Let the tradition begin. The Hopkins women's lacrosse team enters a new era on March 6 when it kicks off its 1999 season against Davidson College, its first game in the NCAA Division I ranks.
For the past 23 years in Division III play, the Blue Jays have enjoyed a level of success that has included six trips to the NCAA semifinals, six conference championships and in the last five years a better than 80 percent winning record.
But all that now is history, according to head coach Janine Tucker.
These days Tucker likes to use phrases such as "clean slate" and "starting from nothing" as she prepares her team for the uncharted territory of its first full season playing big-time Division I opponents.
In a school steeped in winning history for its men's lacrosse program, Tucker says it's now time for the women to show what they can do.
"We are just starting our tradition," Tucker says, adding that "Building a Tradition" is the theme for the 1999 season. "This is history in the making. I really hope our faculty and student body recognize how excited we are and come out to watch us play."
Tucker, now in her sixth year as head coach, says that making the jump to Division I, the highest level of women's lacrosse, is a major challenge for both her and the team. For one, the overall style of play in Division I is more physical because the athletes are bigger, faster and stronger. Also, Hopkins now has to compete against much larger schools that reap the benefits of their prime-time Division I football and basketball programs.
Despite these challenges, Tucker and her players are not going into the new season with a David vs. Goliath attitude. Part of this confidence stems from the fact that for the past few seasons the team has dotted its schedule with heavyweight Division I opponents like North Carolina and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. In fact, Tucker says that she and her coaching staff have treated the past five years as if the program already were Division I.
"I think that is why we had a lot of success at Division III, because we demanded a lot from the student athletes," Tucker says. "I think the system that we have offensively and defensively is Division I-caliber stuff. So it will be interesting to see how it flies against that level of play."
Still, the prospect of going 15-0 or finishing in the top 10 might be a little too much to expect for this first-year team. Tucker herself would like to see the team be ranked in the top 15 and have a bid in the playoffs within four years.
But don't tell that to her players.
"Players tend to be optimistic about our season. But I still want to be realistic, and if we lose the ball game, it will only be because the other team was just better than we were," Tucker says. "I won't like it, but I'm not going to kick trash cans if we lose a game, so long as my women are playing hard and executing the game plan."
As a Division I team Hopkins had to leave the familiar confines of the Centennial Conference, which includes Division III teams such as Washington College and Dickinson, and become an Independent team like the men's program. Without the built-in scheduling structure of a conference, the coaching staff had to come up with a schedule of Division I teams to play. Tucker says that in doing so, she and the coaching staff were careful not to weigh down the schedule with too many strong opponents.
"We put a lot of time and thought into the development of the schedule," Tucker says. "My team is not used to losing. They have had a lot of success over the years, so we wanted to schedule some Division I teams that are challenging, like North Carolina and Duke, but also other Division I teams that are up-and-coming like ourselves--teams that are newer and just getting off the ground. Even though it's going to be challenging, I think we scheduled to the point that we have given ourselves some opportunity to win."
The women's lacrosse team is the first and only women's team at Hopkins to move up to Division I. According to Tom Calder, director of athletics and recreation, the school had been looking to fill that void for some time.
"We thought [moving up] the women's lacrosse team was just a natural fit," Calder said. "It's an exciting and great move. Janine Tucker has been doing a great job of moving the program along."
The team officially entered Division I on Sept. 1, 1998, at which time the school was able to offer its first scholarship dollars to attract the best athletes. But Tucker says what is amazing is that of the nine freshmen on the 1999 roster, not one is getting any scholarship money. She says the opportunity to play in the school's first year of Division I status was an important factor in their decision.
Neda Dawood, a senior and one of the team's scoring leaders, says whatever the reason the freshmen chose Hopkins, she is glad to have them as her teammates.
"We have so many amazing freshmen. They did such a good job recruiting," Dawood says. "We are going to be really strong this year. Everyone is really excited. We know we have to work that much harder and that we're not going to kill everybody right away. But there are a number of Division I teams that we can definitely beat and play with."
Dawood adds that she's glad not to have missed out on the fun.
"I'm so lucky I get to [play in Division I] at least one year," Dawood says. "But it's going to be so weird coming back in a couple of years, when I know they are going to be so good. The way the coaches recruit this team is going to be amazing."
As for the pressures of the new season, starting defensive player Mimi Sokolowski says she has noticed that the coaches have stepped up the intensity factor a notch during practices.
"The past couple of years [Coach Tucker] would let a couple of things slide and go a little easier on us," Sokolowski says. "This year it's more of a professional and serious atmosphere. The good times might be fewer, but we are still having just as much fun."
The players also like the fact that since they become a Division I team, they have become "spoiled" with new jackets, pants and other lacrosse gear.
Playing in the big time, it seems, does have its advantages.