Home Sweet Gold: U.S. Women's National Team Leaves Lasting Legacy | USA Lacrosse Magazine

2022-10-09 08:41:25 By : Ms. Helen Peng

Thu Sep 22 2022 | Matt DaSilva and Matt Hamilton | USA Insider Team USA

The U.S. women’s national team players tore into a box of freeze pops as Dottie Hayden approached them sitting at midfield at USA Lacrosse headquarters two days before their World Lacrosse Women’s Championship opener against Canada.

Hayden had a letter in her hand. A member of the 1975 U.S. team that went 13-0 on a nearly six-week trip to England, she came to Sparks, Maryland, to deliver it personally. She spoke of a sisterhood that spans nearly 50 years and similarities between the 1975 and 2022 teams.

“This moment you have right now is wonderful,” Hayden told the players. “But it extends far beyond these two weeks.” They could read the letter later, she said, when it felt right.

A little more than 24 hours later — after the 18 women that made up the U.S. roster had moved into Carroll Hall on the campus of Towson University — coach Jenny Levy unfolded the letter and read it aloud during the team’s first official meeting of the world championship in the ninth-floor common area.

“Coach Levy stated: ‘Winning gold, inspiring awe,” wrote Connie Lanzl, captain of the 1975 team. “Although we didn't express our goals quite as succinctly, our objectives were similar: Raise the level of the game. Establish the preeminence of U.S. lacrosse. Return undefeated.”

Lanzl excerpted quotes from the press and her teammates about the 1975 U.S. women, who remain close after all these years.

“We are sitting happily on the top step,” Lanzl concluded. “Your next move should not be to try and topple us from that post, and ours should not be to try and hang on for dear life. Instead, we should move together to raise that top step, to raise the level of lacrosse.”

Levy took over the U.S. program shortly after the team captured its third straight world championship in 2017. With a growing interest in the sport, a handful of generational talents returning and USA Lacrosse vying to host the quadrennial event for the next cycle, Levy thought, this team could create a legacy akin to what the 1999 U.S. World Cup team did for women’s soccer.

“We were just striving to bring excellence to as many people and things as we can, to bring people joy,” Levy said.

Five years later, the U.S. defeated Canada 11-8 on a rainy afternoon July 9 at Johnny Unitas Stadium, becoming the first team ever to claim the women’s world championship on home soil. Before the nets were cut, champagne bottles popped and medals awarded, Levy stood near midfield, a few feet removed from her team with her hands covering her face.

It hit her all at once.

“Winning is ephemeral and it does end and then you reset. But what legacy did you leave behind that other people can build off of?” she said. “We moved the needle.”

“It was such an incredible combination of team lacrosse, as well as individual flair and brilliance.”

TAYLOR CUMMINGS’ STOMACH GROWLED as she signed autographs at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

The U.S. women had just played a showcase game against a collection of professional players from the United Women’s Lacrosse League and the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League — precursors to Athletes Unlimited — at the IWLCA Presidents Cup in November 2018. Hundreds of high school players swarmed Magic Field 18 to watch.

“The line was so long, I had to get a bucket of Goldfish from our snack pile,” said Cummings, an All-World midfielder and one of six players who returned to the U.S. team after 2017. “There were so many kids. We were just excited people were excited about us."

Part of Levy’s plan to maximize the national team’s exposure was to play at events where aspiring players could get up close and personal with their idols. In turn, they saw for the first time their potential to galvanize the lacrosse community.

“Seeing all the fans sitting around the field, that was the first time I took a step back and was like, ‘Wow. This is awesome for our sport,’” defender Alice Mercer said. “Jenny is really serious about growing our fan base. The things she was asking us to do, it was working.”

Thanks in part to stars like Cummings, Kayla Treanor and Marie McCool and the advent of fan-friendly rules like a 90-second shot clock, attention on NCAA women’s lacrosse was at an all-time high. There were two professional leagues.

Levy accepted the U.S. position with that growth — and how to build off it — in mind. She met with the tryout pool at USA Lacrosse headquarters in the summer of 2018 and laid out her vision for the program. The PowerPoint included an infographic that she had made for USA Lacrosse leadership during her interview process with her five pillars for the national team: Creating resources, player selection processes, professional player experiences, outreach, win and have fun. The next slide featured the national team’s guiding principles:

Joy. Respect. Skill and creativity. Dominate your zone. Fun together. Inspire all. All in.

Levy leaned on the example of the 99ers, the team that brought unprecedented exposure to women’s soccer after taking down China in a shootout in front of more than 90,000 spectators at The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, and 40 million fans on ABC. Led by stars like Mia Hamm, Briana Scurry and Brandi Chastain, the U.S. women ignited a generation of soccer players that were able to visualize, for the first time, what it would be like to play the game at the highest level. And they had fun along the way.

Over the next two years, Levy and her staff — including assistant coaches Amy Altig, Alex Frank and Joe Spallina — set out to find players who possessed similar must-see qualities. Who played with joy and creativity, confidence and otherness. Using social media as a means of building a fan base, the individual players and personalities on the U.S. team could reach passionate lacrosse fans, as well as those watching the sport for the first time.

Levy saw the growth of social media through her experience with college athletes at North Carolina. The metaphoric distance between players and fans was closing quickly, and this U.S. team could bring the fans closer to the action than in years past.

“The players are the magic and it's always been about trying to get them to be seen on a broader scale,” Levy said. “How can I help the players be seen for the brilliant people that they are both on and off the field?”

The talent pool featured plenty of players that fit that very description, representing three different eras of women’s lacrosse. Crafty attackers like Katrina Dowd and Michelle Tumolo wowed fans with behind-the-back shots and assists before women’s lacrosse could even be seen on streaming services. Lockdown defenders looking to win a second straight gold medal included Kristen Carr, Meg Douty, Becca Block and Mercer. Most notably, Cummings and Kayla Treanor — two college greats that battled for four years as opponents at Maryland and Syracuse, respectively — returned for another run at gold in their prime.

When World Lacrosse postponed the world championship from 2021 to 2022 due to the pandemic, it gave Levy and her staff a chance to evaluate the newest crop of college stars. Charlotte North, the viral sensation who led Boston College to the NCAA championship at Johnny Unitas Stadium in 2021, headlined the group. Inspired by Treanor, whose YouTube highlights she mimicked growing up in Texas, North played the game with uninhibited creativity and unbridled passion. People became enamored with her the way she idolized Treanor, who coached her as an assistant at BC.

“It was such an honor to line up next to Kayla,” North said. “It was a pinch-me moment for sure. She has done so much for the sport and she is one of the greatest to do it.”

North Mania reached an all-time high when the U.S. women traveled to Dallas for the Presidents Cup last November. Nearly 2,000 fans enveloped the team after a Blue-White scrimmage at Harold Patterson Sports Complex — many of them in line to meet their hometown hero.

“Social media really skyrocketed while players like Charlotte and Kylie [Ohlmiller] were in college. Their fan bases went through the roof,” Mercer said. “The great individual brands were helpful in building our team brand. What we saw at Presidents Cup was the result of that.”

The social media boom resulted in more visibility for women’s lacrosse and more coverage on television in the last two years. Cummings and others have led the charge for greater access to women’s lacrosse.

“Our collective voices helped get our games on ESPN for world championships,” Cummings said. “There’s more work to be done, but we’re in a better spot now than we were, which is great.”

ABOUT AN HOUR AFTER THE U.S. SHUT OUT HONG KONG in the round of 16, the players convened in the center of the hallway of their ninth-floor dorm. Sounds of deliberation echoed from Room 904.

Dubbed the Dialed Inn, the quad occupied by Meg Douty, Ally Mastroianni, North and Treanor became a place of refuge and revelry where the team could decompress from the grind of eight games in 10 days.

North grabbed the microphone connected to a Bluetooth speaker and began listing the criteria for the Dialed Inn Employee of the Day.

Do something for the employees of the Dialed Inn.

“And No. 3, probably the most important,” North said with a fictitious Texas twang. “What is it, ladies?”

North passed the mic to Mastroianni and Douty, who revealed the prize for the day: four freshly frozen freeze pops. Treanor summoned the team.

“Can we get a drumroll please?” Treanor asked. “The Employee of the Day is Ms. Kylie Ohlmiller.”

Ohlmiller accepted her prize, thanked the crowd and placed her polaroid on the wall next to photos of Cummings, McCool, Block, Dempsey Arsenault, Caylee Waters and Molly Hendrick.

“It’s nice to be on the wall amongst so many pretty smiles,” Ohlmiller said.

“Thank y’all for coming out,” North said, concluding the nightly ritual. “Make sure to keep smiling. We actually added new security footage so we can see every time you walk by smiling.”

Privately, Levy feared history repeating itself. In 40 years of world championship play, the U.S. has compiled a 68-6-1 record and won nine of 11 titles — its lone silver medal finishes coming in 1986 in Swarthmore, Pa., and 2005 in Annapolis, Md. Levy and Frank spoke with members of both those teams who cautioned against the distractions that come with being the host country. The head coach at Dartmouth, Frank heeded especially the advice of former Big Green and 1986 U.S. team coach Josie Harper. “Every time she said that she wasn't part of the first [gold] on home soil, she regrets it massively,” Frank said.

Led by Cummings, Treanor and longtime national team hopefuls who finally had their shot in Liz Hogan and Emily Parros, however, this U.S. squad boasted an unbeatable chemistry. Levy identified “joy” as one of the team’s guiding principles. The Dialed Inn epitomized that.

“I don't think they understood the impact they had on all of us with that,” Cummings said. “I don't know where it came from. I don't know why it originated, but I'm just so grateful it did.”

The fun vibes started with Wiffle ball and relay races at USA Lacrosse and continued with four-square games with McCool taping the dorm carpet. Impromptu karaoke sessions gave way to song-filled bus rides to games where Mercer and North led choruses of “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” by Shania Twain, “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen and “Badd” by the Ying Yang Twins.

“I remember adding all of these early-2000s hip-hop songs to the playlist and thinking, ‘I’m going show all these Gen Zers who have heard a second of it on TikTok,’” Mercer said. “It was easy. Everyone knew the words. It became a thing..”

The songs became the soundtrack of a two-week journey to gold, and they’ll conjure up nostalgia any time players hear them going forward.

“It's a long stretch to be together for 14 days,” Levy said. “But with the right group, there’s a lot of fun.”

THE U.S. WON EIGHT GAMES BY A COMBINED SCORE OF 134-39,stretching its winning streak to 30 games dating back to 2009. ESPN carried the entire world championship on its platforms, including six games on linear networks. The team generated millions of views on social media and was featured four times on “SportsCenter.” Mainstream sports stars like Hamm and even Rob Gronkowski paid attention.

The goals that Levy brought forth in 2018? The U.S. accomplished all of them.

“We’ve seen the best players in the country play this brand of lacrosse that's unselfish, exciting and skillful,” Levy said. “It proves that little girls can really get behind something that is exciting to them and moves them emotionally. We’re just scratching the surface.”

Although Cummings and Treanor won’t be a part of the next edition of the U.S. team, they’ve left an indelible mark on the game. Cummings, the only three-time Tewaaraton Award winner, went out on top, earning world championship MVP honors. Treanor retired as the U.S. team’s all-time leading scorer. The 28-year-olds pursued parallel paths for nearly a decade and now they want to start families and focus on their careers as coaches. Hogan and Parros also announced their retirements in the weeks after the championship.

“There were many similarities between this team and [the 99ers],” Hamm said. “The way this team embraced the responsibility of growing the game and taking advantage of the opportunity. I remember people in 1999 coming up to us and saying, ‘Isn’t this great for soccer in the U.S.?’ And we said, ‘This is great for soccer around the world.’ It wasn’t just about the results for this team, it was about the opportunities.”

Hamm, whose daughters Ava and Grace Isabella play lacrosse, watched the gold-medal game on her phone from her daughter’s game in New Jersey.

“I’m a fan for life. For sure. Are you kidding me?” Hamm said. “Seeing how much the game has evolved, but also the joy in which they all played — it was such an incredible combination of team lacrosse, as well as individual flair and brilliance.”

Women’s lacrosse is having a moment. Just like it did 47 years ago. “We should aspire together to put every competition on an international level on a higher level than before,” Lanzl wrote.

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