Friday, January 11, 2013

JU Women's Lacrosse Ready for New Challenges

Big things are in store for Jacksonville University women’s lacrosse.

To begin, the Dolphins are making a move to a new conference that carries an automatic bid for the NCAA playoffs. JU will continue to compete in the A-Sun against former National Lacrosse Conference foes and A-Sun affiliate members Detroit and Howard. The Dolphins will also face new programs Stetson and Kennesaw State in 2013, and prepare to welcome Mercer, Furman and Elon in 2014.
JU Head Coach Mindy McCord
“We are thrilled about being a part of the Atlantic Sun Conference as the A-Sun’s newest sport, and it is very exciting to have an automatic bid,” said JU Head Coach Mindy McCord. “While certainly we are going to show up at the field on game day and do what we need to do to compete for the championship and the automatic bid, we also have to do everything we can to help the newer teams succeed as well.”

This weekend the 2012 NLC champions have the honor of ushering in the A-Sun’s inaugural season of women’s lacrosse, hosting nationally ranked Syracuse on Sunday, Jan. 13, at 7 p.m. at D.B. Milne Field.

The Orange coming to town is an indication of the growth that is occurring in the Dolphins’ program. In years past, one or two of the nation’s upper level teams dotted JU’s schedule. In 2013, however, the Dolphins are scheduled to play four NCAA Final Four teams from 2011 and 2012 and six teams ranked in the top 22 according to's rankings. 

Perennial top-20 Southeastern Conference opponent Vanderbilt comes to town followed by NCAA semi-finalist and third-ranked Florida. Up-and-comer San Diego State comes to town and other opponents include historic lacrosse programs William & Mary, Old Dominion, and powerhouses Duke and North Carolina. The Dolphins face NCAA playoff team, Navy, in a tough road contest and will see Presbyterian and Winthrop. Additionally, JU will scrimmage the world's fourth-ranked team, European champion Team England.

“Our non-conference schedule is very ambitious,” said McCord. “We have played some of the top-end teams previously, but not as many in a season as we do this year. When you are building a program you have to schedule purposefully. Early on in our program it was about building confidence and learning how to win. But we have an experienced upper class now and you can see that translating to the field. At this point we are either competing with those types of teams or we see what it takes to get to the next step.”

A-Sun Preseason Player and Defensive Player of the Year Rachel Hannon

With its experience and talent, JU seems ready to take the next step. In three years, McCord and her team have transformed from a squad of freshmen to conference champions and NCAA record-setters who are receiving regional and national recognition. JU was a unanimous pick as the A-Sun favorite in the inaugural preseason coaches poll, and seven Dolphins earned preseason recognition as well from the A-Sun coaches. Senior Rachel Hannon was tabbed as the preseason player and defensive player of the year.  Joining Hannon on the preseason all-conference team from JU are juniors Alexandra Hoffman, Brit Orashen, Morgan Derner  and Kayla Quint. Freshman Kelsey Wigglesworth and sophomore Taylor McCord were selected to the A-Sun’s Newcomer Watch List. 

Jacksonville set an NCAA record averaging 18.16 goals per game a year ago, which is a clear reflection of its head coach’s philosophy. 

“Our strength is speed and I like a fast-paced game,” said McCord. “I like the attacking style of game, one in which we take a lot of shots and take advantage of fast breaks and the transition game.

“The season is a lot longer this year, and so we have to temper ourselves and do everything we can to stay fresh. Our team needs to take the fundamentals that we have been building on to the next level and improve in our skills. And we need to manage the game better, which means running the system tighter. We have enjoyed success from good preparation in the past, and now we have to take that and raise our level of execution. We need to play with a confidence as a result of competence.”

So how have the Dolphins been able to achieve such meteoric success?

“First, simply every day we try to be better than the day before,” says McCord. “Now that we are at this point in our program it is all about growth, and making constant improvement. As we prepare to win an A-Sun championship that improvement becomes even more important.

“But there is a combination of reasons that we have been able to achieve the success we have so early in the program. First we are highly supported at the highest levels of our institution. Next, we have done a good job of finding the right makeup of student-athletes for our team. If you look at our team you don’t see a lot of top scorers because we are very team oriented. We may not have the best players, but they are good players who are willing to learn.”

McCord refers to her staff as being very teaching-oriented. And with her background in counseling and sports psychology, the philosophy surrounding the program is one of development, both on and off the field.

“Our staff is very teaching-oriented,” said McCord. “We want our players to come in and develop not only as players but as people. We are not necessarily focused on just developing good players, but on their development as individuals. We look for girls who are strong academically, because we find that tends to contribute to them being able to learn and assimilate what we are trying to teach. They are smart and they are coming to college to learn, and that helps on the field because they are already focused on learning.

“We are about building women on and off the field. With my background I am naturally focused on what they are thinking. We care about them as people and we want them to become comfortable learning to take risks and to accomplish what they set out to do. We reinforce the individual’s work ethic and want to encourage and drive our players to do what they do best, not how they compare to others.

As the A-Sun newest teams Stetson and Kennesaw State begin this year and Mercer, Elon and Furman next year launch their programs, perhaps in some way JU’s vision and plan could serve as some sort of a template for those newer programs. Several elements, such as commitment to values, passion, teamwork, and leadership are a few that McCord believes to be integral in building a program, particularly from the ground up.

“For new teams, you have to work hard to create a team identity and that centers around your system of beliefs and the core values of your program,” said McCord. “It is crucial to get your players to commit to that, and then to stand behind it. Plus, early on encouragement is important. While the successes may not be readily apparent on the scoreboard, they are achieving in other ways.

“One of our ideas is ‘Together we make things happen,’ emphasizing being teammates first. That means focusing on the little things, taking a daily assessment as players and as a staff. It means helping players mature as people, players and student-athletes and instilling and feeding that ambition to pursue what they are passionate about. We are passionate about not only our team, but about being excellent representatives of our institution and being an active part of our community, and you see that very clearly from our team.

McCord adds that when working with a young team or creating a team from scratch like several teams in the A-Sun, the coach has to also be a captain in terms of leadership. “Building leadership is done by never assuming that anyone knows how to lead.,” said McCord. “You hear about players being natural leaders, but when you field a team of 18 freshmen, they are not going to know what that necessary leadership looks like. We spent a lot of time on developing leaders, and it is still important that we reinforce it and identify what that looks like for them.”

Clearly this experienced and successful Jacksonville team is expected to be, and expects to be, the A-Sun’s leader as the conference’s inaugural season of women’s lacrosse gets underway. But with big things in store for the Dolphins, that can translate into bigger things indeed for all of A-Sun women’s lacrosse.

“When everyone is experiencing success and growth in their programs, that raises the profile of the conference. That helps with everything from building the legitimacy of the sport to creating awareness and recognition of the A-Sun, and we want to do everything we can to help accomplish that.”

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