With sweaty, anxious, headphone-wrapped hands in their pockets, 18 women file out of multiple white Ford university-issued vans on Mizzou’s campus. The sun threatens above on an afternoon full of Tulsa’s royal blue and Missouri’s gold and black. Arm over arm, and fingers pressed against each other’s backs, the UNL women’s lacrosse team hovers over the uncut, dewy grass. Chants echo against the silver bleachers slowly filling with fans.
It is just days before a pandemic will sweep the nation.
The white solid rubber ball drops to signal the start of the game. Scraping her toes against the sole of her cleats, junior club vice president Ayla Volante lunges forward for possession of a ball that she will not competitively see again for 18 months. This is the last tournament that the team will compete in together until spring of 2022.
“We never got to say our parting words,” Volante said.
Now they are a year and a half deep in tournament drought.
Historically, women’s lacrosse is popular along the Eastern Seaboard, making up 81% of the 117 Division I schools. Six are in the Midwest, and Nebraska is not one of them.
But that’s not stopping a group of UNL coeds from playing the game.
“It’s a lot harder to get people to come to practice if there’s nothing you are working toward,” said junior club president, Natalie Underhill. “Whereas now we have a season, so it is a lot easier to bring girls in.”
Striking across Lincoln’s Fleming Fields, their sights are set on new members, new fundraisers and new equipment — all with a scarred president.
New members and equipment
That same president is a native of Naperville, Ill. She is still healing from an ankle injury from the end of last season. A scar about six inches long travels up the side of her leg.
“It was during practice,” Underhill said. “I stepped one way and then went to go another way, and I broke all three bones.”
However, the lacrosse she broke her ankle playing today is not the same game she played freshman year of high school.
“Lacrosse is a growing sport, and even just in the past few years, it’s really grown in the Midwest as a whole,” Underhill said. “The fact that the sport is growing in the state of Nebraska is helping us a lot.”
Senior Jimmy Moran, a former two-term president of the UNL men’s club lacrosse team, is one of four coaches for the women’s club, which he knew when it had two members. It took a few recent graduates dusting off their 42-inch sticks to finally make Nebraska feel like home.
“My freshman year, they didn’t exist,” Moran said. “It wasn’t really a big thing. Then a couple of the girls in the grade above me — Emily Olsen and Brooke Strenke kicked it into overdrive and built it up quite a bit. We helped them start it out: We split costs for balls, we split costs for apparel. Now, they are on their feet, and they typically have more people at a practice than we do, so it’s like, ‘Hey, slow down.’”
In addition, Lincoln has lacrosse leagues and organizations like the Lincoln Liberty Lacrosse, Lincoln Junior Rampage and Lincoln Youth Lacrosse. The Lincoln Youth Lacrosse continues to increase its numbers, seeing a jump from 17 to over 100 players in five years.
Both the UNL women’s and men’s club lacrosse teams work with the Lincoln Junior Rampage team, an organization that serves high school and youth programs to spread awareness of the sport. Boys and girls play across three levels of skill based on age and lacrosse familiarity.
The men’s and women’s club lacrosse teams spend time together facing each other in a tournament or coaching side-by-side for a youth team.
“We love to work with the men’s team,” Volante said. “It’s like a sister-brother team kind of thing.”
After the Rampage reached out to partner with the UNL men’s lacrosse team, the men’s club joined in coaching with the women’s club.
“We build partnerships,” Moran said. “We had been coaching, and I saw a group of girls that looked like they didn’t know how to play. Now, Natalie has been talking with them and getting some girls out to help coach, too.”
Not only are the men and women working together, but they are coming from states outside Nebraska to do so. Volante practices 417 miles away from her hometown in Bloomington, Minn.
But the women’s lacrosse team did not know what was coming on that spring day in Missouri. Filing out of those vans, years after Volante first arrived at UNL, a COVID-stricken season put a stop to their travel plans.
In its place came three Amazon-swooshed boxes taped madly together, containing the fate of their new season.
“Where a lot of teams may have been struggling before, COVID gave us another year to fundraise,” Volante said. “We were able to get a whole bunch of new equipment and uniforms. It also gave us a free year for students to try out the sport.”
In these times of transition, lacrosse acts as something to look forward to. Moran said this feeling stretches back to the earlier ages when lacrosse was first played as “the medicine game” or stickball. Villages would come together to play a game that would last several days. Somewhere between 100 and 100,000 people would play in the same game, according to World Lacrosse.
“It’s originally a Native American sport,” Moran said. “They used it as a way to heal divisions between tribes, so anyone that plays it gets a therapeutic feeling.”
However, the therapeutic feeling today is simple. Being outside, especially in the fall, Underhill said, makes girls want to come to practice at Fleming Fields, the vast green space that backs up to railroad tracks near East Campus.
“I know a lot of people talk about wanting to be able to get active and get out,” Underhill said. “Especially a lot of girls who haven’t played before will come up and say that they are looking to get out. Overall, it helps my well-being.”
Whether it is escaping an assignment for two evening hours or soaking up some dopamine, energy is released on the grassy turf twice a week.
“Being an active person, at the end of a long day, it’s nice to come to lacrosse, run around, shoot balls hard at the goal and get some anger out if that’s what I need that day,” Volante said.
There are more identities tied to a team than money. For Volante, the club team allows her to express her athleticism.
“It is empowering,” Volante said. “I like to say that I am athletic, and that’s normally a descriptor for men, so it is nice to be a woman in sports.”