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  A Taste for Victory

Coach Janine Tucker has taken the women's lacrosse team from Division III to Division I. Now, can she take the Lady Jays all the way to the Tournament?

By Maria Blackburn
Photos by Gail Burton

Extra Polar Ice is a potent, saliva-inducing substance that gets up your nose and clears your sinuses. Janine Tucker can't stand the stuff. But one afternoon in March, the Hopkins women's lacrosse coach brought a couple of packs of the chewing gum to a team practice and handed them out.

"Take a piece and don't open it until I tell you," she told her players. Her voice was as husky as always, and her tone gave no indication about where she was going. Most of the team looked puzzled — Tucker was usually more straightforward, less cryptic about what she wanted from them. Co-captain Rachel Krom smiled. She didn't know what was coming, but she guessed it was probably going to be good.

"Now open it and put it in your mouths," Tucker said.

The women unwrapped the gum, popped it in their mouths, and started chewing. There was the sound of several dozen jaws chomping. "What do you think about this gum?" Tucker asked as she paced the linoleum of the team meeting room, her navy nylon warm-ups shush shushing as she walked.

"It's strong," one player said.

"What can you taste?" Tucker asked.

"The flavor," someone said.

Tucker, 36, grabbed a marker and wrote "9-0" on the board at the front of the room. "Can you taste it?" she asked, referring to their upcoming game against the University of Pennsylvania, which, if the Jays won, would keep the team undefeated.

Twenty-nine heads nodded in agreement. They could taste the win over Penn.

Tucker wrote "ALC," the abbreviation for American Lacrosse Conference, on the board. To get an automatic invitation to the NCAA Tournament — their first as a Division I team — the Hopkins women would have to win the ALC. "Can you taste that?" she asked. More vigorous nodding accompanied the chomping.

She scrawled "Top 10," a reference to the team's goal to be named one of the 10 best Division I teams by the Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches Association poll. "Can you taste that?" Tucker asked. The nodding was fast and furious.

"NCAA Tournament," she wrote at last. "Can you taste it?" The players could. They had worked too hard not to. "Chewing this gum, having this flavor in your mouth is going to remind you of this," Tucker told them. "We can taste the next win."

Johns Hopkins University has a rich tradition of lacrosse — men's lacrosse. The men's team, organized in 1883, is one of the most storied programs in the nation. Since taking their first title in 1891 (the Intercollegiate Lacrosse League championship), the Hopkins men have had a success record that's unmatched in the college lacrosse world. Hopkins men's lacrosse teams have shared or won 42 national championships (including seven NCAA championship titles) and completed 92 winning seasons.

By comparison, women's lacrosse has only been a varsity sport at Hopkins since 1976. Tucker is just the third person to head the program. When she started in 1993, all of the varsity women's teams shared a single locker room. Now female athletes at Hopkins have their own wing of the Newton H. White Athletic Center.

For the first part of her 11 years as coach at Johns Hopkins, Tucker and her Lady Jays played at the Division III level. They played well, making it to the NCAA championship playoffs five times. But they fell short of capturing a Division III title.

Left to right, Lauren Dean, Meagan Voight, Tucker, and Erin Riordan listen to the introductions of the Villanova team prior to the game.

Six years ago, in 1999, the ante was upped dramatically, when the Hopkins women's lacrosse program made the jump to Division I. The move meant that competition would be tougher; it also meant that Tucker would have the means to recruit some of the top players in the country with scholarships. Of course, changing NCAA divisions isn't like flicking on a light. The transition can take years.

The first season as Division I, Tucker's team was a mix of players with varying skill levels, the majority of whom were not recruited to play at that competitive level. "Those girls definitely played above their ability," Tucker says.

Each year since then, the Blue Jays have improved, winning more games against tougher and tougher opponents, moving up from being unranked at the start of the 1999 season to being ranked ninth in the nation this year. Last year the team was just one game, one goal short (a 10-9 loss to George Mason University) of being invited to participate in the NCAA Division I Championship.

"It's amazing to move up this fast," says Tom Calder, Hopkins' athletic director. He says Tucker is the reason for the quick ascent. "We got pretty good, pretty fast," he says. "I knew that would happen just because of how Janine is as a competitor. I thought she could coach at any level."

"The women are on their way to being great," agrees Seth Tierney, A&S '91, assistant men's lacrosse coach, who can often be found in the stands for women's lacrosse games. "With the recruiting they're doing, their time is right around the corner."

Calder compares women's lacrosse at Hopkins today to where women's collegiate basketball was several years ago. "It took women's basketball a little longer to work their way up, but now they are beginning to have sellouts," he says. "Women's lacrosse is growing so fast now that it's not going to be much longer until they start getting the big crowds."

The most winning women's lacrosse coach in Hopkins history, Tucker has had her share of success. But at the start of this year's season, her greatest achievement had yet to be realized. Extra Polar Ice or not, Tucker, her assistant coaches, Lellie Swords and Tricia Dabrowski, and her players could taste their next win — and their bid to the NCAA Tournament.

The stands of Homewood Field are mostly vacant on a Wednesday afternoon in late March. The lemonade booth is shuttered. The ticket window is closed. Instead of the crowds of hundreds, sometimes thousands, who pay $7 per ticket to watch Hopkins men's lacrosse, there are roughly 75 people, and a yellow Lab named Fisher, who all got in free to watch the Lady Jays play American University.

And there, on top of the four-foot concrete wall in front of the stands, sits a group of wiggling 8-, 9-, and 10-year-old girls from the Maryland Lacrosse Club who have come to see how the game is really played. Clutching their notebooks and team posters that they hope to have autographed, they can barely sit still. When the Lady Jays take the field, the girls go crazy screaming, "Yea, Hopkins!" and "Go, Hop!" They keep it up through the game, breaking now and then to take part in dirty sneaker contests and to adjust their ponytails. And occasionally, their coaches, Posey Valis and Anne DeMuth, interrupt the cheering long enough to point out how the Hopkins players always keep their sticks up and play equally well with their non-dominant hands. Valis and DeMuth watch Tucker carefully, noting how she manages her team, how she gets across her message that win or lose, she wants them to work together.

"There's a real poise to her coaching," Valis says. "She's really supportive of her team — very enthusiastic."

"You can see her girls really respect her," DeMuth agrees. "For [Coach Tucker] it's not all about winning, it's about laying a foundation."

Tucker isn't just interested in her own players. Not only has she written a book laying out the basic tenets of lacrosse (The Baffled Parent's Guide to Coaching Girls' Lacrosse, Ragged Mountain Press/McGraw Hill, 2003), she is the mother of two lacrosse-playing sons, Ryan, 11, and Devin, 10 — and the wife of John Tucker, A&S '85, who was a Hopkins midfielder on the 1984 NCAA Championship team.

Whether it's through her invitations to watch her collegiate players, her summer lacrosse camps for girls, or her book, Tucker wants to share her love of lacrosse with girls who are years away from playing at the college level. She calls it "giving back to the game."

When one of her players makes a goal or attempts a gutsy play, Tucker is the person who claps the loudest. She is their biggest fan. After the American University match-up, the girls in the stands are invited into the locker room to talk to the college players, get their autographs, and sit in their lockers. It's a small gesture, but it goes far in inspiring the little girls to love lacrosse. Says Tucker, "We just try to have them walk away feeling good about the game."

She continues, "There's a whole different piece of a little kid's soul you want to touch as a coach. When they do something right on the field, I want to go up to them, take them by the shoulders, look them in the eye, and tell them, 'That was so great.'"

Tucker herself came to the game fairly late, when her high school field hockey coach in lacrosse-crazy Baltimore urged her to give the game a try. "She put the lacrosse stick in my hand, gave me a ball, and told me to run," Tucker says. "She didn't care about fancy shots or pretty cradles. The happier she was, the more self-confident I became."

At Loyola College, Tucker was named captain of the team her junior year and made All American in 1989. It was there that she met Diane Geppi-Aikens, who started out as her coach but went on to become her mentor, friend, and biggest influence in coaching.

Geppi-Aikens, a pre-eminent figure in women's lacrosse, died last year of brain cancer at the age of 40, just weeks after leading her team to the Final Four. Her story — coach uses final days to motivate her team — made national news. Tucker struggled with losing her friend to cancer. Ultimately, however, Geppi-Aikens' illness and death underscored what her former coach had taught Tucker about lacrosse and life.

"The second you start taking something for granted, that's when you're going to lose it," Tucker says. "Diane taught me that."

As a coach, Tucker relishes her role as a teacher. On the sidelines, she eschews yelling in exchange for pulling a player aside and speaking to her privately. She calls her players "ladies" and tells them, "We need to do this," not, "You need to do this." She drills into them the importance of working together as a team, telling them before every game, "Make your teammates look good." And when one of her players makes a goal or attempts a gutsy play, Tucker is the person who claps the loudest. She has earned their respect. She is also their biggest fan.

"You want to do well for Coach Tucker," says Krom, a senior defenseman from Summit, New Jersey.

"She knows how to get what she wants out of us," says Steph Janice, a freshman midfielder from Medford, New Jersey. "She's constructive. Always. And she's very team-oriented. She doesn't care if you make a mistake, just as long as you get the ball back."

Get the ball back. Get the ball back. Tucker gives the team the same message again and again. "Ground balls are the key to winning a game," she says. In women's lacrosse, there is no out of bounds. When a ball goes rolling out of a stick, whoever picks it up first gains possession. Scoring goals may bring glory, but getting the ball back means a player can help her team make those goals. Last year, Hopkins tied with Boston College for the Division I lead in ground balls per game. The Blue Jays had 36 (576 for the season).

"The fact that many of my kids will kill themselves to get to that ground ball is important to me," she says. It shows that a team has heart. Heart and hustle."

Freshman midfielder Steph Janice says that Tucker is a team-oriented coach. "She doesn't care if you make a mistake, just as long as you get the ball back." April 4, the day of the Blue Jays' 1 p.m. match-up against Vanderbilt, dawns cold and raw. The stakes are high: A win against the ninth-ranked Vanderbilt could be the Jays' ticket into the top 10, bringing a bid to the NCAA championship that much closer.

Winds of up to 40 miles per hour whip through Homewood Field, making it feel more like winter in Boston than spring in Baltimore. Standing on the field as the team emerges from the locker room to warm up, assistant coach Swords turns to face the wind and shouts, "This is our weather! Our weather!"

It would take more than cold temperatures to guarantee the team a win against the Commodores, a team of tough, veteran players. During their warm-up, the Hopkins women size up the Vanderbilt team in their black practice jerseys emblazoned with words like "Audacity," "Determination," and "Confidence" across the backs. They look to see who has on gloves or is wearing tights under their uniform skirts, a visible sign of weakness, or at least a nod to the cold.

Speaking to her Blue Jays before the important game, Tucker is forceful and relentlessly enthusiastic. "Run them into the ground for 50 minutes," she tells them. And keep your ultimate goal in mind, always. "You said you wanted to win the ALC, that you wanted to win the top 10. Today is your ticket. Don't you let them take it from us."

Seated in the stands, along with regulars like Fisher the dog, are several hundred fans — a big crowd — all eager to see whether the women have it in them to crack the top 10. Hopkins defender Lacey-Leigh Hence sings the National Anthem as usual, then heads out to the field, the pink ribbon on her nubby blonde ponytail flapping in the wind.

The game doesn't go well at first. Vanderbilt's Michelle Allen scores four minutes in. Eleven seconds later Kate Hickman scores a second goal for the Commodores. The Hopkins offense seems disjointed, out of sync. But after Jays standout Heidi Pearce scores an unassisted goal, freshman Mary Key scores, and Pearce scores again, giving Hopkins the lead. Things start to look up.

The two teams trade goals back and forth throughout the rest of the half. First Hopkins is ahead. Then Vanderbilt. It rains, then it snows, then it rains. At halftime the score stands 7-5, Vanderbilt.

Throughout the game, Tucker paces the sidelines, hands clasped behind her back, her navy baseball hat pulled down low to block the wind. She speaks little. Her eyes take in every move her players make. At the halftime break, her tone is commanding. "We've got to do a better job anticipating the draw," she tells her players.

When the Blue Jays take to the field after the half, their defense is aggressive and their offense finds its rhythm. Hopkins scores three goals in less than five minutes. With seven minutes left and a score of 12-11, the Blue Jays control the next draw. Then for six minutes, time seems to stand still. In a game of keep-away, the Hopkins players pass the ball on Vanderbilt's half of the field, trying to run out the clock. The Commodores manage to get the ball back once, but fail to score.

The final score: 12-11, Hopkins. The Blue Jays have won their first game against a top 10 team.

The Hopkins players erupt into whoops of joy and high-fives. Tucker runs into the center of the gathering and hugs her team. "Take a second and remember what you've just done — you've written another chapter in the Hopkins history books," she tells them. "Enjoy this."

As if on cue, the sun emerges from behind a cloud as they stand there on the field.

In the remainder of the season the women would go on to win some big games and earn that coveted bid to the NCAA Division I Tournament, where they'd fall in the first round to James Madison.

For now, however, Tucker just wants her team to savor their win.

Maria Blackburn is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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