Head coach Emily Boissonneault gathered her team for the first time following their warmup last Monday. It was the first of many huddles during the practice, but this one was different.
Boissonneault and her staff weren’t the only people standing in front of the players. Athletic Director Heather Lyke made the trip to the Pitt Sports dome to usher in a new chapter of Pitt athletics. The players got together to break the huddle before energetically running to separate sides of the dome for individual drills.
The women’s lacrosse program’s first official practice as a varsity level team was in session.
Pitt women’s lacrosse will take the field for the first time in spring 2022. It’s also the first time since 1997 that Pitt Athletics has a new varsity team. It’s a monumental challenge competing in the ACC as a first-year program, but that didn’t deter the team from jumping into its first fall practice with an abundance of enthusiasm — something senior midfielder Payton Reed considers paramount as the team begins to gel.
“What our team needs right now is a lot of motivation and a lot of energy throughout practice,” Reed said. “Keeping the positive attitude up so that we can keep pushing each other.”
The entire two-hour practice featured nonstop energy from the new team. As they progressed from one drill to another, the encouragement and cheers grew louder and more competitive — a Division I level practice was in session.
Exhausted by the end of the workout — which concluded with a full-field scrimmage — the players chatted with each other on the sideline, visibly encouraged by what they’d seen from each other between the lines. Although the number of women on the team more than doubled since last year, graduate student midfielder Chloe Jones said transitioning to a cohesive unit went seamlessly.
“I don’t think there was at all a chemistry issue today,” Jones, a graduate student transfer midfielder from the University of Virginia, said. “It was really cool to watch everyone come together, and it felt like we had all been playing together for a really long time.”
There’s been a lot of work behind the scenes to prepare for the upcoming season. Pitt Athletics announced it would add women’s lacrosse almost three years ago, but a Division I athletics program isn’t built overnight. The athletic department needed to find someone to lead the team, and they found that person in Boissonneault.
A former standout player at Detroit Mercy, the new head coach has plenty of experience in collegiate lacrosse. Her last season as associate head coach for James Madison University in 2018 concluded with a national championship for the Dukes. Boissonneault signed the program’s first five players in 2019 and started building a roster.
This group would go on to grow to 14 soon after and continued to expand as Boissonneault continued to build a competitive culture. Despite not officially having scheduled games, the team participated in daily practices as well as team-building activities the past few years.
At the core of the new program are athletes who have been practicing with the team for a few years now. Players like Reed experienced Pitt lacrosse at a multitude of levels — first at the club level and now on the ACC stage.
Combining the new and old eras of the program into a unified team is a high priority, and Boissonneault acknowledged that all returning, new and transfer players are very close-knit from what she’s seen in practices.
“I’m pretty pleased to say that I think already our returners have said they’ve spent more time together as a team than they did last year, and there was only 14 of them,” Boissonneault said. “The transfers all have past experiences that I’m really excited to bring. There’s a higher expectation for them to help this program be special.”
Boissonneault has ideas for who is going to step into a leadership role this season, but doesn’t expect them to exclusively be players with power-five experience. One player the head coach says to keep an eye on is graduate transfer defender Therese Pitman, who played collegiate level lacrosse at a smaller program, Siena College, before joining the Panthers.
“We talk about Therese Pitman all the time,” Boissonneault said. “She’s an incredible leader, she really engaged with the University last year, she comes from a smaller, mid-major school. The special thing is that anyone can step up in any moment and I think everyone on this team is capable of doing that.”
The idea that any single player can become a team leader is one that resounds throughout the program. Reed voiced similar praises about the team’s mentality — that anyone can step up and be a leader.
“We have girls from such diverse backgrounds, but the one common thing we have is that no one has played for the Pitt [Division I] lacrosse team before,” Reed said. “Every single person on this team has the opportunity to be a leader and to lead in their own different way. Every single one of us can step up.”
She and the rest of the coaching staff emphasize a strong culture in the program’s infancy. That mindset radiated to the players, according to Jones, and helped them thrive at what they do best.
“They’re looking to everyone for everyone to bring what they have to the table – everyone has something different,” Jones said, “They’ve been so encouraging, so positive, I’ve never experienced something like this. They’re so involved with everything that we’re doing and it’s been a really great standard for us to step up to.”
Leadership, chemistry and intensity are three qualities that shine through as the Panthers’ strengths. But the team will face more than a few learning curves going into the season.
With more than 20 players who have yet to play in their first college game, the new players will rely heavily on experienced transfers such as Jones to dictate the pace of play during practice.
“I love running fast, I love pushing fast breaks so I think it helps everyone also pick up their speed when they play,” Jones said. “Just coming out in the ACC and playing strong and playing hard and fast and giving it everything we have is going to be the biggest thing for us.”
Regardless of how Pitt women’s lacrosse fares in its first ACC season, fielding a team and beginning their schedule is a monumental step forward. The emphasis is on building the program for years to come. But Boissonneault, her staff and players are far too competitive to let that be their only goal for the season.
“I want to come in and I want to make a splash in the ACC, everyone on this team does,” Boissonneault said. “We want to play hard in that conference and we want to compete.”
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