Fifty years after Title IX first opened doors for women in college sports, opportunity has continued to grow, with several Minnesota colleges recently adding a new varsity sport — lacrosse.
Augsburg University was the first private college in Minnesota to offer women’s lacrosse and will begin its 10th season next spring. Hamline University, Concordia University, St. Paul and the University of Northwestern – St. Paul followed suit, and this spring the College of Saint Benedict will play its first game.
When Augsburg officials decided in the summer of 2012 to form that first varsity team, women’s lacrosse was a club sport. They saw an opportunity to be a leader and innovator for women's opportunities and enhance the quality of the student-athlete experience, while also reviewing and comparing participation opportunities for men and women under Title IX. And they saw it as a way to draw students to enroll in the university.
“The lacrosse club team at the time didn’t play a large schedule, and there were a number of dual-sport athletes who had played hockey or soccer in addition to lacrosse in high school,” said Kathryn Knippenberg, women’s lacrosse head coach at Augsburg. “It was tough to recruit that first year, as the first Division III (DIII) school in Minnesota to offer varsity women’s lacrosse. We had to get the word out that we were a varsity program and this was an opportunity for high school players to play DIII lacrosse and stay close to home.”
The team played an independent schedule the first two years and lacked a conference affiliation. That changed in 2016 when Augsburg joined the Midwest Women’s Lacrosse Conference (MWLC), which made scheduling easier as the team played most of their games against conference opponents. (The Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference that Augsburg is part of doesn’t include women’s lacrosse because six conference schools need to offer a sport.)
In the early years, the Augsburg team faced recruiting challenges because the pool of in-state lacrosse players was relatively small. As high school girl’s lacrosse has flourished, it’s easier to recruit players, and now with five private colleges in or near the Twin Cities, players can stay close to home and play competitive lacrosse.
“Travel remains a challenge, as we often play two games on a weekend. It’s very wearing,” Knippenberg said. “We also had to find our fit at Augsburg as there’s one field shared by five teams in the spring. We decided to practice mornings which was a little challenging.”
Knippenberg has long been a lacrosse pioneer. She was a player at Hopkins High School, which was among the first eight Minnesota schools to field a girl’s lacrosse team. Later she was hired to coach the first DIII women’s lacrosse team in Minnesota.
She’s proud to have helped pave the way for today’s players who are enjoying expanded playing opportunities, and stresses giving back to the sport. She encourages her players to volunteer, coach youth teams, officiate — whatever they can do to help grow the sport, and notes that officiating is a good way to earn money.
“Our players gain so much from being on a team, sharing and working toward a goal, plus the mental and physical health benefits from being active are tremendous,” Knippenberg said. “It’s a great opportunity for women to play a sport they love, and when interviewing for jobs they can show they’re team players with leadership skills.”x
Starting up at Saint Ben’s
For the College of Saint Benedict, the process of adding women’s lacrosse has been on an aggressive timeline. Just over a year ago the college announced its decision to add women’s lacrosse, and in December hired Patrick Crandall as its head coach. The first class of recruits arrived on campus this fall and next spring the team will begin competing.
The college previously had a strong club team, and officials felt the time was right to add varsity lacrosse. Internally the athletic department submitted a proposal detailing the potential competition, a timeline and budget.
After gaining internal approval, the department applied to join the Midwest Women’s Lacrosse Conference (MWLC). That application provided information about the history of the club program, athletic facilities, locker rooms, budget and ability to provide an excellent intercollegiate experience.
“The MWLC application also included how Saint Ben’s fit into the conference geographically, as the league was interested in an eighth private institution. Also adding a fourth Minnesota team was appealing in order to reduce travel and travel costs for games,” said Kelly Anderson Diercks, director of athletics, College of Saint Benedict. “Ironically I’m also MWLC commissioner, so after presenting our case during a Zoom call, to eliminate any potential conflict of interest, I excused myself while the other league members voted.”
Anderson Diercks keeps an eye on athletic trends at the high school and college levels. She determined lacrosse was a good fit and would allow the college to be successful as quickly as possible. Without having a club team, the fast timeline would have been nearly impossible.
Long term, Diercks hopes the college can have both club and varsity lacrosse teams to accommodate more student athletes. The prospect of a varsity team is exciting for club team alumnae, and Diercks wants to involve those club team pioneers who had the dream of playing on a varsity team many years ago.
“It’s exciting to be forming a varsity lacrosse team, as this is the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Our institution is very proud to offer opportunities to play sports at this level and these opportunities are critically important,” Anderson Diercks said. “Sports teaches teamwork, goal setting, dedication, how to win and lose with grace – things that are incredibly important for success after college.”
Anderson Diercks also noted many student athletes came to Saint Ben’s because they can get a great education and play these sports. She believes lacrosse’s popularity is due to the fact that it’s a fast-paced spring sport, very different from other spring sports, and 11 people at a time can play for each team with no limits to subbing opportunities.
Saint Ben’s wants to continue to offer those things their students are interested in. Alumnae reaction has been very positive and Anderson Diercks is happy Saint Ben’s can offer sports their alums, and their families, love.
From her vantage point at Augsburg, Knippenberg sees that “we’ve come a long way, but we need to offer more opportunities for players and continue to grow. I remember how hard it was to start a program, the travel and scheduling,” she said. “I’d love to see more programs added and more opportunities for women.”
By Tom Brandes
More new sports
Lacrosse isn’t the only newer sport offering at Minnesota private colleges. Here are some recent stories announcing other new sports at the varsity or club level.
- Augsburg University: How to build a women’s wrestling program from scratch
- Bethany Lutheran College: Game(r) time (esports)
- Bethany Lutheran College: Right on target (clay targets)
- Bethel University: Bethel’s esports club creates community among gamers
- Concordia College: Game on! Concordia launches esports program