The inaugural season of the Mid-American Conference’s women’s lacrosse league is approaching an end, marking a huge step forward for the spread of women’s lacrosse in the Midwest.
Lacrosse is traditionally based in the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic U.S. as well as the province of Ontario in Canada. But as more women’s lacrosse programs launch across the Midwestern and Western U.S. it is up to coaches from those traditional hotbeds to bring their knowledge and passion to build new lacrosse communities from the ground up.
When Brianne Tierney moved to Cleveland in the summer of 2015 she thought she was giving up coaching college lacrosse, at least for a little while. Cleveland does not have the lacrosse infrastructure of the East Coast hotbeds from which Tierney hails.
“It was just like, ‘Oh, Ohio doesn’t have that much lacrosse.’ There’s just not that many people with a background in it,” she said.
But the sport caught up with her anyway.
By 2016 Tierney would be the head coach of the Kent State women’s lacrosse team, and by 2021 her team would serve as a founding member of the Mid-American Conference’s new women’s lacrosse division.
Tierney’s husband, Dylan Sheridan, had taken the coaching job for the brand-new Cleveland State men’s lacrosse team. Brianne had left her role with the University of Denver lacrosse team, coached by lacrosse legend and her father Bill Tierney, so Sheridan could start the program.
Before Denver, Tierney had launched a lacrosse program at Division III Lebanon Valley College, but she did not come to Cleveland with any intention of doing it again.
Tierney stayed close to the game by serving as a referee, but in less than two years the spread of lacrosse in Northeast Ohio would give her the opportunity to again start a program of her own.
Now entering her third season at the helm of the Kent State women’s lacrosse team, Tierney takes her team into the inaugural season of the Mid-American Conference’s brand new women’s lacrosse league.
Since Tierney took the job at Kent State, Akron and Youngstown State have added teams, and Eastern Michigan plans to begin play with one in 2023.
The growth of women’s lacrosse in the Midwest is evident across the Division I level, but Tierney is focused on spreading the game in Kent.
“Long-term growth in this area is huge,” she said. “More clubs and camps and starting at kind of the grassroots level with little kids is going to be huge; the intent is to continue those things and grow [them] even more.”
Tierney played college lacrosse at Loyola (Maryland) and Colgate. East Coast implants like her are the norm among college lacrosse coaches in the Midwest, as the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast make up the two historical “hotbeds” of lacrosse.
Dwayne Hicks, head coach of the women’s lacrosse team at the University of Detroit Mercy, is another East Coast player turned Midwest coach. UDM is a founding member of the MAC lacrosse league, joining the conference as a women’s lacrosse only member.
Hicks hails from Long Island, a practical mecca of lacrosse, but came to the Midwest in 1981 when he was recruited to play lacrosse at Notre Dame.
Once Hicks came to know Midwest lacrosse it seems he could never get away. He returned to coach at Notre Dame before moving north to Michigan to coach the men’s club team at Oakland University.
Over the last 17 years, Hicks took the Oakland club lacrosse team to two national championships, before launching new club teams at Michigan State and Eastern Michigan. He also coached the women’s club team at Oakland and was the faceoff coordinator for the men’s team at UDM.
He enters his first full season at the helm of UDM, which he took over partway through last season before it was ended by COVID-19.
After all that time coaching in Michigan, Hicks still remembers what his goal was when he arrived in the state.
“I remember saying early on to a friend that my goal is to turn this place into a small Long Island, and to create players who are as good as [those at] any East Coast school in the country,” Hicks said.
In order to spread a sport in a new area, there has to be a history and infrastructure of that sport, which Hicks says is what the Midwest currently lacks.
“I remember when I was growing up I saw college lacrosse all the time,” Hicks said. “I could tell you what Division I lacrosse looked like. You don’t see that in the Midwest. You don’t have many opportunities to see Division I games.”
Hicks thinks the launch of MAC women’s lacrosse can change that.
“So I think the MAC, because we play so many games in Ohio and Michigan, it’s gonna give more middle and high school girls the opportunity to see great lacrosse,” he said.
In addition to young players being able to watch games, building a Division I lacrosse program brings talented, devoted players to the area. Any of those players who stay in the community serve as the bedrock of a budding lacrosse hotbed.
“That’s where I think growth really comes,” Tierney said. “You get alumni to stay in the area and they coach, and they ref and they build it up even more. It’s kind of the halo effect. It is great that we have all these players who wanna play lacrosse, and I love that. But it’s the people that are kind of in charge and coaching and reffing that are gonna develop their IQs and their sense of the game.”
A Generational Thing
The more alumni from Kent State or UDM that stay in those communities and continue to coach, ref and even have families of their own, the more lacrosse skill and knowledge will spread.
“On the East Coast it’s a generational thing,” Hicks said. “On the East Coast there are families who have been playing lacrosse for three or four generations, whereas here you’re lucky if you can find a coach who actually played in college and is that familiar with the game.”
The MAC’s launching of women’s lacrosse could prove able to attract players from traditional hotbeds while also swaying Midwest talent to remain close to home.
“I think that is going to be huge for us in the future,” Tierney said. “Our alumni staying in the area and either part-time or full-time coaching, just staying with it down the line make this more of a hotbed.
“[The MAC] is just gonna make Midwest lacrosse more of a powerhouse, you know, bringing the whole region up. The boats rise with the tide, so everyone is just going to continue to grow and get better.”
Hicks recalled his time at Notre Dame, laughing at how just a few decades ago people on campus would refer to lacrosse as “the funny game with the sticks.”
“Now you walk around and you see lacrosse cages on fields and you know the game has grown,” he said. “We’ve gotta take care of it and nurture it and make sure it keeps going in the right direction. And with coaches like Coach Tierney, you know the game is going in the right direction.”
Kent State is 2-4 in the MAC and currently in fifth place, while UDM is 2-2 and in third.
Tierney and Hicks will face off against each other for the first time in either program’s history today, as UDM hosts the Flashes today at 1 p.m.
Owen MacMillan is a sports reporter. Contact him at email@example.com.