New lacrosse coach looks to build program from the ground up
When UW-River Falls announced it would be adding lacrosse as a varsity sport in 2018, it faced a tall task of starting a program from scratch. Luckily, the new coach has plenty of experience at building a program from the ground up.
Alison Jennings was named the university’s first lacrosse coach in July after the athletic department announced in April that lacrosse would be added as the 17th varsity sport. Jennings helped start the program at Augsburg College in Minneapolis and was the assistant coach for the past four years.
“This is their fifth year, so being able to see that develop and grow was really helpful,” Jennings said. “To see the ups and downs and having that insight is super important in the recruiting world and seeing what goes on behind the scenes.”
She also served as the head coach for the Osseo-Park Center High School team for the past seven years. She said it was hard job to change the culture of a program and set standards right away, but they have developed into a well-established program in Minnesota.
“It’s crazy, because nowadays the girls are starting out in third and fourth grade,” Jennings said. “I wish I would’ve known about lacrosse when I was that young. The norm for (my age) was ninth grade but seeing those third and fourth graders is a huge growth in the game.”
Jennings played lacrosse for four years at Cooper High School in New Hope, Minn., before playing at the club level at the University of Minnesota. She said her main sport was actually swimming, but her time in college made her fall in love with the game of lacrosse and want to give back to the sport.
“I’m a club coach too … so it’s exciting to get your hands on all the age groups and make an impact wherever I go,” Jennings said.
Jennings first saw that UWRF was adding lacrosse when she was at Augsburg, which was the first varsity lacrosse program in Minnesota.
“I was looking at the next step and had heard about River Falls,” Jennings said. “I was really excited about the opportunity here and heard great things about the community and support they give. With the new athletic facility and the academics here, being able to develop a great program in the Midwest and keep that talent here is exciting.”
The team will be independent their first year before joining the Midwest Women’s Lacrosse Conference, which includes teams from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and the upper Midwest. The team will also look to travel to Texas over spring break each season to ensure they get a good variety of games in while weather conditions are still questionable in Wisconsin.
With a new program comes the difficult task of recruiting people to play under an entirely new system. Jennings said she has quite a few things to pitch when speaking with recruits.
“I talk about being the first public university (in the upper Midwest) to have a program, because not everyone wants to do the private route,” Jennings said. “It’s also an awesome place to get an education and is mid-size, where a lot of the schools are very small that have lacrosse.”
Jennings wants to make sure that the school is a good fit for potential recruits, while letting them know they have a chance to make history and set a standard at UWRF. Building the game in the community is also a goal she wants to accomplish.
“It’s really important to have positive role models who can pass their love on of the game,” Jennings said. “I really want to find girls who are ready to hit the ground running.”
She hopes the support from former club players and alumni can also help bring support to potentially starting a youth program in the city or a program at River Falls High School.
While recruiting will be a big tool, the current club team at UWRF will also be a ready source of players for Jennings’ first team. Erika Woodruff, a senior captain on the club team, said that Jennings has made it clear she wants to potentially pull from the club team to find members for the first official team.
“She’s talked about bringing in the high school girls to watch us too and giving an opportunity to girls who haven’t played before to try out,” Woodruff said. “I think eight or nine (current players) may try out.”
The club team currently has about 18 members and practices twice a week at night in the fall and spring. They play scrimmages against close teams like UW-Eau Claire and club teams in the Twin Cities in the fall, while they usually play two tournaments in the spring.
“We pick one city and we will go play in a tournament, where we play three or four games in a weekend,” Woodruff said. “We also have our own tournament each spring, and we host the biggest tournament within our division, with teams from Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and the Dakotas.”
The team had to push back the tournament this year due to snow but is still looking to play against other teams in their division of the NCWLL, which includes club teams from the upper Midwest.
The team begins recruiting in the fall and doesn’t hold tryouts, instead encouraging people to try the sport for the first time. Lacrosse most commonly shares a crossover with basketball, soccer and hockey.
“When I started, we had a lot of talent and people that had been playing for a really long time,” Woodruff said.” Since I’ve been playing, we have a lot more that have never played and have continued to grow. We may not win as much, but our numbers are a lot bigger, and we have more diversity with people’s strengths.”
Woodruff has been a captain since her sophomore year, so it’s disappointing for her and the other seniors to have to leave before the sport reaches varsity status.
“We really wanted to be able to play and carry over some of the traditions,” Woodruff said. “But we’re excited for the girls to have more of an opportunity, and it’s awesome to bring it to the school. It’s one of the fastest-growing sports nationwide.”
While some members may be trying out next year, Woodruff said that it’s still important for them to maintain a club level atmosphere.
“We try to keep it middle level between intramural and Division III,” Woodruff said. “We try to have fun and do different drills that people enjoy doing. Practices are late at night, so we try to keep it as fun as possible.”
The university’s first lacrosse team will begin play next spring and play their home games at Ramer Field.