with."
For Andrade, joining the Willamette lacrosse team and being able to practice this past year was the continuation of a long-time commitment to the sport.
"This last year practicing at Willamette was my ninth year playing lacrosse," Andrade said. "I did not really play any other sports competitively in high school other than lacrosse. I started playing high school level varsity lacrosse in eighth grade on a club team in my hometown. The next two years on that team we went undefeated both seasons until the playoffs. In 10th grade, I played on my high school's first official women's lacrosse team and I was captain of the team that year."
Much of the excitement for Andrade, Blaney and Konishi, as well as other athletes on the lacrosse team was created over the past 12 months by the development of friendships and teamwork. The off-the-field development of the team was as important as improving their individual skills on the field.
"We are creating a foundation, not just with skill but with our athletes getting to know us, and for us to get to know them," Lautenbach commented. "It's important to build these relationships and understand the expectations we have for each other."
"I have been able to meet an amazing group of women that has made my experience of lacrosse so much fun," Konishi said. "I am continually impressed and amazed by my teammates who have just started playing lacrosse. They have picked up the game so quickly and have made tremendous strides."
According to Andrade, "I have been on new teams before and they have not always turned out very well, but I could tell from the beginning of this last year that my experience at Willamette was going to be different ... It gave me and other athletes on the team time to get to know each other and to bond ... Coach Lautenbach and Coach Longtain have been absolutely amazing and are really dedicated to seeing each girl on the team improve and advance their skills."
Joining the team meant a great deal to Blaney.
"It's been absolutely incredible. For a while this year, I basically went to class and then went back to my dorm and didn't get super involved in anything," Blaney recalled. "When I started playing lacrosse, it was the thing I looked forward to during the week because I got to hang out with people, while also being active."
This summer, Andrade, Blaney and Konishi have been able to take a break from lacrosse practice. Andrade has been working at home in California. Blaney remained in Salem, but found time for trips to the Oregon coast and will soon be on a trip to France with her family. Konishi went on a study abroad trip to Japan and then stayed there for an internship.
After a year of practicing and learning the game, Willamette's returning players will soon meet the incoming freshmen and start the first year of varsity lacrosse for the Bearcats. There will be more practicing, but it will be with a greater purpose as the team prepares for the spring season. The returning players, even those with limited playing experience, will be leaders for the freshmen.
"I hope the freshmen and my other teammates can come to me for support as well as feel comfortable to come to me for advice on any issues they may have on or off the field," Konishi said.
"It's a great chance to give my love of the sport to other people and also grow as a teammate and player myself," Andrade commented. "I have seen some really amazing people come out to the lacrosse field this last year with no previous experience playing, and they gave their absolute best effort at every practice. I'm really excited to see them continue to grow as lacrosse players."
"I've already met some of the incoming freshman, and it was really fun to be able to meet and hang out," Blaney said. "I'm super excited to be able to 'mentor' them and help them out if they need anything."
As the team looks forward to its first season of competition, Willamette is in the process of renovating Sparks Field. New artificial turf will be installed, along with a tall netting to protect cars and pedestrians on Bellevue, 12th Street, and the walkover bridge to Kaneko Commons. There will be a new pressbox and the field will be lined for both soccer and lacrosse.
"I'm excited to work with everyone and the coaches, and it's going to be incredible," Blaney noted. "The turf field is also super cool, though primarily I'll admit I'm just excited to have actual lacrosse lines and not have to use cones."
"I am ecstatic to be a part of the making of Willamette's first women's lacrosse team," Konishi said. "Words cannot describe how excited I am for the new turf field ... the anticipation is like opening presents on Christmas day."
"The field will be a huge symbol to help the team feel supported and a part of Willamette Athletics right away, especially with the addition of the sewn-in lacrosse lines," Lautenbach said. "Not every team has this. It should be recognized for how special it will be to have this kind of a facility and what it means to have pride for our home field."
Fall practices will be held on the new Sparks Field, which will be the home site for practices and games in the spring. Willamette is set to open it's first season on Saturday, February 23, 2019 at Sparks Field against Johnson & Wales University (Colo.).
"I enjoy the competitive edge and the coordination and skill that is needed for lacrosse," Konishi commented. "You have to be able to be agile, quick and flexible ... the game always keeps you on your toes."
Andrade agreed with Konishi's assessment of the game. "Lacrosse is extremely fast paced, and it requires you to think fast on your feet and be able to react quickly while working and communicating with your teammates," she said.
Blaney hopes that Willamette's players will "work together as well as possible. Those are always the teams that are the most fun to be a part of, the ones where we are all operating on the same wavelength. It makes competing, practicing and spending time together much more valuable. It makes it much easier to accomplish other goals, like competing well and winning games."
It's valuable to Lautenbach that the team has some players who are already familiar with Willamette and the coaching staff. It provides an easier start for the new varsity program and it means that the freshmen joining the team have teammates who can help them make the adjustment to college life and intercollegiate athletics.
"The returners already know what it means to be a successful student at Willamette," Lautenbach said. "They also understand what the goal is for the culture we want to create here, and I believe collectively they will be a great support and resource to our newcomers. Equally, our incoming class will bring a diverse lacrosse background which I have no doubt will create an impact on the field immediately. It's a unique time where I think they will both learn a lot from each other.
"We are very eager to begin having time with the team and to see the program grow as we overcome challenges and build camaraderie," Lautenbach added.
As the athletic year unfolds in 2018-19, Andrade, Blaney and Konishi will be able to help form the team dynamic and make key contributions to the development of Bearcat lacrosse. They are the pioneers in the new sport at Willamette, and they have taken the first steps forward. Now, they can help the newcomers take their first steps at the college level, as they all prepare to take on outside competition in the spring. They'll also be able to lead the team through its first Northwest Conference schedule. With Willamette and Whitworth adding women's lacrosse, the NWC will have seven teams.
"I look forward to bonding with my teammates, and I can't wait to see the development of this team," Konishi said. "I look forward to playing other teams."
"This year, I really hope to learn new skills and become a better player and teammate," Andrade noted. "I am really looking forward to playing with other people who are as passionate as I am about this sport. I really want to grow as an athlete, grow as a teammate, learn some new skills and keep developing the skills I have."
Andrade's goals seem to have been adopted by Konishi and Blaney. Now, they all have the chance to pass those goals on to their teammates, as they work to build a team that players together, communicates and keeps improving. For Lautenbach and her players, that seems like a good start for the new program.