April 6, 2010

Remote Ambition: Pac-NW Teams Keep Fighting

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Located 25 miles apart on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., Linfield and Pacific have developed a friendly, but competitive rivalry on the women's lacrosse field. Along with Puget Sound, they are the faces of Pacific Northwest Division III lacrosse.
© Reese Moriyama

How good would the Salisbury women be if the Gulls were located closer to Anchorage, Alaska, than to the fertile recruiting grounds of Maryland?

How many national championship trophies would The College of New Jersey possess if the Lions' closest non-conference game was in Iowa?

Welcome to the realities of Division III women's lacrosse in the Pacific Northwest, where three small colleges are trying to overcome massive recruiting and travel obstacles to grow the game in an increasingly bountiful lacrosse area.

It's a day-to-day challenge for Pacific University, Linfield College and the University of Puget Sound operating in isolation on the Upper Left Coast, but by tapping into a burgeoning girl's lacrosse movement in the area and adopting a 'United We Stand' approach, the three programs are improving.

Not surprisingly, the biggest obstacle facing these teams is filling out their schedules.

While they are located within a comfortable bus ride of each other – Pacific (Forest Grove) and Linfield (McMinnville) are suburbs of Portland, Ore., while Puget Sound is in Tacoma, Wash. – the next closest opponent is 950 miles away in Los Angeles, or roughly the distance from Ewing, N.J., to Davenport, Iowa.

Because they are all in the same boat, they try and help each other.

"We have an agreement that if we get a team to come out here, all three of us will play that team," said Tim Hart, Linfield's head coach. "It has worked out really nicely because teams will get three guaranteed games within three hours of each other."

"I don't lose sleep over Tim's schedule necessarily, but when I find a team that is interested in coming out, Tim and Liana [Halstead, UPS' head coach] are the first people I call," said Wynne Lobel, Pacific's coach. "That works for everybody."

It's not always an easy sell. While many of the other independents like Dallas, North Central and Birmingham Southern, as well as the SCIAC teams from Los Angeles, can be lured up to the Pacific Northwest, it's a little more difficult to get programs from automatic qualifying conferences Back East to make the trip.

Because of the wider variety of programs available and, currently, the higher competition level, Florida provides more bang for the Spring Break buck. The biggest hurdle is the tendency for East Coast schools to nail down their opponents far in advance. Some programs schedule several years out, whereas the Pacific Northwest independents have to work more in the here-and-now.

"We'd love to play the Hamiltons and Franklin & Marshalls," said Hart, "but it's really tough to get on their schedules so many years in advance."

"The last teams we schedule are each other," said Lobel. "We have to work around the other teams. When you're growing in competitiveness, having that element can be a challenge. You hope teams come, but you can't always leave it up to chance."

That means at least one lengthy spring break trip every year, sometimes followed by a long-weekend trek to pick up a few more games. Pacific and Puget Sound both went to California for nine days and played four games each while Linfield spent five days in the Midwest playing North Central (Ill.), Carthage (Wis.) and Adrian (Mich.).

With each trip costing roughly $10,000, according to Hart, the schools will try to blend both quantity and quality with their trips, as well as attempt to incorporate an agreement for reciprocity down the road.

"All three of us have an 'anyone, anytime, anywhere' philosophy," said Hart.

The three coaches have a strong rapport with each other, but that obviously takes a back seat when the three teams are scouring the region for talent. With much of the girl's prep programs concentrated along the I-5 corridor stretching from Seattle to Eugene, which is home to the only other varsity women's program - Division I University of Oregon - in the region, all three programs often find themselves fighting for the same players.

That competition is a positive sign for the area.

While the teams still have an occasional player from the East Coast, all three programs are sustained primarily by the high school teams in the region. The presence of Linfield, Puget Sound, Pacific and Oregon has gone a long way to expose potential players to the sport and the coaches do their part with local youth and club programs to keep the growth on an upward arc.

"We're looking to grow the sport and my goal is to get girls to play lacrosse at the college level," said Hart. "If they play for me, fantastic, but the more we grow the sport, the better it will be out here. The more Oregon girls who play high school lacrosse, the better it is for all of us."

The grass roots approach could have a big impact on the three teams in the near future as it may entice more schools to adopt the sport and perhaps even establish an automatic qualifying conference.

The Northwest Conference, of which Linfield, Pacific and UPS are all traditional members, is rumored to have several other member institutions on the cusp of adding women's lacrosse. Several more are said to be in the process of examining their options. Helped by a strong Women's Division Intercollegiate Associates presence, NWC schools such as Whitman, George Fox, Pacific Lutheran and Lewis & Clark would all be viable spots for women's Division III programs.

And even if the conference didn't get to the magic number of seven that would make it an AQ league, the double round robin format would help fill in the schedule and save precious funds for key road trips.

To foster this possibility, the three established teams are often willing to provide a helping hand.

"If there is a school that is showing interest, we will do what we can to involve them," said Lobel. "There was a school that was interested and we saved a date of competition and agreed to meet them. You do what you can because it's going to be helpful to everybody. It's important to build something locally and hopefully it will happen."

"The reality is we really need a conference," added Hart. "Being an independent in Division III gets a little crazy."

The odds of a Pacific Northwest team making the national semifinals in Pennylvania are as long the 2,748 miles they'd have to fly to get there. But for the three teams toiling by themselves in one corner of our country, it'll always be the dream.

For the good of the sport, hopefully some day they'll get there.

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