ROCK HILL — When the Winthrop womens lacrosse team takes the field Friday night in Rock Hill at 6 p.m. against Marquette, the Eagles will feel like a bunch of wizened old veterans. The match is Marquettes first ever intercollegiate womens lacrosse game; it will be Winthrops third.
John Sungs newborn Winthrop crew opened its campaign last weekend, beating Howard 20-10 on Friday for the programs historic first win, before losing to the Naval Academy 23-4 on Sunday for the equally historic first loss. Friday night is another baby step, the teams inaugural home game at the Winthrop soccer stadium.
This week is so exciting for us, Sung said on Monday. But its nice we had a dress rehearsal away from here first.
Sung was hired by Winthrop in the spring of 2011 and after nearly two years of preparation, hustle and scurry, its a bit surreal to actually be coaching his team in competitive action.
You realize, holy smokes, maybe we werent prepared.
Building the team
Developing a womens lacrosse program in the southern United States is a largely untested project. Sung said one of the toughest parts of the last two years was recruiting. He was hired in the spring of 2011, but the 2010-11 recruiting cycle was already pretty much finished. That left last year to go head-to-head with other programs in trying to sign players.
Sung carried the Winthrop name into the recruiting grind with essentially zero brand recognition, a difficulty he will continue to face in the coming years, but one hes tackled before. The Michigan native launched a Division III program in his home state at Adrian College in 2008. By 2011 the Bulldogs were in the NCAA tournament with a cumulative 46-19 record.
I think it was that experience that sort of set him apart, said Winthrop athletic director Tom Hickman. That was really a plus we were able to get someone like that.
Sung attributed his success at Adrian to the support of the administration and not really limiting us in recruiting. When he took the job at Winthrop, Sung wondered can I do the same thing, am I gonna be able to get those kids from far away? Do we have enough on the plate for them?
The answer came quickly. Winthrop has excellent facilities, updated and new buildings, and a solid academic reputation. The coach has one other huge advantage he never had in Michigan: balmy weather.
Its nice being able to play in spring-ish weather the whole year rather than the cold, said Winthrop sophomore Alyssa Blevins.
A bunch of rookies
Thursdays final practice before the big home game was a fine weather example. It was cold by Southern standards but many of the girls were in shorts and t-shirts, including Maddi Genovese, the teams resident veteran. The redshirt junior from East Amherst, N.Y. transferred last year from the University of Maryland to Winthrop, one of a small group of players that Sung recruited the year before the team actually started play. Genovese is one of just five on the roster that isnt a true freshman, and shes the only upperclassman.
I am the grandma, unfortunately, Genovese said Thursday, laughing. Ive never been in an experience like this before. Its a lot of responsibility.
Again, Thursdays practice painted the perfect picture: plays were forgotten; open passes dropped; one player stepped in goose waste and let everyone know about it; another struggled to keep her shoes tied. But through it all, patience was maintained.
Were learning from each other, said Blevins. All the freshmen can help each other out, more so than there being different levels in the team. Were all a group.
In building a team full of rookies, Sung said his recruiting pitch was the program will win, something hes done at every stop of his coaching career. With the NCAA Tournament field recently expanded to 26 teams, the Big South Conference now has an automatic bid to the postseason. Sung plans to have his team in the tournament within three recruiting classes, a goal he emphasizes with potential players.
Its exciting, said Sung. One hundred years from now, theyre gonna say this is what started this program. You get to build the tradition; you get to show them how its done.
Ready for the first game?
Megan Wallenhorst will always be able to say she scored the first goal in Winthrop womens lacrosse history. With about 22 minutes left in the first half against Howard a week ago, the freshman from Elliott City, Md., etched her name in the history books with a goal-scoring whip of her stick, settling her teams jitters in the process.
Winthrop actually played scrimmages in the fall, but the games werent held in a stadium and there were few onlookers. When the stadium music blared on at Howard during warm-ups last Friday, Genovese could feel a difference among her rookie teammates.
You assume they know what you know, said Sung. Ive been doing this for so long that I just assume that its gonna happen. We hate saying this, but theyre just freshmen, and this is all new. Even though we had kids that were here, its still a first-time thing. Were not gonna feel comfortable until weve done this five, six times.
That goes for everyone else involved. From lining to the field to keeping the games stats correctly, its a new experience for almost anyone with a hand in the program.
I think by game two or three it should be good, said Sung, grinning. Game one is gonna be a little rough for everything from an operation standpoint. Theres gonna be hiccups, but theyve been preparing.
Everythings a first
After two years of construction, the roster is filled, the home jerseys have been doled out and the Cherry Road marquee is programmed with the game information, informing the endless flow of traffic about Friday nights momentous occasion.
In 20 years when the program is established it will be cool to look back and say I was at that game, I scored in that game, Genovese said.
On her way out of practice, she planned to stop by the Winthrop Athletic Complex marquee on Cherry Road to snap a photo of the sign, a keepsake for later gray-haired days.
Were very excited, said Genovese, an effusive New Yorker that will make a lot of friends in these parts. This is what weve been working toward for a very long time, so I hope we just take advantage of what we have tomorrow, our first home game. We can go undefeated on our home field.
Win or lose, Winthrop can enjoy the weightlessness of its first season. Sung and his team arent shackled by the expectations of past failures or successes.
Were gonna make a lot of mistakes, but the one word we use is improve, he said.
Everythings a first; whos gonna score the first home goal?
While he was being interviewed, assistant coach Amanda Shimp checked her phone to find an email from the Big South Conference.
Hayley Krause, who scored four goals against Howard, was named the conferences Offensive Player of the Week, while Wallenhorst earned Freshman of the Week honors, the first such awards for the program.
Its a season of firsts for Sung and his group; Friday night theyll cross another off the list.
Bret McCormick • 329-4032. Twitter: @BretJust1T