Pittsburgh is a very traditional sort of sports town. The fall has football, the winter is for basketball and hockey and spring and summer bring about baseball season.
Other sports like wrestling, volleyball and soccer have fans in the city, but for the most, part you can pretty safely predict what most people’s favorite sports are going to be. This is why the recent growth of a certain sport in the area has gone one relatively unnoticed.
On Nov. 1, 2018, Pitt athletic director. Heather Lyke announced that, for the first time in two decades, the school would be sponsoring a new varsity program, adding women’s lacrosse for the 2020-21 school year.
The Pitt program will join an ACC that is ripe with top-tier lacrosse talent and a Pittsburgh community that has worked hard to put local lacrosse in the area on the rise.
During the introductory press conference in November, Lyke said that they would not be sponsoring a new sport if they did not think they were going to be successful.
“Really, at the end of the day, it’s about the belief, that we believe that we can be successful in lacrosse,” Lyke said. “If we’re going to have a program, we want to go compete for ACC and National championships.”
Lyke also said that the popularity of women’s lacrosse in the ACC and throughout Pennsylvania makes the program an easy fit at Pitt.
“When you look at the landscape of the ACC, one of the areas in sports that’s kind of glaringly missing is lacrosse. They’ve been just a dominant conference in the country,” Lyke said. “And then you start to look at the footprint and learn a little bit about our commonwealth and our state of Pennsylvania, it just is a really good fit, all the way around. Ultimately you feel like you believe you can be successful in it, and that’s what we want to be.”
Pitt’s program will be the 14th Division I NCAA women’s lacrosse program in Pennsylvania and will be the ninth team in the ACC, joining one of the toughest women’s lacrosse conferences in the nation. ACC teams are routinely ranked as the best in all of Division I, with at least one ACC team playing for the national championship every year since 2012. Pitt will spend two years focused on recruiting before playing games starting in the spring of 2022.
Pitt will not be the only Division I women’s lacrosse program in the city of Pittsburgh, however, with Duquesne in the Atlantic 10 conference and Robert Morris in the Northeast Conference. The Robert Morris program began in playing games in 2005, led by inaugural head coach Katy Phillips. Phillips told Pittsburgh Sports Now that starting a team in the ACC will be difficult for Pitt.
“With the movement of the Pitt athletic department to the ACC, starting a team at that level is going to be a challenge,” Phillips said. “While lacrosse is definitely continuing to develop at a strong pace in Pittsburgh, we still are not considered a hotbed for the sport. Local talent is here, but I do think in terms of recruiting, a nation-wide scope to develop a program in the ACC is going to be paramount to being successful.”
Ironically, there is a successful lacrosse team that already exists at Pitt. The Pitt women’s lacrosse club team plays at the highest level of collegiate club lacrosse and just finished an undefeated 19-0 season, beating Delaware to win the national championship at the beginning of May. This was the team’s second national championship in the last three years, also winning in 2017.
2019 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS! pic.twitter.com/n1N65ruvBa
— Lady Panther Lax (@PITTLAXordie) May 11, 2019
Kevin Tidgewell has been with the team for the past five years, with 2019 his first as head coach. He said that he believes a varsity program at Pitt can be successful if the right things happen.
“It takes the support of the university, which the Pitt program will obviously have, and it takes the right coach and the right recruiting,” Tidgewell said. “With Pittsburgh being this city on the rise and it being sort of a rebirthing, I think that Pittsburgh is a destination that a lot of people want to come. And the University of Pittsburgh is growing in its reputation and so that’s going to make people willing to come here. It’s not like you’re trying to make a program in the middle of nowhere.”
With the 2019 NCAA women’s lacrosse season wrapping up over the weekend, with Pitt’s future conference rival Boston College losing to Maryland in the national championship game, Pitt is expected to announce a coach in the coming days.
Whoever Pitt hires will not be the only new blood in the Pittsburgh lacrosse scene. Corrine Desrosiers just concluded her first season at the helm of the Duquesne lacrosse program and said she is thrilled to have a new team coming into the area.
“I’m excited to see who gets hired there because I am going to look to make a best friend,” Desrosiers said. “Definitely want to be on good terms with them.”
Before joining Duquesne, Desrosiers spent the previous four years at Florida Tech, where she started the women’s lacrosse program in 2013. She said that a new program can generate a lot of excitement.
“You can really rally a lot of excitement around recruiting to a new program. I think Pitt has a ton of resources and a lot of notoriety and obviously everyone knows who they are,” Desrosiers said. “They are in the ACC, which is going to help and hurt them. To start a new program in the ACC, you’re going to get good kids, but it’s going to take a while for them to get competitive enough in that conference. It’s just going to take a few years.”
Phillips, who now coaches high school lacrosse at Shady Side Academy, said she was excited to see who Pitt names as head coach as they will be joining the lacrosse community in Pittsburgh.
“I’ve been really impressed with the Pitt athletic director and her choices in coaches and I’m really excited to see who they’re going to announce,” Phillips said. “For me, selfishly, even now that I am out of the college game it’s bringing a whole other (coaching) staff that will, hopefully, value giving back to the community and help continue to grow the sport in the area. That, to me, is huge.”
Another part of the local lacrosse scene with firsthand experience of playing in the ACC is second-year RMU head coach Katrina Silva. Silva was the head coach at Virginia Tech from 2007-10 before joining the RMU staff in 2012. She said that just recruiting players is not enough in the ACC, you have to recruit really good players.
“You have to have kids that can actually play in the ACC, so the best part about it is Maryland went to the Big 10,” Silva said. “When I was at (Virginia) Tech, Maryland was in our conference and to get the Baltimore girls out of Maryland was very difficult.”
Maryland moved to the Big 10 conference in 2014, but the ACC is as difficult to play in as ever.
“There’s no such thing as an easy ACC game, period,” Silva said. “You’re not going to be able to put an all-freshman or a transfer/freshman team out there, I think, and go play with the top eight teams in the nation. I think it will develop, but you don’t want to get off on the wrong foot in terms of culture and chemistry. Young athletic minds are delicate.”
Silva coached The Hokies to the program’s first ACC victory in 2009 and said the opposing coach sent her a text right after the game that read, ‘There’ll be nothing like this feeling feels right now’.
“It is that competitive of a conference. You watch two ACC teams and you don’t realize how fast they really are,” Silva said. “Those women are moving at a ridiculously quick pace with amazing stick work so they make everything look so easy. When you’re not one of those teams, it doesn’t look so easy.”
Silva said the most important thing for lacrosse programs not in the traditional lacrosse hotbeds is for the community to be behind them.
“Blacksburg (Virginia) is a lot like Pittsburgh where the community just thrives around college athletics,” Silva said. “In this city, it’s a little bit more difficult, you have the Steelers, you have the Penguins, you have the Pirates. When you look at it, Pitt struggles trying to find that community attention but lacrosse will be a completely different sport for them, where I think (the community) could really gravitate.”
Phillips said the best thing Pitt adding a team will do is increase visibility for the sport in the area.
“The number one thing I think it’s going to do is it’s going to bring visibility to the sport,” Phillips said. “In my very humble opinion right now Pittsburgh is a football, basketball, baseball, softball kind of town. Pitt adding this varsity team, all of a sudden is going to bring visibility to people who may not have any experience in lacrosse.”
Silva said that the ACC teams that will come to town to play against Pitt gives the community to watch lacrosse played at its highest level, something she thinks the area has been lacking.
Phillips is excited about ACC games being played in Pittsburgh to supplement Duquesne and RMU’s games as a form of coaching the younger athletes in the area.
“Adding Pitt gives our community the ability to see the highest level of lacrosse played. You’re now talking about teams like Duke, Syracuse coming in to play. It really opens the opportunity to drive 20 minutes and see, quite possibly, a Division I national championship team play during the season,” Phillips said. “For our kids who are aspiring to play at the collegiate level, Division I, II or III, they’re going to see what it looks like to compete in three different Division I conferences. For me, who now owns a club, it’s now going to be a big tool for me to be able to take teams and say ‘this is what the ACC level looks like’.”
Desrosiers said she would do the same thing if she were a high school coach.
“It’s going to be awesome. You’re going to have tremendous opportunities for the youth and the high school level players to go out and get coached up by some really knowledgeable staffs and student-athletes,” Desrosiers said. “These teams are right down the street so if I’m a high school coach in the area I’m bringing my team out to watch these lacrosse games and show kids what it really looks like at the next level. I just think it’s really going to help promote that growth.”
To go along with Pennsylvania’s 13 Division I teams, there are 16 Division II teams and 48 Division III teams. Despite this, however, Tidgewell said that Pitt adding a team will have a large impact on the area.
“Pitt adding it is going to bring more national recognition,” Tidgewell said. “There’s obviously a lot of D-I lacrosse around in the area, there’s a ton of D-II and D-III, schools so there already a good amount, but I think Pitt, having that overall university recognition, is going to bring more attention to the area.”
Desrosiers said that Pitt’s team could transform Pittsburgh as a destination where athletes want to go to play lacrosse.
“I think it’ll bring a lot more awareness to the city because if you grow up playing lacrosse you’re not like ‘I’m going to play in Pittsburgh’, no one says that, you know the schools that you know,” Desrosiers said. “So I think that it’s really going help drive a lot of interest and awareness to the area and it’s going to bring in a lot of talented recruits.”
Silva agreed that Pitt will attract athletes on a national scale that are better than the local talent in Pittsburgh. She said adding those athletes to the community will help continue to develop lacrosse in the area.
“Pitt’s going to attract a national level of athlete. We don’t produce nearly the amount of athletes that are playing lacrosse at a high level like Philly or upstate New York or Baltimore,” Silva said. “They’re going to get the Philadelphia kids, the Maryland kids and people are going to come to Pittsburgh, just like I did, and you fall in love. This is a great city.”
Desrosiers said she was excited for Pitt to bring in better athletes because, while being recruited by Pitt, those athletes will also have the opportunity to learn about the other colleges in the area like Duquesne and RMU.
“If Pitt’s going to be bringing in some big talent, and they’re also going to look to bring in big numbers, they’re not going to be able to take everyone they’re looking at. You’re going to get really good kids coming into Pittsburgh that might not have ever have had Pittsburgh on their list and they’re going to check (Duquesne) out,” Desrosiers said. “They’re going to say ‘I had this official visit at Pittsburgh on Friday to Saturday but can I come check out Duquesne on a Sunday?’ and I’m going to say ‘Hell yeah’.”
An increase in interest in the area could open up whole new opportunities for young kids to be introduced to the sport according to Phillips.
“A lot of our obstacles in our area is that when you’re a mom you can always find something in soccer, you can always find something in baseball, you can’t find a place to take your kid to go try lacrosse,” Phillips said. “I think Pitt adding and being successful and having that marketing is going to start to lead people in Pittsburgh to say ‘Lacrosse? What’s lacrosse?’ And it’s such a cool sport, it’s the combination of basketball and soccer and ice hockey and I think people will start to go to games and say, ‘this is a great opportunity for my daughter’.”
Another aspect of Pitt’s team that will generate interest among the community is the possibility to play against The Dukes and Colonials. RMU and Duquesne play each other often and it is one of the most popular games on either of their schedules.
“The Duquesne, Robert Morris game has always had packed stands with young, small female athletes who come watch both local teams, support both local teams, have had players on both local teams,” Silva said. “I remember two years ago, it was a beautiful Saturday and the stands at Robert Morris were packed with kids. It’s always been a really exciting event and I hope whoever jumps on at Pitt realizes that this community is really awesome with athletics and I think really an untapped market with female athletics. Seeing what young women can achieve athletically is still growing in this area and that’s exciting because I think we can all be apart of the growth.”
Aside from just competing against one another, RMU and Duquesne also have a history of working together to drive interest in lacrosse in the city.
“Historically Robert Morris and Duquesne worked really well together and more often than not we would organize so that kids could go and see both schools,” Phillips said. “In my opinion, because we’re not on the East Coast and right now the West Coast is blowing up, we’re in this weird geographical area. So working together to make Pittsburgh a viable option to play high-level lacrosse, whether it’s in the ACC, the A10 or the Northeast Conference is going to be huge.”
Desrosiers said she loved the idea of Duquesne playing Pitt every year.
“We’re excited at Duquesne because now we get an ACC team right down the street that we can have on the schedule every single year,” Desrosiers said. “From a selfish perspective, I am so excited to get just an obvious, easy rotating game on our schedule every year and as they continue to grow so are we.”
The RMU and Duquesne coaching staffs have gone beyond just playing each other and focusing on the colleges in recent years, focusing more on developing the game at the high school level. In 2011 Phillips, coaching RMU at the time, Silva, who had just moved to Pittsburgh, and then-Duquesne coach Mike Scerbo started the Pittsburgh Premier Lacrosse Club (PPLC).
“It was Mike Scerbo, Katy Phillips and I who started Pittsburgh Premier for the reason that we thought lacrosse wasn’t developing in this region,” Silva said “There’s a high level of instruction that goes around our sport and that was our goal with Premier. That’s how I got back into college coaching, I had sworn I’d be out and done a million times. I started getting around the young girls again with club, then I started volunteering with Katy and next thing you know I’m back to being a head coach. I think working together is paramount on all sorts of different fronts.”
The club offers athletes as young as fifth grade the opportunity to receive high-level coaching and enough recognition to go on and play at the collegiate level.
“Our goal was coming together to say ‘we need to be able to recruit locally at Duquesne and at Robert Morris,’” Phillips said. “And in order to do that, we really have to give back to the area and start developing players who can compete at a Division I, II and III NCAA level, be successful, have a four-year career they’re proud of and come back to our area and give back.”
PPLC’s inaugural high school graduating class in 2014 sent eight athletes to play in college, a number that has increased every year since.
“Pittsburgh Premier has turned out a lot of very successful Division I, II and III athletes,” Phillips said. “Our 2014 high school graduates were the first members of our club program to graduate from college and our 2015 class just graduated. We have some players from the Pittsburgh area who have come out highly decorated. One of the things at Premier that we think is very important is that every player at Premier is being coached by a female who has played or coached at an NCAA level.”
Two members of the inaugural 2014 class were Peter’s Township’s Ali Hurley and Sewickley Academy’s Maggie McClain.
Hurley went on to have a four-year career at Division II Lindenwood (Ill.), where the team made three final four trips during her time, she was a three-time all-conference selection, led her team in points and assists as a sophomore and as a senior, finished as the school’s all-time career assists leader with 122.
McClain played at Division III Gettysburg (Pa.), where she was a starter on teams that won back-to-back national championships in 2017 and 2018.
Hurley said that playing in PPLC helped her be ready for the college level.
“There’s obviously higher competition at that elite level so it was a little nerve wracking at first as a freshman, but just having that confidence through Pittsburgh Premier and through high school and having them help me out to be ready for whatever comes my way,” Hurley said. “We did have lots of good and tough practices at Premier that helped me succeed whenever we did have those harder practices at the college level.”
Hurley also said having proven college coaches there to help with both playing and recruiting was very important.
“It was a great experience, positive experience just because they knew what they were talking about and they wanted to see you succeed,” Hurley said. “Since they were those college coaches you knew they were credited in what they do and they were always there to help.”
McClain did not join PPLC until her senior year of high school and said it was unlike any other lacrosse club in the area.
“They were so much more regimented,” McClain said. “They had such a variety of different things they put you through. It was just so much more well managed and it was aimed to hone in on certain skills and focus on bettering not only yourself but your team and to promote other people to continue playing the game. They were just two steps ahead of what everyone else was doing.”
McClain said she thinks PPLC is why teams from Pittsburgh are now able to compete with teams from Philadelphia, Maryland and New Jersey.
“We’re able to compete with them and it’s all because of how Premier has grown, really grown the program of lacrosse in Pittsburgh,” McClain said. “The whole area was still a little bit behind. We’re catching up much faster now.”
Hurley is finishing a master’s degree in education but said that she would love to come back to the area as a coach in the future. McClain has come back to the area and is now an assistant coach at Sewickley. She said that she thinks local athletes coming back to Pittsburgh after college is the best way they can help grow the sport.
“We’re all coming from separate staffs who have different backgrounds of the game and we’re all bringing back everything that we’ve learned,” McClain said. “Anytime that you have a group of people with so many different backgrounds that can culminate a lot of information you get some of the most beautiful things ever. The more knowledge you have from separate entities the better program, whether it’s sports, academics, anything, the better it will be.”
Silva said that the best thing they can do for the athletes in PPLC is to prepare them to have success in college.
“We have players that have finished college careers and have done really amazing things,” Silva said. “The biggest compliment all the Premier kids say to me is ‘Coach, it was just like Premier’s practice, just faster.’ It’s exciting to know that our kids were prepared, they knew what to expect. We’re pretty tough on them there, not without a lot of love, but if you have an aspiration to play at any level we’re going to make sure you’re prepared to the best of our ability.”
Pine-Richland alumna Alexa Mellis is one of the more recent athletes to go through PPLC that has found success in college. Mellis just finished her sophomore year at Division III Wooster (Ohio) where she led her team in goals for the second straight year.
Mellis said that play in PPLC is what really prepared her to have success in college.
“Pittsburgh Premier was a really great experience for me. I loved the program, all the coaches were so knowledgeable and I think it really prepared me for college just by going to all these tournaments to play at the next level because that was who I was going to be playing against and playing with,” Mellis said. “All their coaching on the field and in practice really helped get me ready for the college level. I loved the program and I still really love being involved in the program so I think they do a really good job in Pittsburgh.”
Mellis has started to help coach with PPLC and said that she feels it is one of the more important things that local players can do.
“I think it’s really important, especially here where, since I was in middle school and high school, lacrosse has really grown in Pittsburgh,” Mellis said. “But I think it’s really important for current college players to come back and continue to grow the game here, which is something I really love doing.”
Despite the success the PPLC has seen with its first few classes, Phillips said that they still have a long way to go to get to where they want to be.
“I think we have a ways to go in terms of really using all of our resources and working together,” Phillips said. “Right now the obstacle that I see is bringing all of the players to the table, the officials, the high school organizations, the club organizations and finding a way to work together positively to elevate our game. I think that’s really the next step, instead of divide and conquer really come together and figure out how everybody in our community can use each other’s strengths so that Pittsburgh becomes a viable recruiting option for every level.”
The success of lacrosse in Pittsburgh pales in comparison to what other areas of the state experience, namely in the Philadelphia area.
“Now that I’m at the high school level, one thing I’ve recognized is that in Western Pennsylvania we’ve never won a Class-AA or Class-AAA state championship,” Phillips said. “So to me, when I’m wearing my Shady Side Academy High School ha,t I look around and say ‘how do we get one of these teams to win a state championship? How do we come together as a community and recognize we’re not competing at a level that wins state championships?’”
Nearly everyone agreed that the club scene in Philadelphia is what sets it apart from Pittsburgh. Lacrosse is simply more accessible to play in that area for all ages, with higher levels of competition.
“You have the clubs out here, but they’re just facing the problems of, again, you just don’t have the kids that are as serious as the ones out there in Philadelphia and those urban coastal spots. Because they grew up with it, when everyone else starts to play soccer they’re also starting to play lacrosse. You don’t see that in Pittsburgh yet,” Desrosiers said. “Clubs definitely help in terms of the exposure and just getting out of your neighborhood and seeing what lacrosse looks like. You could take Pittsburgh’s best club team and take them out to Long Island and they’re probably going to get worked a little bit because those kids have been playing since they were four.”
The cycle of local athletes going on to play in college then coming back to coach is what Silva said makes Philadelphia the hotbed that it is, and it is how Pittsburgh can catch up.
“Why does Philly have such a head start? It’s been bred by local women coming home, giving back to the game,” Silva explained. “If we start that trend here, because you know everyone loves to come back to Pittsburgh, then we’ve got a really, really good thing going. The more people that come back that have played on the other side, at any level, it’s going to be awesome.”
“It’s interesting when you look geographically, the amount of Division I, II and III schools in (the Philadelphia) area that are playing high-level lacrosse means that you are turning out graduates that have played at the Division I, II and III level that are going in to coaching, officiating at all levels, high school, middle school, youth,” Phillips said. “So you have a lot of knowledge in that area that is giving back to developing the sport.”
Silva said passing the game on to the next generation is the best outcome she can hope for.
“The best part (of PPLC) is they want to come home every summer and coach,” Silva said. “That’s our best help at growing the game so the girls don’t keep looking at us and start looking at their friends asking what it’s like.”
The dynamics in Pittsburgh’s lacrosse scene are clear. Experienced, veteran coaches like Phillips and Silva, who have been in Pittsburgh for years, have worked hard to establish the groundwork that has interest in the sport rising and is sending local athletes to play in college at levels the area has never seen before. Meanwhile, there are coaches that are new to the area like Desrosiers have come in excited and hungry to capitalize off of the increasing interest and rising talent.
Pitt’s program is expected to bring even more talent and excitement into the area and with the success of PPLC, an entirely new generation of local coaches may be coming back to the city with it.