As lacrosse makes inroads into Arizona, ASU women launch their inaugural season
Courtney Martinez Connor has spent two full years building the Sun Devil women’s lacrosse team from scratch and she is ready for the start of the new team’s inaugural season on Feb. 9.
“It’s exciting for the university, the athletic department and the state to be the first Division 1 lacrosse program in the state of Arizona,” said Martinez Connor, who arrived as head coach at Arizona State University in early 2016 to create the program from the ground up.
“It’s finding space in the locker room. It’s ‘What are you going to wear?’ You need equipment, a staff, academic coaches, a trainer — everything the other teams already have in place,” she said.
“And then you have to find the players and convince them to come here and then train them to all be on the same page.
“What’s cool is you get to do it your way. But that short timeline is the toughest part.”
Lacrosse was announced as a new varsity women’s sport in 2015 as part of a $32 million donation to Sun Devils Athletics that elevated the men’s ice hockey team from a club sport to NCAA Division 1 level, as well as adding women’s triathlon.
The eastern part of the United States is a hotbed for lacrosse, while no western team has ever won the NCAA Division 1 women’s lacrosse title — or even made it to the finals. Three universities have dominated the last 10 championships: Maryland, North Carolina and Northwestern.
But the sport is making inroads in Arizona. The Arizona Interscholastic Association, the governing body for high school sports, does not sanction lacrosse, but a few dozen high schools in the Valley have club teams that play in independent leagues, drawing hundreds of teenagers.
Martinez Connor will bring a big dose of that lacrosse legacy to ASU. She played at the University of Maryland, where her team won five NCAA championships (1997-2001) and four Atlantic Coast Conference championships (1997, 1999-2001) in her time there. She then coached at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Mount St. Mary’s University before becoming a commentator for ESPN and the Big Ten Network.
When she was broadcasting, Martinez Connor would get offers to return to coaching, but no school was the right fit. When ASU announced it was adding the sport, she decided to visit and talk with Ray Anderson, vice president of university athletics.
“Ray told me, ‘There will never be another opportunity like this.’ And I knew it was true,” she said. “Never in a million years did I think Arizona State would be the place. It’s a desert. But I loved the people I met and I knew this is a place where I could build a national championship-caliber team.”
Once she committed, Martinez Connor said it wasn’t hard to draw talented players to sunny Tempe.
“The rest of the country is playing in snow right now,” she said, adding that Barrett, The Honors College was a major draw for several of the players.
The team members come from Texas, California, Georgia, New York, Colorado, Maryland, Washington, Missouri, Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Minnesota and Canada.
Head coach Courtney Martinez Connor gives instructions during practice at the Soccer Stadium. She won several national championships when she played for the University of Maryland, a lacrosse powerhouse.Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now
Goalie Berkeley Bonneau takes some shots during practice at the Soccer Stadium. She is a sophomore majoring in nursing. The Sun Devils women's lacrosse team opens its inaugural season against Kennesaw State in Georgia on Friday, Feb. 9.Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now
Rachel Gregory, who plays defense, runs through drills during practice at the Soccer Stadium. A transfer from Hofstra University, she is a junior majoring in sustainability and is one of the team captains.Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now
Rachel Gregory works with the other members of the Sun Devils women's lacrosse team during practice at the Soccer Stadium. The team opens its inaugural season by spending three weeks on the road before playing its first home game March 3.Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now
Last month, the team elected its captains — Kerri Clayton of Baltimore, a junior majoring in environmental design, and Rachel Gregory of Babylon, N.Y., a junior majoring in sustainability.
Clayton said the women have been working on bonding.
“We want to make sure we’re best friends on the field and off because it’s definitely correlated. You’ll make passes you wouldn’t make with a stranger,” she said.
Clayton said she’s run across some unfamiliarity with lacrosse among her fellow ASU students.
“They ask, ‘Is it a club team?’ People are like, ‘Oh, it’s a mix of rugby and field hockey and soccer, right?’ I tell them to just come out to a game.”
The Sun Devils could be part of another first: With ASU adopting women’s lacrosse for 2018, the Pac-12 conference reached the minimum number of teams required to create a championship in the sport, which will be held in April in Colorado. (The five other Pac-12 universities with women’s lacrosse teams are Stanford, USC, Cal, Colorado and Oregon.)
Martinez Connor knows the inaugural season will be a challenge.
“The coach in me wants to win every game but the realist in me wants us to just get better with every game,” she said.
But the chance to create something new is exciting for the entire team.
“We’re a part of building a tradition,” Martinez Connor said. “It says a lot when you can put your name to something and say ‘I helped to do that.’
“Not everybody can say that.”
The Sun Devils will spend the first three weeks of the season on the road, traveling to Georgia, Florida, San Diego and New York. Their first home game is 1 p.m. March 3 against Presbyterian. Admission is free for all home games at Sun Devil Soccer/Lacrosse Stadium. Find the schedule here.
Top photo: Junior Kerri Clayton runs a drill during practice. She is one of the team's captains. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now