Courtney Martinez Connor never expected to take the job as head coach of the new Arizona State women’s lacrosse program when she visited the campus in October 2015.
The former UMBC and Mount St. Mary’s coach enjoyed working as a women’s lacrosse analyst for ESPN and the Big Ten Network. With four young children, her family was happily entrenched in Lutherville not far from where she and husband Casey Connor played high school lacrosse at Loch Raven and Calvert Hall, respectively, before becoming All-America defenders at Maryland.
“I always had said after leaving coaching to raise a family, that if the timing was right and it was a brand-new program in a warm locale, I would look long and hard, but I never thought of a state like Arizona. I thought maybe Florida or California,” Martinez Connor said. “I was still in broadcasting and it was, ‘Oh, just come look at things.’ I thought it would be like the other places. I’m just going to look and say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks. I like what I do.’ ”
Once in Tempe, though, the more she saw, the more she liked.
Citing the administration’s commitment to the sport, the supportive nature among coaches of different sports and the innovative culture for athletics, Martinez Connor couldn’t turn down the opportunity to build the Sun Devils’ program.
“I was sitting across from [vice president for university athletics Ray Anderson] at his big table and he said, ‘You know, there’s not going to be another opportunity at a place like this,’ and I called my husband immediately afterward and said, ‘I’m going to take this.’ He said, ‘What? Are you serious? This is Arizona. This is the desert,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, but what Ray said is a fact,’ ” said Martinez Connor, the daughter of former Orioles pitcher Tippy Martinez.
More than two years later, the Sun Devils made their debut as one of four new Division I programs. They round out the new Pac-12 conference with USC, Stanford, Colorado, California and Oregon. The conference champion will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Martinez Connor, 39, played on four national championship teams at Maryland and knows what it takes to build a nationally competitive program.
She and the Sun Devils aren’t looking that far ahead, but they know other programs at top athletic universities have developed quickly. In 2005, Northwestern became the first Division I team from outside the Eastern time zone to win a national title and the Wildcats did it in just their fourth season after their program was restarted. In 2011, Florida was ranked as high as No. 2 and reached the NCAA quarterfinals in its second season.
Martinez Connor has the Sun Devils off to a 4-1 start, with only a 14-13 loss to San Diego State. She’s doing it with a “melting-pot” team that includes players from 14 states and two Canadian provinces.
From the start, she set out to recruit players from all over the country. It wasn’t easy recruiting four classes at once and keeping an eye on next year’s freshman class, but she believes she found some diamonds in the rough.
She looked in nontraditional areas for players who were overlooked or recovering from injuries or had picked up the sport late.
“There was a multitude of reasons why kids from different states developed a little bit differently, and I think that’s neat and unique,” Martinez Connor said. “I think it’s a great melting-pot example that you can bring kids together from all walks of life and build something special.”
That’s one of the things that attracted freshman attacker Graci Fulkerson from North Carolina.
“As we started our group message as everyone was committing and they were saying where they were from, it was exciting for me because going along with why I chose to come out here was having new experiences, meeting new people from different places,” Fulkerson said. “Hearing about Arizona State starting a program was really cool, because it’s such a big school with a great athletic background and to be a part of the first team ever, you start the foundation and the pathway for the rest of the program. It’s just a special opportunity.”
With four wins in their first five games, the Sun Devils are building a solid foundation although the competition will get much tougher. Playing each Pac-12 team twice — including No. 13 USC as well as Colorado and Stanford, who have been flirting with the Top 20 — will give them a challenging schedule for a first-year program.
To prepare for Pac-12 Friday and Sunday away games, Martinez Connor took her team on the road early. They don’t play their first home game until Saturday.
As the only Division I program in Arizona, the Sun Devils have to fly everywhere. Only a handful of transfers with college lacrosse experience were used to long-distance trips, so the coach scheduled two East Coast road swings within the first three weeks of the season. After traveling to play USC on March 10, they’ll have two more regular-season Friday-Sunday trips as well as the Pac-12 tournament in Boulder, Colo., from April 26-29.
“I like that she got her team on the road to begin with," said Halley Quillinan Griggs, women’s editor for Inside Lacrosse, “because they need to learn how to travel and they need to learn how to play when they’re tired and when they’re on the road. I know they didn’t play the strongest opponents based on [strength of schedule], but I think it’s great for her to get her program off on winning ways playing some good competition on the road.”
While Martinez Connor said fatigue set in during their second game in Florida, a 15-13 win over Stetson on Feb. 11, they held on as the opponent scored the final six goals. In the Sun Devils’ second game of last weekend’s trip to New York, just the opposite happened as they rallied from an early six-goal deficit to finish with a 6-0 run and beat Columbia, 15-12.
Junior attacker Kerri Clayton, a transfer from Jacksonville who played for Martinez Connor during a short coaching stint at St. Paul’s, said playing a complete game has been one of the team’s goals.
“We talk a lot about competing for a full 60 minutes and I think that can be tough,” Clayton said, stressing that most of the players are new to college lacrosse. “It’s pushing our mental toughness. When we go play these Pac-12 schools, they might have more talent, but we’re not going to let anyone outwork us. That’s something we saw against Columbia when we came back from six goals down to win.”
Clayton, who has scored 24 goals and ranks third in Division I with 4.8 goals per game, is one of two Baltimore-area players on the team along with freshman attacker Maura Cissel, an Annapolis graduate.
Cissel, who returned in January from a torn ACL, is sidelined for up to six weeks with another knee injury. She’s not alone, however, as the Sun Devils roster of 40 has been trimmed to 22 for the moment by injuries of many types.
Still, Martinez Connor said that’s part of the growing process for a young team as players learn to deal with the types of adversity that can affect any team. The goal remains the same.
“We have a tough schedule,” she told her team, “so let’s not focus on the wins and the losses. Let’s look to compete and improve each and every game. … We don’t come out and say, ‘Oh, we’re looking to make it to the semifinals.’ I think that sets up any young team for failure because that’s looking too far ahead. We look in the present — what do we need to do today in practice, what do we need tomorrow, what do we need to do each and every day, what is our focus and how do we need to plan right now to be the best that we can be?”