March 6, 2014

Occidental Aiming for 'Best in the West' Status

Alida Beck, a junior from Portland, Ore., is in the midst of a breakout season for Occidental, which defeated Whittier in front of a record-setting crowd of 4,239 on Feb. 22. (Bob Palermini)

by Mark Macyk | | Twitter

Western Pennsylvania can be beautiful, but it isn't hard to see the appeal of coaching on the West Coast for Occidental's Stephanie Janice.

"It's been so fun to really focus on the girls at practice and not have to worry about frostbite," said Janice, the former Allegheny coach who took over at the Los Angeles school this summer. "Which was really an issue, I'm not even kidding."

It was nine degrees on Allegheny's campus last Wednesday night. Meanwhile, temperatures approached the mid-60's in Southern California, where Occidental was putting the finishing touches on a 12-9 victory at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps.

It was the Tigers' fifth straight win to open the season and it ensured Oxy would finish the first round of its Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference schedule with a perfect 5-0 record.

There has been plenty of talk about the pros and cons of February lacrosse on the East Coast, but it's the way they've always done things in the SCIAC. Before March began,the SoCal teams had already played each other once.

Now the league takes March off for non-league play — it's a helpful month to keep open, since programs from the east tend to want to visit on spring break — before playing everyone a second time around in April. Then they'll do it again in the conference tournament. Then, if two teams make the NCAA tournament, like they did in 2012, there's the chance for a fourth meeting.

So far, Occidental has not been the squad getting that fourth chance. Redlands and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps have been the sole SCIAC teams to reach the big dance. Last year, Chapman won 14 games and appeared to be the next team up. But Occidental opened this season by defeating all three.

Oxy has won more than eight games just once in its five-year history, but its rapid rise shouldn't be that much of a surprise. Janice said much was in place when she arrived, the work down by the previous administration helmed by former U.S. National Team member Michele Uhlfelder.

"The talent was here," Janice said. "I've just been able to see it with fresh eyes. The team atmosphere and chemistry is something I been so impressed with. "

The Tigers' victories have ranged from the close, like when Mackenzie Wright delivered the game-winner in overtime for an 8-7 victory over Pomona-Pitzer, to the not so close, like when Alida Beck piled up five goals and one assist in a 15-7 victory over Whittier.

The production has come from, quite literally, a variety of places.

Beck, a junior from Oregon in the midst of a breakout season, leads the team with 18 goals. Wright, the quarterback of the offense and a sophomore from Virginia, has 11 goals and a team-high six assists. Seniors Rebecca Belding (nine goals, four assists, 14 ground balls, six draw controls, four caused turnovers), from the Bay area and Denver-native Tori Larson (seven goals, three assists, five ground balls, six draw controls, three caused turnovers) lead the midfield. Junior Beebe Finch-Sanders, from Berkeley, is a gritty workhorse with 29 draw controls.

The Tigers boast players from 12 different states, everywhere from Maine and Virginia to Texas and Colorado, and its easy to see why. The picturesque campus was designed by the architect of the Rose Bowl. The school consistently turns up among U.S. News' Top 50 Liberal Arts schools in the country, as well as its Top 10 happiest student rankings.

Back at Allegheny, Janice used to take her team out west to play at schools like Occidental each spring. It was good for bonding and a welcome break after a winter of dealing with frozen fingers. The Tigers won't take a long trip this year, instead they'll host teams like Franklin & Marshall and St. Joseph's of Maine on their spring trips. But Janice has found ways to make up for the bonding that those flights and hotel stays provided.

"This weekend we're going to Malibu for a beach training day," Janice said. "We're going to do a few beach training days. Later in the year we'll do a hike in the mountains."

There will also be barbecues. The Tigers are clearly happy to be at Occidental, and school is happy to have them. The win over Whittier came in front of a program-record 4,239 fans.

"Our lacrosse lines are sewn on the field in orange," Janice said. "Our expectation is to be a mainstay. My goal is to be the best in the west."

For the first run through the conference, at least, the Tigers have left no doubt about that.

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