Meredith Black and Joe Amplo are pioneers, proselytizers and instructors. But each prefers to be called simply “coach” or “the new lacrosse coaches” or maybe “Marquette’s head lacrosse coaches.” Those jobs didn’t appear on the athletic department’s staff directory until 2011, when Marquette first dove into the great unknown of NCAA Division I lacrosse. What’s followed could be described as a lacrosse adventure, with Black leading the women’s team and Amplo guiding the men. The two young coaches commute between their offices in Marquette University’s 707 Building, the Al McGuire Center’s draftier neighbor, and the sidelines at the Valley Fields, where they shout out directions to stick-wielding athletes.
But coaching is only part of the challenge they face. Black and Amplo have been perfecting the coursework for How to Sell Lacrosse 101, convincing recruits to play for a program that, until recently, had zero wins to celebrate.
“There’s a certain type of person that’s willing to start a program,” says Black, who played lacrosse at Notre Dame. She means one thing in particular: a sense of commitment. For the 2011-12 school year, Black and Amplo sold students on a schedule that included plenty of practice time but no games. That’s right, players sweated through the teams’ first organized practices while knowing real competitions were still a year down the road.
“Competition is the reward for [hard work],” says Mike Broeker, Marquette’s deputy athletic director. “For a year, we had a population of student athletes on this campus who had no competition, yet they came every day and worked as hard as every other student-athlete.”
Both Black and Amplo had ample experience as assistant coaches but no experience helming programs. Still, the programs got their first wins early in the 2013 season, which runs through spring. The men won 8-6 at Air Force March 2 in just their second game. The women also won in their second game, a 12-11 overtime triumph against Coastal Carolina Feb. 17. Now, they’ll try to build a fan base that knows the rudiments of lacrosse and is willing to show up at the Valley Fields for women’s home games and at Hart Park, where the men play.
Getting even this far wasn’t easy. “There was a fine line between pushing them hard and trying to keep them interested,” says Amplo, who played for Hofstra University. “You work your tail off five days a week, and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.”
Lacrosse is among the fastest-growing high school sports in the U.S., but collegiate Division I programs are scarce in the Midwest. The season has taken Marquette’s men to matches in Colorado, Florida and Washington, D.C., while the women’s team has traveled to South Carolina, California and Kentucky. At each game, the players gain precious experience. Out of the 44 male players, 33 are freshmen, as are 27 of the 33 women players.
The rules for men’s and women’s versions of lacrosse differ greatly. Checking is allowed in the more physical men’s game but not in the women’s, which means that the guys get to wear dark blue helmets emblazoned with the Marquette logo while the women merely wear protective goggles. And for women, the “crosse” (aka the stick) has a shallower pocket for catching and throwing the ball, which makes stick handling a mite more difficult.
Despite the fact that they run around hurling hard balls at each other, lacrosse players have a reputation for smarts. NCAA graduation rates for both sexes are consistently in the top five among all sports, and Johns Hopkins and Princeton are perennial powers. You might even say this is a thinking man’s (or woman’s) game.