West not quite sticks anymore

Lacrosse: As Stanford's coach, ex-Terps star Michele Uhlfelder has taken the first step toward creating a respectable program in a region that has been a backwater for the sport.

College Lacrosse

April 25, 2001|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,SUN STAFF

Michele Uhlfelder never saw herself leaving the East Coast hotbeds of women's lacrosse.

As a player, she reached the pinnacle of collegiate and international competition here. The 1991 National Offensive Player of the Year at Maryland, she has been a member of the U.S. elite team since then, helping the Americans to the 1997 World Cup championship.

As an assistant college coach, Uhlfelder spent four years at Old Dominion and then helped former Terrapins teammate Kerstin Kimel boost Duke's program into the Final Four in only its fourth year of existence.

But when Stanford came calling, the pioneer spirit emerged in the Pikesville High graduate.

"When Stanford calls, you definitely have to turn your head," said Uhlfelder, 32. "Name recognition alone was an eye-opener, and I was smart enough to realize at the time that that would be true of recruits and that would be true of a number of other situations."

Stanford possesses a national reputation for athletic excellence. The university, in Palo Alto, Calif., has won the past six Sears Director's Cups, honoring the top overall athletic program in the nation.

As soon as Uhlfelder found that same commitment to building champions would be extended to her young program, she headed west. She found everything she felt she would need to put the program "on the national radar screen."

Her team is fully funded in scholarships, the Cardinal made two East Coast trips this season - with the promise of more funding for additional games against ranked teams - and the administration expects Uhlfelder to produce yet another nationally competitive Stanford team.

"I always wanted to be head coach of a program that had high expectations. I've spent too much time in the game, thinking about the game. To a large degree, it has been my life - from a volunteer standpoint with US Lacrosse, from a personal, recreational standpoint with playing and from a professional standpoint with coaching.

"That encompasses a lot of my life, so I wanted to make sure I believed in the school and the athletic department. When I got there, I realized it was a little time bomb waiting to go off."

With Uhlfelder at the helm, it didn't take long for Stanford, which has been a full Division I program since the 1994-95 school year, to turn heads in the East.

On April 2, the Cardinal became the first Division I team from the West to crack the Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches Association Top 20 poll.

"They better count their blessings out there," said Loyola coach Diane Geppi-Aikens. "They got quite a catch, and she's showing it already with what she's done.

"If anybody can build a program out there to national prominence, she can. We've seen it on the East Coast with [North Carolina] and Duke and how fast they became successful."

On March 9, the Cardinal upset then-No. 14 Vanderbilt to begin its climb toward the Top 20.

Stanford held onto the No. 20 ranking for three consecutive weeks before dropping out this week after falling to New Hampshire and Boston College over the weekend on an East Coast road swing.

While Uhlfelder is pleased with the success of her team, she's not expecting miracles.

It would be virtually impossible for the Cardinal (11-5) to get into the NCAA tournament this season, despite its exceptional chances of winning a fourth straight Western Women's Lacrosse League title. The WWLL winner does not receive an automatic bid because the conference isn't big enough.

But some members of the Eastern establishment might underestimate the Cardinal, she said.

"People who try to assess how quickly you're going to get it done - can you get it done in so-and-so number of years - you have to say to them, `This isn't a club program. We're not starting with kids who are club-level athletes.' These are Division I athletes who have probably come with a little bit of a different expectation, but four or five of them were high school All-Americans."

In her first recruiting class, Uhlfelder snared one of the most highly sought-after players in the country, Roland Park's Kelsey Twist, an All-Metro and All-America midfielder who played on the world champion U.S. under-19 team in 1999.

Twist said Uhlfelder was a big factor in her decision to attend Stanford.

"She's a really competitive player and she wants to coach a nationally competitive program and that's what I want," said Twist.

"Obviously, it's not historically a national powerhouse, but I think she has the tools and the knowledge to do it. I really believe in what she's doing out there."

Not only is Uhlfelder committed to building Stanford's program, but, with her background, she also can be a valuable asset in boosting women's lacrosse all over the West.

The gap in the level of play between teams from the East and West exists mostly because of the differences in experience and, thus, skill level, Uhlfelder said. Girls in certain pockets of the East grow up surrounded by the culture of the sport, and are drawn to it at a young age.

In California, lacrosse is growing, but the infrastructure to support the growth at lower levels isn't what it is in the East. That's something Uhlfelder hopes to encourage through the growth and outreach of her program and that of other rising programs in the state, including those of St. Mary's, California-Berkeley and California-Davis.

"There is that role for us to grow the sport. We look at that seriously," said Uhlfelder, who serves on the US Lacrosse board of directors and is vying for a spot on the U.S. team that will try to defend its World Cup title in England in July.

"I think if Stanford enjoys success over the next couple years, that we have the ability to spark the growth of programs out there."

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