Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke introduced a new coach and new program on Tuesday at Petersen Events Center, as she held a press conference for new head women’s lacrosse coach Emily Boissonneault.
The Panthers are replacing the now-defunct women’s tennis program with women’s lacrosse for the 2022 season, and Lyke and Boissonneault’s joint press conference signals a new era of Pitt athletics, with a new program starting for the first time since 1997.
Here’s video and photos from the introduction and our primer on what to expect as Pitt adds women’s lacrosse.
Pitt will start play in the spring of 2022, meaning that the administration and coaching staff will have plenty of time to prepare for the start of play.
“It’s really hard when you start a program and start playing right away,” Lyke said. “You’re going to start with like 35 freshmen or something crazy. It’s probably a wiser, stepped, phased-in process when you can spread it out over a couple of years.”
For Boissonneault, that means individual recruiting and also building relationships within the Pittsburgh lacrosse community that can help build her program and also build up the local lacrosse scene so that it can help make the program visible and viable to potential fans, donors and student athletes.
“There’s a lot to do,” Boissonneault said. “Obviously, I want to focus on getting a staff in, so that’s going to be a big part of the next little bit. Probably the most important day of this year will be September 1. That’s when we can start to talk to our recruits. That class is going to be the class that’s going to start this program. That day is going to be really important, so these next two months are going to be crucial to getting myself out there, Pitt lacrosse out there, so I’m really focused on that part right now.”
WHERE WILL THEY PLAY?
The Panthers will begin their program by playing at Pitt soccer’s Ambrose Urbanic field, with locker rooms and coaching offices being currently constructed as a third-floor addition to the Petersen Sports Complex.
Eventually, Lyke envisions a lacrosse-specific stadium being built as part of her Victory Heights capital plan, but specifics for that have not yet been released.
“It is built into the Victory Heights plan and process,” Lyke said. “We have not announced any formal approval of Victory Heights, but it’s definitely starting to be well vetted by the people that I report to and they are very supportive of our vision for Victory Heights.”
Boissonneault feels the arrangement that they’ll start with — that includes the bubble over Trees Field for a practice facility — is enough to be a competitive program from the get-go while the greater project unfolds.
“There’s some growing here and we know that,” she said. “I think the university is committed to making it happen.”
WHY EMILY BOISSONNEAULT?
Boissonneault, a 29-year-old assistant from James Madison, will be Pitt’s first head coach, and Lyke said that in addition to the typical characteristics that she looks for in a head coach, she needed someone with the courage and confidence to pull off starting a program from scratch.
For Boissonneault’s part, she’s been very selective about the path she took to finding a head coaching job, which has been her goal for some time. But Pitt’s presence in the ACC — considered the elite conference in women’s lacrosse — made it a very attractive opportunity. When she visited the city for her interview, it solidified the fact that the Ontario native wanted to make Pittsburgh home.
“I’ve always wanted to be a head coach,” Boissonneault said. “I’ve never been shy about that. … I wanted to be at the highest level I could be at. The ACC is clearly that. The premier lacrosse conference. That’s so exciting. But on top of that, I’ve been very strategic, I guess you could say about where I’m applying and what I’m doing. Ultimately, it’s because I wanted to be closer to my family.”
WHERE WILL THEY GET PLAYERS?
Pittsburgh is not, as currently constituted, a lacrosse hotbed, but it is at a convenient crossroads of most of the top recruiting areas in the Northeast.
Boissonneault can work her Canadian connections four to five hours north in Ontario, where she’s currently coaching the Canadian U19 team, can return to her old stomping grounds in Central Virginia five hours south, or hit major recruiting areas on the Eastern Seaboard.
“I hope to bring in some athletes from (Ontario),” Boissonneault said. “I think we’re in such a great location. New York, Long Island, Jersey, Maryland, DC, Virginia, those are big places to recruit. To be in a location where I can really bring in all of those athletes is really going to be an advantage. It’s such a family-oriented sport, so to be close to getting families to games, I think that’s really important.”
WHO WILL THEY PLAY?
Pitt will, of course, be joining the ACC women’s lacrosse conference, which includes teams from Boston College, Duke, Louisville, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Virginia and Virginia Tech.
The Panthers also envision a strong regional non-conference schedule that can include local schools Duquesne and Robert Morris and in-state foes such as Penn (No. 18 RPI), Penn State (No. 17 RPI) and Villanova (No. 36 RPI).
When Pitt made the decision to drop women’s tennis and replace it with a different sport, Lyke had several options, but chose lacrosse for a couple of reasons.
First, the number of ACC schools that sponsor the sport, the success of the conference and the regional strength of lacrosse in the Northeast made it a good fit.
But it’s also played in the spring, where Pitt currently just has four of its 18 other sports: baseball, softball and men’s and women’s outdoor track and field.
Filling the loss of tennis with another a spring sport will help balance Pitt’s athletics department staffing and also provide a unique opportunity to showcase the sport on the ACC Network.
WILL THIS LEAD TO MEN’S LACROSSE SOMEDAY?
Probably not. According to Pittsburgh Sports Now sources, another part of the impetus for Pitt to jump from tennis to lacrosse is that the latter carries a higher scholarship limit. Efforts by Lyke and her predecessors to make Pitt’s other men’s sports more competitive had created a situation that Pitt’s scholarships and overall number of athletes were tilted more male than female.
By going with a sport with a larger roster, Pitt can resolve some of that imbalance. So in order to take on men’s lacrosse, Pitt would have to add yet another sport along with it at the same time. It doesn’t seem like that’s in the cards for right now.
“I would love to add men’s lacrosse,” Lyke said. “The problem is, we have a challenge with our Title IX numbers and so, I don’t think we could manage that many additional male student athletes here at Pitt.”