No club team captures the spirit of collegiate club athletics more than the University of Chicago's women's lacrosse team. They dedicate themselves to the game, despite the daunting obstacles to their success. As a club team, the players pay to play through club dues, and they compete in the Women's Collegiate Lacrosse League (WCLL) against schools with much more established programs, like Oakland and DePaul.
Over the last few years the Maroons have solidified their status as contenders. They've made their league's playoffs four years running, and according to 2015 captain and goalie Kitty Benson (AB ‘15), the team is putting the infrastructure in place to build on that success.
"My first year, we won some games, but we weren't really a serious team," said Kitty. "We didn't have the organization to compete at the level which our league requires. So my first year as captain, we started recruiting and drawing more girls who had previous experience."
Lacrosse is a sport most comparable to hockey. Each team fields 12 players according to strict rules about positions: one goalie, four defenders, four dedicated attackers, and three players who play both sides. They pass, catch, maneuver, and shoot a small rubber ball using the sport's iconic pocketed sticks, which are designed so that players have to "cradle" the stick, curling it toward and away from them to keep the ball from spilling out when they run.
Compared to other sports, goals come easily in lacrosse; 15 goals a side isn't unheard of, and games are typically fast-paced. "I've played everything—basketball, field hockey—and lacrosse feels more intense. There's a lot of yelling," said Kitty. "It's a sport which lets me be loud. I'm a goalie, so the ball is coming at me so much more than in any other sport. You have to be attentive, and you better have really quick reflexes."
Women's lacrosse is also one of the most tightly officiated sports, designed to reward brains and diligence over brawn. "There's a very refined skill set," said rising third-year defender Spencer Moy. "It's a lot of fun to work on; it's a very nuanced game."
The club brings together a wide variety of women, coming from around the country and running the gamut of majors. Some of the girls played with and against each other in high school; some even went through recruiting for Division I schools, many of which offer athletic scholarships (Chicago is a Division III school, so it doesn't offer scholarships to athletes). Other girls didn't pick up a stick until college.
"I started playing in high school, and I went through Division I and Division III recruiting, and I ultimately chose a school based on academics," said rising fourth-year captain and attacker Frannie Franklin. "But I still wanted to incorporate lacrosse into my life because it was such a big part before. It's my number one passion."
For the players, being part of the team isn't just about playing lacrosse. It's about everything else that comes with it: routine, camaraderie, and the thrill of competition.
"I've been on a team my entire life, so it's important to me to have that in some way, shape, or form," said Spencer. "Sports-team relationships grow in a different way because of how you have to interact with your teammates on the field."
The team also offers a reprieve from the other stressors of college. "Being a part of a team is really the outlet that you need at this school," said Frannie.
The team has 14 players, and having such a small squad is both a blessing and a curse. When the Maroons hosted a series of Division I teams for exhibitions in the fall, they only had nine players available, so they actually played short one member. Despite that disadvantage, they managed to beat club teams from the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Because of the quarter system, the team crams their 10-game season into the first three weeks of spring quarter to stay on track with schools on semester systems. With that in mind, Kitty and Frannie enforce what they call "mandatory bonding" beyond their daily evening practices.
"When you spend almost every waking moment together for three weeks, you get really close," said Kitty. "We do pre-game dinners where we make a lot of pasta, and Friday bride-day, where we watch a bunch of TLC. If you don't trust a girl off the field, you're not going to trust her to catch your pass."
That bonding has paid dividends on the field. The Maroons compete in the West Region of the WCLL, which includes schools like DePaul, Wheaton, and Lake Forest. After going 5-5 in 2013, the club bounced back with a 7-3 season in 2014, losing to Division II champions Oakland University in the playoffs.
This year, the team started playing home games on the University's new field on 61st Street and Woodlawn Avenue, which is painted with lacrosse lines and outfitted with lights so the Maroons can host games at night. They've also gotten new jerseys and boathouse jackets. "We take lacrosse seriously, so we want everybody else to take us seriously too," said Kitty. "It's a big part of our lives."
For the second year running, the team has hired a coach to take the burden of training off of the captains. "It's hard to coach your peers," said Kitty. "As much as you're their leader, it's difficult."
Kitty and Frannie still managed the logistics of scheduling, fees, and bookkeeping, but their coach, Linda McEvoy, handled drills in practices and rotations in games. McEvoy struck an imposing figure on the sideline in the Maroons’ game against Lake Forest. She encouraged players to hustle, explained tactics during half-time, and expressed indignation when the referees made crucial calls in Lake Forest's favor late in the game.
With coach in tow, the team made clean work of its schedule. In eight regular-season games, they only lost to Lake Forest (9-8, in a game where they led until the last few minutes). "Our Lake Forest games are always a higher level of competition," said Frannie. "They're our biggest rival, so going into it we knew it would be a tough game."
The Lake Forest game, like most of the team's games, featured a small but rowdy crowd of players' parents and teammates objecting to unfavorable calls and shouting rally cries. The Maroons finished their season 8-2, advancing to the second round of the WCLL's six-team playoffs. They blew out DePaul 23-6 in the first round before losing 4-11 to Grand Valley State.
Despite their early playoff exit, the future looks bright for Chicago's lacrosse team. Six of the team's 14 players are first years, and only Kitty graduated in June. She plans to come back to cheer her former teammates, now that she's finished with college.
"When you pour your heart and soul into something, you always want to know how it does," said Kitty.