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March 22, 2017

Women’s lacrosse just as good as men’s

When a school features both a men’s and women’s team for a particular sport, what sometimes happens is that one team dominates the other. That much can be said for the Massachusetts softball team over the baseball team or the men’s basketball team over the women’s basketball team. Usually, it’s because one team’s success overshadows the other program.

Such is not the case for the women’s lacrosse team.

While the Minutemen dominate the spring sports headlines and usually has a nice, shiny national ranking next it, the Minutewomen’s accomplishments are nothing to scoff at.

Coming off back-to-back Atlantic 10 titles and a NCAA tournament play-in game last year and appearance in 2009, women’s lacrosse’s track record is more along the lines of field hockey and softball rather than baseball and men’s basketball. They may not be a heavyweight going toe-to-toe with the powerhouse conferences year after year, but they get the job done.

It’s easy to forget a program like women’s lacrosse. Lacrosse is a quickly growing game and is starting to take root in New England. However, UMass students don’t have the same mind for the game as students in Mid-Atlantic schools like Duke, Delaware or Maryland.

In her first year at the helm for the Minutewomen after leading Connecticut for two years, UMass coach Angela McMahon is seeing the fruits of that success around the athletic department.

“I think in terms of support, at least from the administrative side,  what I’ve seen so far is nothing but support for our program,” McMahon said. “People are definitely rooting for us for sure.”

Back in 2009, the Minutewomen got the opportunity to play their first night game under the lights at McGuirk Alumni Stadium against then-No. 1 Northwestern. That game broke the program’s attendance record with 893.

Since then, the program has been taking full advantage of the unused turf at McGuirk. This season, the Minutewomen are playing host at McGuirk six times compared to just two at the usual home of Garber Field.

The situation has been indicative of the positive changes McMahon has seen around the program recently.

“Having the opportunity to play in McGuirk Stadium has been great for us,” McMahon said. “It’s a great facility, now having lights, it’s great for us. We’re really happy with where we’re at as a program for sure.”

UMass opens their home slate Saturday against Vermont at McGuirk, and McMahon said that she’s happy with what she’s seen across campus, but knows that fans aren’t going to come out of the woodwork right away.

“It’s tough getting people’s attention in the middle of February,” McMahon said.

It’s particularly difficult to start buzz around sports programs when the spring season at UMass doesn’t have the headliners like football, basketball or hockey. It’s even harder when those sports are still-growing sports like the two lacrosse programs or baseball, which doesn’t get the attention as a college product the way that basketball and football do.

In a way, men’s lacrosse is the headliner for spring sports almost by default, especially with the difficulty that comes with selling women’s sports to college students (sorry softball). Women’s lacrosse, meanwhile, still has to grow its market share if it wants to make up ground against other programs.

Then again, lacrosse doesn’t exactly have the legacy of most programs on campus do, particularly in the New England region.

By the time I graduated high school, the men’s lacrosse team at my school had just finished its first winning season. By winning I mean that they had won at least one game. The women’s team, meanwhile, was struggling to meet varsity status.

So when I came to UMass, it was a surprise to see the two programs run so successfully, especially with the issues the programs have had in recent years. The men’s team has put its off-the-field incidents behind them while the women have maintained consistency, even with the program’s third coach in six seasons and some players leaving the program during then-coach Alexis Venechanos’ tenure.

As much success as the program has seen, there remains a glass ceiling of sorts for women’s programs on college campuses, unless you’re UConn women’s basketball. Those 839 fans that attended the first game at McGuirk may be as far as the program’s potential can take it attendance-wise, barring some explosion in wins during McMahon’s tenure at UMass (possible, but unlikely).

In the meantime, women’s lacrosse has moved from a niche sport to one that’s entrenched itself at UMass and more and more so in the New England region and, more importantly for the program, atop the A-10.

Nick O’Malley is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at nomalley@student.umass.edu.

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