It’s not easy to start a professional sports league, but five years in the Baltimore City Police Department and as part of the SWAT team taught Michele DeJuliis not to give up.
In a personal history dominated by lacrosse stories, DeJuliis’ time as a member of the SWAT team and then as a detective in Baltimore seems like an anomaly, a “crazy” life experience, as DeJuliis calls it. But it fits DeJuliis’ mission to help people, which drove her to her next step: founding the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League.
DeJuliis, a Loch Raven High graduate, has an extensive list of lacrosse achievements. She was a four-time All-American at Penn State, where she finished eighth on the school’s all-time scoring list with 142 goals and sixth with 203 points. She captained the United States national team to World Cup gold in 2009. She coached at Centennial High, Penn State, Princeton and for the U.S. World Cup team. She was inducted into the Greater Baltimore Chapter of the US Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2008 and into the national chapter in 2013.
But her experiences revealed a greater need.
She saw a lack of exposure for lacrosse, a lack of opportunities for women’s players and a lack of confidence in the young girls learning to play.
DeJuliis, 44, said she learned to always have hope and to be a problem solver from her experience in the Baltimore police department, where she said she dealt with people who had “given up on their own lives” as they lived in poverty, facing drug addictions and violence every day.
From the intense, life-threatening missions with the SWAT team to the everyday interactions with a group of girls, trying to keep them on the straight and narrow, DeJuliis was answering the need she saw in the community. In her time off, she continued training for lacrosse because she’s “someone who likes to handle a lot at once.”
Five years after joining the force, an opportunity to coach at Princeton came along. DeJuliis took it. It was time to get out, she knew, because she could see herself becoming hardened. But as a coach, she could continue filling her desire to help others, and she took with her the mindset of determination.
The lessons she learned as a police officer, on top of her own personal drive, pushed her to create her own league to address the problems she saw in women’s lacrosse, rather than sit by passively.
The WPLL is a two-part operation. On one end, it’s a developmental program that “prioritize[s] character development as a means to excelling in life on and off of the field,” according to its website.
“I felt the responsibility to ... take our pros and connect them with that next generation,” DeJuliis said. “There are young girls that are really looking up to these pros.”
On the other end, the WPLL is a professional league that’s “by the players and for the players,” DeJuliis said.
The league gives women the opportunity to give back to their communities and to play the sport they love outside of a national team after graduation. In its second season, the league changed from a traditional format with teams based in specific cities to a barnstorming circuit. Instead of having teams based in Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and New England, the league held games over six weekends in Baltimore; Foxborough, Massachusetts; Richmond, Virginia; Long Island, New York; and New Haven, Connecticut.
“I just want to continually work every day to provide as much opportunity for them [as possible],” DeJuliis said. “Everything that we do is with [the players] in the front of our minds. And we know that if we continue to do right by them, they’ll succeed.”
When Shannon Smith, the Hofstra women’s lacrosse coach, heard about the league from DeJuliis, she wanted to get involved to help other women be successful. She is now the head coach of the Fight, and she thinks the WPLL is helping her accomplish that.
“[The league] is giving an opportunity for female athletes to feel empowered, to feel strong and to have the opportunity to be a professional athlete,” Smith said.
A year after the WPLL formed, the men’s Premier Lacrosse League started, and it adopted many of the same mantras, such as “by the players, for the players.”
“To be the first to kind of separate ourselves as a group of players who create our own league … and then to see the men do it just a year later, I think just reiterates the importance of it,” said Dana Dobbie, a player on the Brave and and assistant coach at Loyola Maryland.
It’s rare for a women’s league to pave the way for a men’s league, and Paul Rabil, the founder of the PLL, reached out to DeJuliis when he first heard about the WPLL.
“He [said], ‘I wish you the best of luck. I love what you’re doing,’ ” DeJuliis said. “It was just super, super supportive — and it was just a simple email.”
Rabil talked to DeJuliis as he formed the PLL. He immediately created a partnership with the WPLL to help establish equality between the two leagues and to create a platform to share ideas.
Rabil and DeJuliis said the leagues are working toward the same goal: making lacrosse part of the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.
Olympic recognition would “mean everything,” said Dobbie, who played on the Canadian national team.
“You want to not only represent your country but you want to represent your country with the chance of winning an Olympic gold medal,” Dobbie said. The exposure could also help increase lacrosse participation around the country.
Dobbie said the sport is close to Olympic recognition, but they only have “one shot at it,” so it’s important that the men’s and women’s games align as much as possible. Both Rabil and DeJuliis have established different, nontraditional rules in their leagues to create consistency and make the game more attractive to fans.
Occupied by trying to run a league, grow a sport and achieve Olympic goals, DeJuliis is always doing a “million different things,” Dobbie said.
But she still shows up on game day, no matter what. She might not throw on a jersey like Rabil (“I’m a bit older than Paul,” DeJuliis said), but she loves seeing how competitive the teams are.
Smith said DeJuliis is invested in the players themselves and is a role model for players.
“I just think at all levels, she’s left a strong mark,” Dobbie said “She’s been a trailblazer … whether you played with her or against her, she’s just someone that resonates with you.”