Sue Behme had her work cut out for her the moment she stepped on campus at Fresno State.
Hired over the summer as the school’s first-ever coach of women’s lacrosse, she had about two months to find 23 student-athletes to teach the game to, knowing full well the following conditions:
The team starts Division I lacrosse competition in eight months. Imagine if Steve Cleveland had to do that with the Fresno State men’s basketball team.
“It would be like taking a basketball and going out onto the basketball court in the Save-Mart Center and having a roster of 10 kids show up that have never seen a basketball, that have never seen a basketball hoop, that don’t even know what the lines on the court mean or the rules,” Behme said. “And then have to compete at this level.”
When you look at it that way, Behme’s job is actually a lot harder.
She spent the last nine seasons as head coach at Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y., where people are a little more familiar with the ways of the ball and the crosse — a term for the netted stick the players carry.
A five-time coach of the year in the Division III Empire 8 conference, Behme learned lacrosse while playing soccer for SUNY Cortland in upstate New York, and by graduation was a Division-III All-American in both sports.
Before spending nine seasons at Nazareth College, she started a lacrosse program at SUNY Geneseo, an experience that will no doubt be helpful as she tries to pioneer the sport in the Central Valley.
“That’s another reason why I took the job,” Behme said. “I thought to myself if I can do this, I can do anything.
“I tell ya, I’m one of the most fortunate coaches in the world,” she added. “We didn’t have a club here, really nobody’s played lacrosse let alone heard of girl’s lacrosse and we’ve had a great progression.
“It’s not like we’re looking at this as a club year,” Behme said. “That’s not the mentality at all.”
Behme said she’s not just expecting the team to compete, she’s expecting them to be competitive when the season starts in February, even though she hasn’t had a whole lot of time to work with her charges.
“Coming in the situation that we’re in, it’s not what the administration wanted,” she said.
“I mean they obviously would’ve wanted to have given myself a year to recruit and then start to put the team together, but that just wasn’t going to happen.”
Now is as good a time as any to ask why Fresno State only gave itself less than a calendar year to ready a Division I program.
The story of women’s lacrosse actually starts with a decision made by a six-person task force appointed by university president John Welty last December to assess the school’s Title IX compliance.
Title IX is legislation enacted in 1972, which basically states that if schools want to receive federal funding, they must abide by gender equity standards in the opportunities offered to male and female students.
The task force said the school had two options: Cut men’s scholarships, which it felt went against the Title IX’s purpose of creating opportunity, or add two women’s programs in order to better reflect in its scholarship opportunities in the nearly 60-40 ratio of female-to-male students on campus.
Athletic Director Thomas Boeh said the school had to act fast to stay in compliance, so two programs were added.
Swimming and diving was revived after being cut four years ago, and Central Valley lacrosse was born over what appeared to be a more logical choice in water polo.
The Central Valley has excelled in water polo, moreover, the Clovis/Fresno as well as the Visalia/Porterville areas. All have won Central Section titles and sent athletes to four-year schools.
But it wasn’t the sport chosen.
Fresno State had its reasons for going with lacrosse. Boeh said it was a practical choice for the school for a number of reasons.
“We chose lacrosse because of its rapidly emerging status in Division I institutions,” Boeh said, “It’s one of the fastest growing sports in the NCAA.”
He said it helped that the school already had a new soccer facility planned, which is now serving a dual purpose as the lacrosse field.
Boeh also said there were pockets of support throughout California especially in the Bay Area, where there are about 50 competitive women’s lacrosse club teams.
Helping the sport reach its potential was one of the main reasons Behme took the job and in that respect, the team has already made an impact.
Shortly after the lacrosse team at Fresno State was announced, Doug Semmen, athletic director for Fresno Unified school districts, announced seven high schools in the district would start a lacrosse league.
It’s currently the only district to do so in the Central Section of the California Interscholastic Federation, the state’s governing body for high school athletics.
One day lacrosse could be a household name in the San Joaquin Valley, but that doesn’t help this year’s Fresno State squad much.
Although unable to recruit, Behme was able to make multi-sport athletes out of competitors on other Fresno State athletic teams like track and golf, and was surprised to find a handful with lacrosse experience.
“The fact that we even have five players that have played is really, for being in the Central Valley region, much better than probably anyone would’ve thought. Let alone with the athletes that we’ve been able to put together.”
Heather Jack, one of the few on the team with experience, attended the University of Nevada-Reno for a year and a half and started a club team there before taking a semester off to coach high school lacrosse in Nevada.
The story of her arrival, like most of her teammates, is the atypical recruiting tale.
“I contacted coach, and she asked me if I wanted to come play,” Jack said. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, I wanna come play,'” she said with a laugh.
Even though Jack came to Fresno State eager for Division I competition, she doesn’t mind playing with teammates who are learning the sport.
“I’m used to it,” she said, adding she moved around a lot in high school and played in three different states.
“I started in Maryland and then I moved to Texas when (lacrosse) was still brand-new. And when I moved to Las Vegas and played my final year there it was still brand-new. It’s all about growing the sport, and helping the sport get to the high potential it has.
“It’s not frustrating, it’s cool, it’s fun. I wish I could start over again.”
Most of the Jack’s teammates, like sophomore Christina Cabias, heard about the team through a posting on the school’s Web site and wanted to try something new.
Cabias had scholarship offers to other schools for softball after playing several sports at Fresno Christian high school. When she didn’t get a scholarship to Fresno State, where she ultimately wanted to go, she thought her game days were behind her — until a friend saw an Internet posting and encouraged her to try out for the lacrosse team.
“I just figured hey, here’s an opportunity. I might as well take it and take advantage of it,” she said. “I had always really wanted to try something new.”
The team practices three hours a day from Monday to Saturday, learning the skills and slowly inserting game situations with a group of 29 that will eventually be cut down to 23 when the final roster is announced in November.
Behme said even though her players were new to the sport, they were practicing the same things as other schools in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, the conference the Bulldogs will compete in.
The MPSF consists of the University of Denver, California, Stanford, Oregon, UC Davis and St. Mary’s. Boeh listed access to the conference as another reason why the move to lacrosse made sense.
“What we’re doing in the fall right now is no different than what any of the top Division I teams are doing,” Behme said. “It’s just that we may not be doing it as quickly.”
Cabias said the whole experience has been a fun challenge and a lot of the concepts are similar to other sports she’s played, but she’s still learning some of the finer points.
“The rules, learning all the different kind of rules, there’s so many that cross over from basketball, like three seconds in the 8-meter,” Cabias said, referring to an 8-meter area in front of the goal. “But some of it is new rules, like don’t go in the crease,” an area five-meters in front of the goal.
“Like in lacrosse, you can’t go in there because it’s a foul or a free throw or something,” Cabias said, searching for the right word.
“It’s terminology too, that’s different.”
Despite adverse conditions, Behme said the team was doing well on a learning progression she developed from years of playing and coaching.
“I don’t care about the best lacrosse players, if you’re an athlete you will pick up this game,” Behme said.
“And that’s where I give these ladies a lot of credit, because they’re doing well. I mean the fact that they’ve only been learning the game for a month and a half, two months tops. They’re progressing along really, really well.”