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New women's pro league debuts on Saturday in Annapolis

Jenna Collins figured her lacrosse playing career would be over whenever Navy played its final game of the 2018 season.

Collins had hoped that would be the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, but it came a week earlier when Navy dropped a 17-15 thriller to top-seeded Maryland in the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals.

However, it turns out Collins has not hung up her stick for good just yet. The three-time Patriot League Midfielder of the Year found out a few months ago that she had been drafted by the Baltimore Brave of the fledgling Women’s Professional Lacrosse League (WPLL).

“I remember getting an email from Coach (Cindy) Timchal informing of my selection in the WPLL draft,” Collins said. “I thought that was pretty cool, but wasn’t sure if I would be able to play because of my military commitments.”

Collins spoke with her commanding officers and discovered she could play for the Baltimore franchise this summer. As a result, the River Hill High graduate will make a triumphant return to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium when the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League debuts on Saturday (4 p.m.) in Annapolis.

Collins is one of several players with local ties who will lead the Baltimore Brave against the Philadelphia Fire in the opener of a doubleheader being hosted by the Chesapeake Bayhawks of Major League Lacrosse. The Bayhawks will host the Ohio Machine in the nightcap, which begins at 7 p.m.

“This is a once-in-lifetime opportunity so I decided to go for it,” said Collins, who is missing a trip to Cancun with the rest of the Navy women’s lacrosse seniors to celebrate graduation in order to play in Saturday’s contest. “When I found out the first game was at Navy-Marine Corps I was so excited. It’s incredible for me to be able to play on that field one more time.”

Baltimore and Philadelphia are among five franchises in the WPLL along with the New England Command, New York Fight and Upstate Pride. Each team has four games scheduled during this inaugural season with the top four making the playoffs. Semifinals are scheduled for Thursday, July 12 at West Chester University with the WPLL championship game slated for July 14 at Tierney Field on the campus of US Lacrosse headquarters in Sparks, Maryland.

“I’m hoping to play in as many games as possible depending on my schedule,” said Collins, who is on leave for a month before reporting to flight school at Naval Air Station Pensacola on June 30.

The Women’s Professional Lacrosse League is the brainchild of legendary player and entrepreneur Michelle DeJuliis, who starred at Loch Raven High and Penn State. The US Lacrosse Hall of Famer served as commissioner of the United Women’s Lacrosse League (UWLX) the previous two years before deciding to form a competitive entity.

“I tried to leave the UWLX on good terms. We didn’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on some of the things that were happening. Ultimately, I wish them the best,” said DeJuliis, who spent 15 years with the United States women’s national team.

Gary Gait succeeded DeJuliis as commissioner of the UWLX, which has no intention of folding in the face of competition from the WPLL. As a result, the WPLL and UWLX will conduct simultaneous seasons this summer – a situation that forced many players to choose one or the other.

South River High graduate Brooke Griffin played for the Baltimore Pride of the UWLX in 2016, but is now a member of the Baltimore Brave of the WPLL. The former University of Maryland All-American did not play pro lacrosse last summer because she was helping the United States capture the gold medal at the Federation of International Lacrosse World Cup.

“It does stink that there are two leagues. You would hope the whole women’s lacrosse world would be united behind just one league,” Griffin said. “What the WPLL is representing is something I want to be part of. It’s not just about lacrosse, but also player development. It’s about pushing the boundaries and giving players an opportunity to reach their full potential. It’s also about character, leadership and personal responsibility off the field.”

DeJuliis, who holds the title of founder and CEO, said the WPLL is both a professional lacrosse league and a development program. She said the WPLL was founded on the premise of being “for players, by players” and is committed to advancing the sport of women’s lacrosse at all levels.

“We feel there is a responsibility to take these women who are the best of the best and connect them with next generation of players. We need to do that wherever and whenever we can,” DeJuliis said. “The WPLL was born with the ideals of mentorship, instruction and character development in mind.”

To that end, the WPLL has created a Futures program designed to identify top talent and nurture it through instructional clinics, leadership seminars and competition. There will be 12 one-day regional tryouts across the country leading up to a three-day “summit” July 10-12 at West Chester University.

“Whatever money is derived from the Futures program will go directly to pay the salaries of our players,” DeJuliis said.

DeJuliis said another goal of the WPLL is to make women’s lacrosse attractive to the International Olympic Committee for possible inclusion in future summer games. Several rules changes have been initiated in hopes of achieving that goal.

Fans attending Saturday’s Baltimore versus Philadelphia contest will be introduced to a shot clock, 2-point shot, different field markings and 15-minute quarters.

“We’re changing the game to make it faster-paced and ultimately more fan-friendly,” DeJuliis said. “We want to develop an exciting product that will help propel our sport into the Olympics.”

Annapolis resident and women’s lacrosse legend Cathy Samaras has seen several attempts to develop a professional outlet for the sport.

In December, 2001, Samaras helped organize a professional women’s lacrosse indoor game between the Washington Power and Rochester at the old Capital Centre in Landover. She was also involved with a women’s professional lacrosse outdoor all-star game, which was held as part of a doubleheader with the Boston Cannons of Major League Lacrosse in July, 2002.

Such legendary players and World Cup veterans as Cristi Samaras (Princeton), Kelly Amonte Hiller (Maryland), Jen Adams (Maryland), Cherie Greer (Temple), Sarah Nelson (Harvard) and Danielle Gallagher (William & Mary) participated.

Samaras and her daughters, who operate a women’s lacrosse company known as Synapse Sports, have thrown their full support behind the WPLL. Crista Samaras, founder and CEO of Brave Enterpises, has signed on as a sponsor and partner of the fledgling league.

“I would love to see a league take off that provides women with an opportunity to play lacrosse post-collegiately,” Cathy Samaras said. “There have been many attempts to do so and I think the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League has a good plan and a sound model.”

A huge factor for Samaras is the leadership of DeJuliis, who has been close friends with her daughter Crista since high school and is pretty much considered part of the family.

“DJ will make things happen at the proper pace and in the right order,” Samaras said, using the nickname for DeJuliis. “I think she has put the right people in place who know what they are doing and know how to make it happen. This league will probably stand a much better chance of being a viable operation under the leadership of DJ because she is doing things correctly.”

DeJuliis named Adams, longtime head coach at Loyola-Maryland University, as commissioner of the WPLL. Towson head coach Sonia LaMonica is leading the Baltimore Brave while Georgetown head coach Ricky Fried is directing the Philadelphia Fire.

Naturally, DeJuliis believes the WPLL has attracted almost all the top players with many defecting from the UWLX. Three-time Tewaaraton Award winner Taylor Cummings is playing for the New York Fight along with while 2017 recipient and fellow Maryland alum Zoe Stukenberg. Griffin is among several U.S. national team members on the various rosters.

“We are committed to fielding the top talent available in the WPLL,” DeJuliis said.

Samaras used her connections to help broker the agreement for the WPLL to make its debut as part of a doubleheader with the Chesapeake Bayhawks on Saturday. The Long Island Lizards of MLL will host a doubleheader featuring a WPLL game between New York and Upstate.

“We are absolutely thrilled to be able to showcase the league at a phenomenal venue such as Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium and to work closely with the Chesapeake Bayhawks and Major League Lacrosse,” DeJuliis said.

Griffin, who is currently a volunteer assistant coach at Towson University under LaMonica, has been working hard to get back into top shape and has been polishing the stick skills in preparation for the upcoming season.

“I just got done shooting on Kelsea Donnelly, our goalie,” Griffin said of the former Towson standout. “It’s like riding a bike once you get out there on the field. I’m playing with the best players in the world so I’m sure they’ll make me look good.”

Kari Ellen Johnson (Broadneck, Maryland) is also on the Baltimore Brave while Lauren Lea (Archbishop Spalding, Florida) is playing for Philadelphia. Stephanie Lazo (St. Mary’s, Penn State) and Sarah Lloyd (Severna Park, Princeton) are members of the New England Command along with Navy assistants Gabby Capuzzi and Aly Messinger.

PRO CLINIC: Members of the Baltimore and Philadelphia teams will participate in a WPLL-sponsored pregame clinic, being held Saturday (12:30-2:30 p.m.) at Germantown Elementary. Youngsters of all ages are welcome to attend the clinic, which was organized by Stephy Samaras and Quick Stix Lacrosse and costs $40.

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