When Michigan’s women’s lacrosse team takes the field for its first game Saturday at Villanova, coach Jenny Ulehla will have prepared for the moment for 900 days.
That’s how long it will have been since the former Maryland All-American was hired to build a Division I women’s program in Ann Arbor.
“Obviously, from the very first day I got this job, this was the moment that I was waiting for,” Ulehla said. “I’m incredibly excited and just really happy to be able to see these kids put on the Michigan jersey.”
Michigan is one of three programs to add Division I women’s lacrosse this season along with Colorado and Elon and it is the latest in a growing list of universities with major athletics programs to commit to the
sport, following such examples as Northwestern, Florida and Southern California.
Northwestern and Florida have set the bar high for young programs. The Wildcats won the first of their seven national championships in their fourth season as a resurrected varsity program and the Gators reached the national semifinals in just their third season.
Ulehla (pronounced yoo' lah lah) said expectations are high at Michigan but not quite that high – at least not yet.
“We’re not focused on winning a national championship this year,” she said. “We’re focused on building a culture that will help us to win a national championship. Our goal this year is to get better each and every day. We’re working on the foundation and trying to build something strong. As other classes continue to come in, if we get that right and it’s solid, we’ll be able to bring in more talent and continue to rise in the national rankings as each year goes on.”
Annapolis graduate Madeline Dion, a freshman attacker, opted for Michigan so she could be part of that.
“Being able to start a tradition, build a foundation, that was the biggest thing,” Dion said. “Our coach stresses the idea of a championship culture and that’s what we’re working toward. We've improved a lot since fall. We’re looking forward to getting started and we’re looking forward to what we’re going to be four years from now.”
Dion is one of five Wolverines from the Baltimore area along with Amanda Sutor, St. Paul’s, Allison Silber, McDonogh; Sara Beach, Towson; and Emma Guarino, Roland Park. Their coach knows about recruiting here; Ulehla is a Maryvale graduate.
Ulehla, who coached James Madison to six NCAA tournament appearances between 1994 and 2003, has experience with starting a program, having assisted Amanda O’Leary at Florida from 2008 through the Gators inaugural 2010 season.
“When I was at Florida with Mandee, we had high expectations and I think everyone thought we were crazy,” she said.
Uhlela has high expectations, especially for herself, but she has to put the brakes on a bit with a team that includes 26 freshmen and one sophomore and a schedule that includes No. 4 Northwestern, No. 5 Florida and No. 7 Penn State.
"My administrator reminds me that this is not as much of a sprint but more of a run -- not necessarily a
marathon. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s not going to take an incredible amount of time if we do it right. I think these other programs have made a statement and I think there’s a way to do it and it is really about building that foundation that first year. The wins and losses? Certainly we’re going to take our bumps and bruises, but each win, each loss we’re going to learn something from it so when we’re put back in that situation, hopefully we react differently and build off that.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge is having a team so young and inexperienced. Trying to develop leadership is a vastly different process when there are no upperclassmen to guide the younger players through the ups and downs on and off the field.
“With such a young group, leadership is definitely a challenge,” Ulehla said, “and getting them to understand what it takes as far as how hard you have to work each and every day. Normally it’s the seniors and juniors that teach you that. They all want to work hard, but this is the collegiate Division I level and trying to get them to understand that they can compete at a different level is usually generated by the upperclassmen, so that’s something that we continue to work on.”
Instead of naming team captains for the season, the Wolverines voted five players onto a leadership council and Ulehla is working with them to develop leadership skills and the confidence to guide their peers.
Dion said the players also look to assistant coach Casey Ancarrow for some of that guidance. Ancarrow, a John Carroll graduate, is just a year removed from being the Colonial Athletic Association Co-Player of the Year at James Madison.
“Being all the same age, it’s hard to find people to step up and take the role of the leader,” Dion said, “but they formed the leadership committee and it’s challenging for them, but they’re doing well. We’re learning every day.”
After Villanova, the Wolverines have their home opener Feb. 28 against Marquette before a southern road trip that ends with Florida. Three days later, they host Northwestern on March 11. After that, they make the first of two trips to the Baltimore area to play Johns Hopkins on March 16. They also play at Navy on April 5.