Feb 08, 2016
Call it a leap of faith.
When Jen O'Brien accepted the position of women's lacrosse head coach at VCU in the summer of 2013, she knew the job would come with some lumps.
She would be starting from scratch in terms of recruiting, there would be no history to sell to up-and-coming blue-chip prospects, and seldom do new Division I athletic programs enjoy success right out of the gate. The last time VCU started an athletic program was in 1995 with the advent of the women's soccer team. It took eight years for that program to carve out a winning record, and it went 51-77 in that span.
But O'Brien was counting on her recruits to share her dream, which was writing the program's history instead of following it.
"I didn't know how hard it would be. I definitely had the rose-colored glasses on," said O'Brien, who made coaching stops at Stanford and Johns Hopkins before arriving at VCU. "For some reason, when I first got into coaching at Stanford, the idea I always had was to start a program. I wasn't aware of how they start, but I knew I wanted to have the ability to create a culture and values and philosophies. There are a lot of amazing things I've been a part of and I've pooled them for this opportunity. We could have something special."
Something special is indeed about to begin on the Richmond campus, where Twitter followers are excited to see the Fastest Game On Two Feet On Cary Street. The women's lacrosse team begins its inaugural season Feb. 14 with a home game against Gardner-Webb.
"Honestly I can't believe it's finally here. I've never been more excited for anything in my life," said defensive middie Sky Hyatt. "The anticipation has been keeping me going. We're going to come out on fire."
Hyatt's background helps tell the story of how O'Brien sold student-athletes on joining a start-up program rather than an established one like defending national champion Maryland or national finalist North Carolina. Hyatt is one of an eight-member recruiting class, O'Brien's first. She's a sophomore academically but has four years of athletic eligibility.
O'Brien played her high school lacrosse at South Carroll in Sykesville, Maryland, a neighboring school of Century High School, Hyatt's alma mater. Both schools are located in Carroll County, about an hour drive northwest of Baltimore city. O'Brien maintains the highest respect for the level of play in her lacrosse-crazy home state, and home seemed the logical place to start recruiting.
"I tore my ACL my junior year and made up my mind not to play (college lacrosse)," Hyatt said. "I had visited some schools for academic reasons, but then I fell in love with Richmond and Coach Jen. She said, 'I know you were hurt, but you have a whole year to train and get better.' Coach Jen put the spark in me. Now, I can't imagine not being on this team."
While O'Brien's leap of faith to accept the VCU post was the first step, she needed to convince high school seniors to take that same leap. Well, it turns out O'Brien is one heck of a salesperson.
"The way she talked, I have never heard someone talk so highly of a program not in place yet," said attacker Chloe Mujwit (Weston, Fla.), another member of O'Brien's first recruiting class. "She convinced me it was something I couldn't miss, that if I didn't take this chance I would regret it. I was waiting for one school to stand out and VCU was that place. Her positive attitude was unbelievable.
"We are doing something no one else can say they're doing. We're going to make our own history. It's going to be a very cool and rewarding experience, to go through this with coaches and teammates, to know you left your mark."
Starting from scratch did not come without its challenges. For the last two years O'Brien has overseen VCU's club lacrosse team. To use her words, she had to start at the drawing board to see what her players could do. In the fall of 2014, O'Brien welcomed all club players to try out for the varsity. Two made the cut, junior attackers Megan Williamson (Purcellville, Va.) and Zohra Allen (Nokesville, Va.). Both are considered redshirt freshmen.
Williamson suffered a herniated disc in her back as a junior in high school and said she accepted the fact she may not play Division I lacrosse. She credits O'Brien with renewing her love of the sport.
"I'm just really excited. I never expected this to happen," Williamson said. "I love the structure. Playing club was fun for a year or two but it made me miss having a team with girls who wanted to be there. The drive behind why they are there makes a huge difference."
The VCU roster is an interesting read. Seven states are represented from up and down the eastern seaboard, but every soul listed on the 23-person team is a freshman or redshirt freshman. To her credit, O'Brien never saw the lack of upperclassmen as a drawback when she began building the program. In fact, she told her recruits to allow her and assistants Meg Decker and Tara Coyle to shoulder the pressure.
"Because we didn't have a established history, the coaches told us, 'we all care about you and you need to trust us, and when we get through this it will be worth it,'" said defender Kelly O'Brien (Drexel Hill, Pa.). "They said, 'we will be your upperclassmen.' That's hard to get out of coaches. They care, and Coach Jen was so sweet and genuine. I knew it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up."
Despite the anticipated pitfalls, O'Brien is not the least bit intimidated by the road ahead. In fact, she said she expects the Rams to compete for the Atlantic 10 title.
"We know people have laughed at us when we say that, and we work that much harder when we hear that," O'Brien said. "The top six go into the tournament, and we know that's a different ballgame, but that's when we hope to be peaking. My favorite thing about our girls is they don't care who they're stepping on the field against. They have bought in and that is their goal. I know there are plenty of people happy with .500 season. Probably some in the athletic department would say that. You know what we say? UMass has been there for six years and it's time for a new team to take over. We think we match up well against the teams in our conference.
"We want to have the best stickwork, be the most competitive and the most fit, because when your legs go your brain goes, and we can't afford that because we're so young. If we have those three things we will be successful."