March 8, 2012

Out West, Occidental Creating Its Reputation

by Mark Macyk |

Occidental sophomore Tori Larson, from Denver, is second on the team with 11 goals through the Tigers' 4-1 start.
© Bob_Palermini

Occidental College is one of the West Coast's oldest and most reputable liberal arts schools. Barack Obama attended for two years and its picturesque setting near the heart of Los Angeles has made it an ideal backdrop for dozens of films, including "Clueless" and "Orange County." Needless to say, it has a national profile.

But for a West Coast lacrosse team, even one at a school the president went to, national attention can be hard to come by.

That's why Occidental's women's lacrosse team isn't concerning itself with the NCAA tournament, despite a program-best 4-1 start and wins over two 2011 NCAA tournament teams.

"I think there's a healthy detachment from a lot of that stuff," said Occidental coach Michele Uhlfelder. "That's important to being at your max performing level and not putting a lot of extra stuff in your head. It's uncontrollable. In my career I've always just focused on the controllable."

And while the NCAAs aren't on Occidental's mind, the NCAA should probably start thinking about Occidental. It's early but the Tigers already have wins over Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, 14-9, and Adrian, 7-6, both of which received Pool B bids to the tournament last season. Occidental's only loss came to unbeaten Redlands (7-0), which also made the national tournament last year.

"Those schools have had national recognition, and certainly from the perspective of the lacrosse world and the evolution of our team they were significant wins," Uhlfelder said. "We approach every game the same way. The name on the jersey doesn't dictate how we rank ourselves."

So it was no surprise that five days after dispatching Adrian, Occidental took care of business against winless conference foe Whittier, 20-11.

"We can't control our opponents," Uhlfelder said. "But we can control our mentality and our consistency."

Occidental is in its third year as a program and it has been the maturity of its junior class, the team's first recruits, that has provided that consistency. The first season in 2010, which saw an 18-3 defeat in the first game and a 2-13 final record, seems long ago.

"Sometimes you look around and you're in the locker room and the only people who believe something can be done are the people that are sitting right there," Uhlfelder said.

Last season the Tigers went 6-12. This season they could foreseeable match that win total next week.

Mirroring the school's diverse student body, the Tigers hail from all over. Occidental features players from nine different states and Hong Kong. The five-person junior class is also bicoastal.

Sarah Kessler, a six-foot attack from Portland, Ore., leads the team with 16 goals this season. Her high school teammate, Isabel Osgood-Roach, is a versatile player who set the program's single-game scoring record last year. Lauren Wemple is from Massachusetts and runs the offense as the Tigers' quarterback. Connecticut's Charlotte Bromley, a former high school soccer player, has five goals this season.

The junior playing closest to home, Haley Gandsey, may actually have come the furthest. Gandsey was a high school basketball player in Oakland and took up lacrosse in college as a defender. This year she's transitioning to midfield and already has five goals and nine assists.

Occidental is peaking at the perfect time. The SCIAC, which Occidental, Redlands and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps play in, does not receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, but sent two teams last year. Uhlfelder coached Stanford to an at-large bid in 2006, the first time a team from west of the Mississippi reached the NCAAs.

"I've spent a lot of time earning those bids so I definitely believe it can happen," Uhlfelder said. "The strength of these teams is real. People just need to become more familiar. I've always said ZIP code has no bearing on what you can be in the game of lacrosse. These teams have great athletes and great products. They're working hard teaching, coaching and recruiting. Breaking down those stereotypes and barriers of who can be good. There's still kind of that East Coast bias and that's just going to be overcome as more teams earn their way in."

Occidental hosts Division II Fort Lewis on Thursday and Washington State's Puget Sound on Monday.

TCNJ Rolling Early

One season after rolling unbeaten through the regular season behind Division III's stingiest defense, TCNJ is at it again. The second-ranked Lions opened their season with wins over FDU-Florham, 17-3, and Drew, 18-3.

Senior Leigh Mitchell increased her school-record career assist totals with six assists and a goal against FDU-Florham and four assists and three goals against Drew.

The Lions are finding no shortage of scorers to fill the void left by the graduation of all-time leading scorer Ali Jaeger. Kathleen Notos has put up eight goals. Trenna Hill and Alex Spark have five goals. Mitchell, Sara Keating and Jen Garavente have four goals each.

F&M Slips Past York

York gave No. 6 Franklin & Marshall all it could handle on Tuesday, but F&M emerged with a 7-6 victory. Maggie Mae Shields scored what proved to be the game-winner off an assist from Lauren Ehrhardt with 3:44 to go in the game.

Kim Wayson scored her 17th goal of the season on a free position to put York within one with 17 seconds remaining, but Shields won the ensuing draw to seal it for the Diplomats (2-0). F&M's Kelsey Hoffman made five saves and York's Kelsey Evans made nine saves.

York (4-1) plays at No. 20 Dickinson on Saturday. York defeated Dickinson 9-8 last season in overtime. Franklin & Marshall hosts No. 3 Cortland (1-0) on Saturday.

Stevenson Back in Top 20

Stevenson entered the national rankings this week, at No. 19, behind a 15-9 victory at Dickinson on Friday. Marissa Meiklejohn had five goals and Leah Warner had four goals and one assist to lead the Mustangs.

Stevenson (2-1) kept it up on Tuesday, holding on to win at McDaniel 14-12. Emily Gartrell scored five to lead the Mustangs in that one.

Stevenson hosts Roanoke (1-2) in its home opener on Friday.

NESCAC Gets Nine

The NESCAC broke its own record for teams in the Top 20 this week, when Williams entered the poll at No. 20. The arrival of No. 7 Hamilton, which previously played in the Liberty League, made the record likely to fall.

Bates is the only NESCAC team to play so far. The 18th-ranked Bobcats defeated 2011 NCAA tournament team Babson 11-8 on Tuesday. Conference play for the league's 11 teams begins this weekend.

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