January 9, 2012

Once a Program in Peril, Cal Gets Clean Slate

by Josh Moyer | LaxMagazine.com

Junior attacker Gina Holslag and the once-imperiled Cal women's lacrosse team will look forward to a fresh start under new head coach Ginger Miles.
© Verdict Photography

Although the day was overcast and rain muddied the playing field, Tori Harrison was looking forward to practice. She just had to sit through her History of Journalism class first.

The class hadn't yet started, but Harrison — dressed in gray sweatpants and a Navy blue Cal hoodie — was in good spirits. She joked with a friend from the crew team. She smiled.

She had no idea her mood — and the future of her lacrosse career — would change, drastically, in the next few minutes. She had no inkling that Cal would announce in the fall of 2010 that it was cutting women's lacrosse, along with baseball, gymnastics and men's rugby. And she couldn't possibly know her team, the lacrosse community and Cal athletics would fight the change and get it reversed more than four months later.

For now, Harrison was oblivious. She checked her iPhone when it vibrated; her coach wanted to meet everyone. Immediately. The first domino had fallen. But Harrison, a junior at the time, figured she'd go after class. No big deal.

It buzzed again, but she didn't look. Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. A few minutes later, her cell wouldn't stop. Curiosity got the best of her. She flipped open her phone, and tears quickly began to flow. One message was from the athletic director — others from teammates — and the overall message was clear: This was the last year for lacrosse, the sport she had sacrificed tears, sweat and a social life for, because the administration wanted to save money.

Harrison sobbed. She left class. The women's lacrosse team decided to give itself one day to mourn, and then it would plan to stop this. "Nobody was going to take 'no' for an answer," current redshirt senior Emily Abbood said. The team spent that night together at one of the senior's apartments. They cried together, they hugged, and they went to their favorite yogurt shop — a place where they'd normally complement their vanilla-bean treat with toppings of berries and mango. "This day, it was different. We went with peanut butter cups, Oreo's, chocolate chips, the whole nine yards," Harrison added.

The team grew closer — a fact repeatedly stressed by Abbood and Harrison. They attended pep rallies to save the teams. Harrison, her mother and her roommate, junior lacrosse player Mel Humphries, even created a slogan, "You can't put a price on dreams," that became a rallying cry for the cause. Harrison and company even designed T-shirts with that slogan — and with "Save Cal Lacrosse" printed on the back — and sold them nationwide. By Feb. 11, alumni and other supporters had helped raise more than $8 million, and the university announced no sports would be cut after all.

The announcement came the morning the Golden Bears were set to play Notre Dame. They wore Harrison's T-shirts to the game and added a stenciled 'D' on the back: "SaveD Cal Lacrosse."

Still, the damage had been done. Abbood and Harrison admitted they were preparing for life after lacrosse. Some of their teammates took visits to other schools; others talked about walking on to the varsity field hockey or soccer teams. Some figured they'd just stick with the club lacrosse team.

In the end, only four players decided to leave Cal before the announcement and none afterward: Three players transferred, and one quit. But the damage ran deeper. The recruiting class of 2015 had already been released from its verbal commitments, and head coach Theresa Sherry scrambled to find replacements before resigning from her position in May. It seemed as if at least some rebranding and rebuilding would be necessary for Cal to recover.

"It definitely affected us, but I don't think it's affected us as greatly as one would imagine," said first-year Cal coach Ginger Miles, who was hired in June. "... I was excited and encouraged to see we only lost four kids. Did we lose some great players? Yeah, sure. But long-term, I think it's something we've already recovered from.

"I found right after I was hired that my inbox was flooded with kids who wanted to go to Cal. That's something that really surprised me."

"What happened last year just completely shook all of us up. We've never had such a fighting attitude coming into this season."

-- Cal senior defender Tori Harrison

Miles, the former head coach at Division III Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, had less than five months to salvage the Class of 2016. In spite of the disadvantage — shared by other first-year coaches, such as Villanova's Julie Young or Bucknell's Randall Goldsborough — Miles still managed to snag several high-profile athletes, including Pennsylvania native Nicole Beck, who appeared on the ESPN RISE Watch List.

In the short term, Cal's prospects appear bright. The Golden Bears lost just two starters this season — midfielder Chapin Jackson and goalie Allie Shropshire — and players said the team is hungrier and closer than ever. It's aiming to win the MPSF title.

"After three years of playing, some girls get settled into a routine," Harrison said, "but what happened last year just completely shook all of us up. We've never had such a fighting attitude coming into this season. It's a fresh slate. We're just so excited and have this fiery passion and excitement."

Said Abbood: "There's not going to be a drop-off. We can be just as good, if not better, than in past years."

Cal's 9-8 record last year, even with those three transfers, was still an improvement from the 2010 season when it finished 8-10. And, despite losing its goalkeeper, Cal is confident in sophomore Megan McGinnis, who played in 10 games last season and boasted a slightly better goals against average than Shropshire.

Miles has already gotten a head-start on next year's recruiting class — and she even has one more selling point. The Simpson Student-Athlete High Performance Center, which wraps around Memorial Stadium, is slated to open later this year. The high-tech facility will feature new weight rooms, dining halls for student-athletes, sports medicine facilities and an academic resource center.

With Cal already nearing normalcy, it appears as if last year's death rattle for the program might just turn out to be a touch of the flu. "This is just an awesome time to be at Cal," Miles said.

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