On a warm afternoon in late July on the Sea Foam Stadium field at St. Paul’s Concordia University, a dozen or so soon-to-be members of the women’s lacrosse team are immersed in a summer-league battle with players from another college.
A hundred yards or so away, Concordia coach Mo Dunnigan sat in her windowless office, juggling a lengthy to-do list as the clock winds down toward the start of the program’s inaugural season.
Dunnigan is the architect of the first Division II college lacrosse program in Minnesota and the first to offer athletic scholarships, yet she dare not venture outside. She’s been on the job for more than a year and official practices are less than a month away, but per NCAA rules, she still isn’t allowed to accurately assess the talent she’ll be coaching.
“I can’t be a part of any of that,” Dunnigan says of the on-field activity. “I can’t watch, I can’t observe, I can’t know who’s coming or how they’re doing. It’s very frustrating.”
Not that she’s complaining. A lacrosse junkie who has coached or been involved in the sport at the high school, college, professional and international levels, Dunnigan knows that time spent developing other aspects of the fledgling program are equally valuable.
“The good thing is that [the players] have been able to come together and work on some of the things that are really valuable before the coach gets there,” said Dunnigan, who played in high school at Lakeville. “The most important thing right now is building chemistry.”
Prep growth reaches college
No sport has grown faster of late than women’s lacrosse, expanding from 225 teams in 2000 to 470 in 2014, according to the 2015 NCAA Participation report. In Minnesota, lacrosse has been the fastest-growing team sport in the Minnesota State High School League for the past half-decade.
That growth has only recently started to become reflected in varsity collegiate programs. Before Concordia, there were only three college women’s programs in the metropolitan area — Augsburg, Hamline and Northwestern (Roseville) — and none of them offered athletic scholarships. There are no men’s programs.
The athletic department at Concordia saw a chance to step into that void. “We were looking for an opportunity for growth and ways to increase athletic participation, and lacrosse made the most sense,” associate athletic director Regan McAthie said.
With its Division II standing allowing for athletic scholarships, Concordia is uniquely positioned in Minnesota.
“This is a tuition-driven institution. We felt this was a situation to bring new students to our campus,” McAthie said. “We follow a partial-scholarship model, which allows for scholarship dollars to be divvied among student athletes how we see fit.”
With 19 players in the first recruiting class, McAthie said not all of the available scholarship money has been awarded.
“We can’t offer all of the money allotted because we still have three more years of recruiting to establish,” she said. “We’ll have a much different picture four or five years from now, but I expect the amount offered and value per student will stay consistent.”
What makes the scholarship offer particularly attractive to prospective players was the school’s across-the-board tuition reduction in 2012.
“We reduced tuition by $10,000 for every student,” McAthie said. “That’s increased enrollment and has allowed us to add programs like lacrosse as a bigger piece of the overall puzzle.”
After a solid playing career at Wayzata, Tyra Swanson was looking for a chance to play lacrosse locally, but wasn’t completely enamored of the limited options. When she heard about Concordia’s plans, she jumped at the chance.
“I fell in love with the school right away,” she said. “Not having a team before, it’s hard to see what things would be like here. I look forward to making our own program, our trends and team rules.”
Swanson is one of 17 freshman recruits who will be diving into the world of college athletics together. That, said Dunnigan, is one of her biggest challenges. Having been an assistant when Augsburg began its program in 2014, she gleaned a few do’s and don’ts.
“What works well is bringing in athletes who are motivated to lead in an unconventional environment,” she said. “This is unconventional in that we have no [upperclassmen] to say ‘Don’t sit at that table’ or ‘Make sure to make friends with that person’. So I’ve tried to develop a coach-created climate to guide the culture and traditions in the direction we see the program going.”
She has targeted players who have demonstrated significant leadership abilities. For example, Apple Valley graduate Katie Moynihan spent two summers coaching young players for the Minnesota Elite development program and is, like Dunnigan, a lacrosse fanatic.
“I like to think of myself as a leader, as someone who can help players do the right things and put them in the right positions,” Moynihan said. “Kind of like a coach on the field.”
The first time the Golden Bears can come together as a team is Aug. 31, the first day of classes. They’ll have a couple of months in the fall for practice and exhibitions, but official games don’t start until February of 2017. They will play an independent schedule of 16 games across the Midwest. If all goes according to plan, Concordia will be a member of a yet-to-be determined conference in 2018.
Dunnigan is ready to get down to some actual lacrosse.
“It’s less than 30 days away. That’s pretty profound for me,” she said. “I’m excited. People have said that, even after all this, there will be a time when I say, ‘If only I had another week.’ But we’ve worked hard. We’ve prepared well. We’re ready.”