Feb. 19, 2013
DAVIS, Calif. - In taking over as the third head coach in UC Davis women's lacrosse history, Kate Henwood established her goal quite simply: to raise the level of expectations. Thus, it seems more than appropriate that the Aggies would kick off their 2013 season - and Henwood's first as a collegiate head coach - against Florida, the No. 3 team in the country.
In fairness, this game was not Henwood's debut by design. She largely inherited the 2013 schedule, including Friday's contest in Gainesville. Furthermore, the former Villanova assistant was even advised to cancel it by a few well-meaning coaching colleagues.
"They said it's not a good way to start my career or to start the season. I just laughed at them," said Henwood. "If you're not competing at that level, what's the point? I didn't come out here to be mediocre. I came out to change the program and to elevate the level of play. If these athletes don't see what the best in the nation is doing, how will they ever get there themselves? So we couldn't be more excited about playing Florida."
In a nutshell, that statement encapsulates the level of energy Henwood and her assistants Amanda Kammes and Hilary Harkins have injected in what they have declared as a "new era" of UC Davis women's lacrosse. Both on and off the field, the staff has worked hard to get all Aggie players, whether a fourth-year starting senior to a true freshman, to buy into the new change of culture.
The new-look program has unprecedented conditioning workouts and strict rules for academic progress.
On the field, according to Henwood, fans will see a style of offense that is different from anything ever run at UC Davis. Kammes coached basketball for five years at American University and her alma mater Penn; as such, she injects her hardcourt sense to women's lacrosse. Henwood is unabashed in her admiration of the men's lacrosse, and thus has drawn from that sport in engineering her style of game.
"I think you'll see a high-paced offense. It's not very complex but it does keep defenses on their toes," said Henwood. "It's very active, with a lot of basketball and men's lacrosse concepts. Amanda and I have worked intensely on bringing those sports together and making them work in a women's lacrosse arena. Defensively, we will be very disciplined and aggressive. The saying goes that your best offense is a great defense, and ours will do a great job keeping us in those tight games."
The way the team finishes said tight games is another high priority for the 2013 team. Last year, UC Davis led Oregon by a 13-10 margin with 20 minutes remaining, only to see it wither into a 16-13 loss. The Aggies held a 17-13 lead over Stanford, also with 20 minutes left. Again, the Cardinal finished strong and sniped a 19-18 win. Then on the following weekend, UC Davis surrendered a 6-1 run in the final 20 minutes, giving Fresno State its first-ever Mountain Pacific Sports Federation victory. Had even two of those games gone the other way, the Aggies would have earned a seat in the four-team MPSF tournament.
If Henwood has her way, such events will not transpire in the upcoming season. "Another emphasis is in finishing games and not losing focus," she said. "Even in every drill we do, we give more points for the last couple of minutes. Part of that is having leadership on the field. We might not have a timeout left so players have to recognize those moments and respond in the appropriate way. If our leaders get down on themselves, that's when they'll fold."
If any group is positioned to assume that leadership role, it is the Aggie senior class. Collectively, the fivesome of Elizabeth Datino, Hannah Mirza, Stephanie Guercio, Tess Alekna and Anna Geissbuhler cover all parts of the field, hold or at least threaten five major program records, and account for 134 of the 201 goals scored by UC Davis returners last year. Datino represented the lion's share of that offense, as her 6.31 points per game led all NCAA players in 2012. Datino and Mirza each earned some form of All-MPSF honors last year, while Datino became the program's first IWLCA All-Region honoree in the Division I era.
Despite its advantage in experience, the senior class largely bears the toughest burden in adjusting to a new coach and a new style of play. After all, they are the most ingrained in program's old ways. Fortunately, Henwood praises the manner in which her veterans have bought into the new culture.
"Players like Datino and Stephanie each had a rough fall but they are especially starting to come into their own," said Henwood. "Stephanie is so athletic and Datino is such a threat offensively that having them find their rhythm is really well-timed for us. Hannah has been consistent for us in the midfield. Anna is another one who has started to find her rhythm. Tess is a vocal player who can really relate to others well, and the other players relate to her. She can be a coach on the field."
"The seniors are a special group. They each bring something very different to the table and they are all different personality-wise. Because of that, they can all lead in a different way."
Henwood's call to her seniors to step up as team leaders is well-founded, given the size and scope of the underclass. Three of the seven returning sophomores - namely 2012 MPSF Newcomer of the Year Elizabeth Landry, midfielder Allie Lehner and defensive wing Sara Quero - started all 16 games in their rookie seasons last year. A fourth, center Meghan Jordan, started 10 games in 2011 before sitting out last season due to injury. On top of that, Henwood anticipates getting playing time to at least a few of her freshmen.
"We have some great players in the upper classes but also in our young talent. Our sophomores and freshmen have really come on strong and we'll see a lot of starters out of those younger classes. They were the most eager to take new risks and try a new system. The fact that they are as athletic as they are - and yet I have two or three more years with them - is really encouraging."
Besides the assets in the field, Aggie fans can expect great strides from the goalies Jordan Majka and Kai Murphy, thanks in part to the arrival of volunteer assistant Hilary Harkins. A 2008 graduate of UC Davis, Harkins earned the unique honor of being named to the U.S. national development team during her collegiate career. She holds both season and career saves records at her alma mater, and has graciously returned to the program to work specifically with the goalkeepers.
In fact, Harkins becomes the first goalie to serve on the Aggie staff since 2002, when former Hofstra netminder Mike Demeo was an assistant; and the first goalies-only coach on the UC Davis staff. Previous staffs were blessed with gifted assistant coaches - Kristen Waagbo was a two-time All-American at Duke, while Nina Pantano graduated as one of Stanford's all-time offensive and defensive leaders - but none who could devote entire practices to the one position.
"Hilary has been excellent. We are really lucky to have her," said Henwood. "One of my concerns was not having a goalie coach because I think it's essential for a Division I program to have that position-specific instruction. The fact that we had a former U.S. national team goalie, who is an alum, who is living in Davis, who is willing to come be our coach... that's a dream come true and a perfect match."
As a result, the overall depth of Henwood's team extends to the crease, where both Majka and Murphy are expected to challenge each other for goalie minutes. "It's still a toss-up everyday because they both bring something different. Kai is more technically sound but Jordan has that raw athleticism. We've been working on each with their different strengths and weaknesses, and both are ready to be big contributors this year."
Finally, Henwood's elevated level of expectations applies to the conference season, a focus for any team in any sport. The MPSF coaches voted UC Davis sixth in the rapidly expanding field, behind second-year San Diego State. Henwood would like to defy those predictions, hopefully in the ultimate manner.
"Our goal is to win the MPSF," she said, again putting her objectives succinctly. "I think you have to have that goal in any conference you compete in. The other teams are talented, experienced and they are comfortable in the systems they run. Oregon, Denver and Stanford are really good programs. But from what I've seen of them and what I've seen from us on a daily basis, I believe that we can absolutely compete with them. We have the personnel, the depth and the energy and excitement. We just haven't proven it yet. We've had some kinks and we're still learning the system. But we still have some time and what I think will be the biggest games are at the end of the season."
In fact, the Aggies' final two regular-season games are against Oregon and Stanford, respectively the defending champion and the preseason No. 1 pick in the conference. Henwood predicts those two games will decide the entire face of the MPSF postseason, much in the way the UC Davis-Stanford game did last year. Her team already showed tremendous progress from the fall scrimmages to those at the Stanford Playday two weeks ago, so Henwood hopes the upswing will hit its apex in April against the Ducks, Cardinal and preseason No. 3 Denver (Apr. 7).
Until then, both the coaches and the players have their sights set on Friday's opener with Florida. The goal, says Henwood, mirrors the same "Aggie Pride" belief system that vaulted UC Davis athletics to the same quantum leaps she hopes for her program. "We want to out-work them. We can't control if they're faster or taller or stronger. But we can control how hard we work.
"The way I look at it, if we're going to travel 2,800 miles and have 40 practices from January 7 to that game, what would be the point in giving anything but our absolute best effort?" she added. "Our goal is to come out of that game and be proud of the effort we put out on the field."
Friday's opener with the Gators takes place at 3:30 p.m. Pacific time. The Aggies conclude their opening weekend at first-year program Stetson on Sunday. The first draw against the Hatters will be 11 a.m. PST.