March 18, 2011

Women's Lacrosse About to Get Bigger in Texas with 'Dallax'

by Justin Feil |

William and Mary defender and Dallas native Sarah Jonson, the first-ever All-American from Texas, says she will sit in DeMarcus Ware's locker No. 94 when the No. 16-ranked Tribe plays No. 2-ranked Northwestern at Cowboys Stadium on Saturday.

© Jim Agnew

Taylor Thornton was in Cowboys Stadium for the first time two years ago for – don't judge – a Jonas Brothers concert.

Said Thornton: "I just enjoyed the food and being in the box."

The Northwestern University sophomore is more excited for her return trip when her No. 2 Wildcats play No. 16 William and Mary 7 p.m. Saturday in Cowboys Stadium.

"Honestly, I really didn't think it would happen," said the Dallas area native. "Especially coming back to a venue like this. It's awesome. I couldn't believe it. It's thrilling.

"My teammates, they're just as excited, but they can't be more excited than me."

The 100,000-seat stadium was the site of Super Bowl XLV in February. It is the largest venue to ever host a women's lacrosse game, and only the second Division I women's game to be played in Texas.

"I've not been yet," said William and Mary senior Sarah Jonson, also a Dallas resident. "I'm very excited. It's kind of a cool opportunity for my first opportunity to be on the field.

"As a senior, you really try to relish every game. It passes so quickly, which is pretty commonly stated by all seniors in all schools. But when one of them gets to be against a perennial powerhouse in my hometown, it's really exciting for me."

Jonson already has big plans for her trip. She's going to make the most of her return.

"I'm a huge Cowboys fan," Jonson said. "I don't know what locker rooms we'll be in, but when I get in the Cowboys locker room, I'm going to sit in locker No. 94, DeMarcus Ware.

"I'm really going to look forward to walking on that giant star," she added. "It brings back memories of T.O. (Terrell Owens) running out to the star and then getting knocked down. I'm looking forward to standing on that star, taking in the scope of the place. I'll be so amped to see the locker room and picture all my favorite players walking through there and doing their thing."

Even their coaches, who have taken their teams to the end of the earth for big games, are excited about the opportunity. Both are calling it a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"Watching the Super Bowl and knowing we'd be in the same venue, you don't have any words and don't have any idea how big it's going to be," said Northwestern head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller. "They do everything big there.

"It's pretty special. It's special that they've opened it up to women's lacrosse. It says a lot about the movement of our sport. We wanted to play a game in the Dallas area and expose them to the sport at the highest level. To have a chance to play in a venue like this is incredible."

William and Mary will open its own stadium in a big ceremony in just a couple weeks, but Saturday's game in Texas is as big as it gets.

"Unless you're in the NFL," said Tribe head coach Christine Halfpenny, "your chances of playing in Cowboys Stadium aren't good."

With the lockout, even NFL players could be envious.

"I think it's an opportunity you just can't pass up," Halfpenny said. "It's a win-win opportunity. We couldn't be any more excited to get this opportunity."

Thornton is the only Texas native for the Wildcats; Jonson and redshirt freshman Hannah Clarke are the lone Tribe players from Texas. Jonson was the first Texan to earn All-American honors two years ago. Thornton, an All-American last year, and Jonson were teammates at Hockaday School for two seasons.

"I know her tendencies," Thornton said. "I'm sure she knows mine. That first time she's guarding me, we'll probably laugh, and then get back to business."

It was two Hockaday alumnae who helped spark interest in the first Division I game in Texas. Stanford's Megan McClain and Duke's Sarah Kirchhofer were reunited when their college teams met in 2008. They played at SMU's Westcott Stadium.

"They didn't play in Cowboys Stadium," Jonson said, "so this is sweeter for us."

Jonson and the Tribe played in Cal-Berkeley's football stadium two years ago, but Cowboys Stadium dwarfs anything that she has seen.

"I'm hoping maybe some of my family members will be on the big screen," Jonson said. "I told my brother to cheer extra loud."

"I know her tendencies. I'm sure she knows mine," Northwestern All-American Taylor Thornton said of Jonson, her high school teammate at Hockaday (Texas). "The first time she's guarding me, we'll probably laugh, and then we'll get back to business."

© Anne Ryan

Thornton hasn't played anywhere bigger than Towson for last year's national championship, witnessed by a record 9,782. Playing in Cowboys Stadium will give Northwestern and William and Mary a shot at that mark.

Said Thornton: "We're not filling up 100,000 seats, but we'll have a good turnout."

The Northwestern-William and Mary game is the showcase game in a full day at Cowboys Stadium that is being called "Dallax 2011." Three high school games and a clinic precede the top-20 matchup. At 8:30 a.m., Trinity plays Cy-Fair. At 10 a.m., Highland Park plays St. Andrew's. At 2 p.m., Episcopal School Dallas plays St. John's, where Clarke played before heading to William and Mary.

"This is absolutely a first for high school teams to play in there," said Episcopal head coach Patty Wick, who helped set up the day. "When we talked about the game, we didn't think about high school teams playing in there too. That was an added bonus. Who from Texas doesn't want to play in Cowboys Stadium? It's going to be fun."

Wick was a teammate of Amonte Hiller, and is the former head coach of Hockaday, where she coached both Jonson and Thornton.

Said Wick: "To get to see them play against each other -- I got to see Taylor at the national tournament last year -- it's like being a proud parent."

Wick is one of the coaches at the center of the burgeoning high school lacrosse scene in Texas. More and more players are moving on from Texas programs into top-notch Division I lacrosse programs, and Saturday's game will highlight it.

"Texas lacrosse has been fortunate to get a lot of positive attention over the past couple years," Wick said. "Kids were so successful in playing in the national tournament and winning divisions wherever they were playing.

"You've gone away and had lots of success. People from Texas have done it. It's a reinforcement that kids that want to go and work hard and get a good education can do these things."

Highland Park's Haydyn Anigian and St. John's Jessica Carroll have committed to play at Northwestern next year; Highland Park's Katherine Shepherd is coming to William and Mary.

"It was probably five or six years ago, I realized it was an untapped pool," Halfpenny said. "You can't coach speed. You can't coach athleticism and agility. I've been following Texas for 10 years. It used to be that I was one of four or five coaches on the sideline for the Texas state championship. Now when I go, it's packed. The secret is out."

The game will be more than an introduction to high level women's lacrosse. It could be the start of something big. The men's game has already seen tripleheaders at big venues.

"I've already had, in the last week, a call saying, how do I get in this?" Wick said. "If it goes well this coming weekend, it's something that could we build it into. What a great venue to be in.

"I could definitely see that in the future. It's great for Cowboys Stadium. It's great for the lacrosse community in Texas, and a great experience for the college programs that want to go halfway across the country instead of all the way. I would like to see that in the future."

The current crop of Texans understands that the importance of coming home is bigger than just saving their parents a flight or a marathon drive. It can take 20-24 hours for Jonson's family to get to Williamsburg, Va., by car.

"It depends how many times you stop," Jonson said.

Thornton's parents can make Northwestern in 14 hours driving.

"I'm looking forward to the fact that I get to play in my home state," Thornton said, "but mostly for everyone in the area that hasn't seen lacrosse to see a great game. This is an area that is growing so much. That they get to see it in person, not watch on TV, is a unique experience for everyone."

Thornton experienced firsthand the first foray by Division I women's lacrosse into Texas. She went as a fan to the Stanford-Duke game at SMU when she was a junior at Hockaday.

"I thought, that would be awesome if I got to play here in college," Thornton said. "That game was at SMU. I thought maybe we'd be in a high school stadium. Never in my wildest dream did I think we'd go to a NFL stadium to play. That exceeded my dream."

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