When the University of Redlands first started its women’s lacrosse program in 1999, six players with actual lacrosse experience showed up.
Bulldogs' Ashley Finke (left) and Christy Smith at the draw during practice at the University of Redlands' Farquar Fields on Thursday April 29, 2010. Milka Soko / Special to The Press-Enterprise
Coming from the Northeast where the sport is wildly popular, Coach Suzette Soboti knew she had some work to do to grow the program in the Inland Empire.
Twelve years later, the Bulldogs have a roster that spans 10 states and a reputation as a program that continues to grow as the sport grows roots in Southern California.
Redlands, which previously played as a Division III independent, is now part of the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference’s inaugural season, and begins play in the first SCIAC tournament on Saturday at Whittier. Redlands (5-3 in conference, 10-6 overall) is the No. 2 seed and will play the host school at 2:30 p.m.
“Being in a conference elevates the level of play,” Soboti said. “Because you have something to play for, it elevates the level of play for all teams.”
The SCIAC requires five teams to make a sport eligible for a conference championship. Redlands, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, Whittier and Pomona-Pitzer had been playing as independents, but when Occidental bumped its program up from club to varsity this year, the conference added women’s lacrosse as a championship sport. Because there are only five teams in the SCIAC, there is no automatic qualifier for the Division III national tournament, but that doesn’t matter to those looking for a place to play in Inland Southern California.
“We’re just getting better each year,” said junior Christy Smith, who came to Redlands from Minnesota and grew up playing hockey. She started playing lacrosse as a sophomore in high school and decided to continue her career on the west coast.
|| W, 18-3
|| W, 23-3
||vs. Colorado College
|| L, 15-7
|| W, 20-5
|| L, 20-12
|| W, 13-4
|| W, 10-4
|| L, 15-12
|| W, 16-10
|| L, 16-5
|| W, 20-14
|| W, 15-7
|| W, 21-15
|| L, 16-6
|| L, 17-16
|| W, 19-11
“After visiting the campus I fell in love with it,” she said, adding she figured the program would eventually get into a conference, but “I didn’t know if I would be here for that or not.”
Smith leads the team with 52 goals and 63 points. Most of the current players have similar lacrosse experience, with the exception of senior Sean Hansen, a biology and psychology major from Bend, Ore., who picked up the game through a one-unit PE class at Redlands.
“I’d never even seen a game when I started playing,” said Hansen, who’s played the past three seasons.
Soboti said the sport is growing in Southern California, with high schools and club teams from Orange County to Santa Barbara getting in on the action. That makes recruiting a little easier and adds to the level of experience of the incoming players.
“We’re a diverse team in how long we’ve been playing and where we’re coming from,” Hansen said. “(But) we’re really focused on the team … We don’t worry about how long we’ve been playing or how long we’ve been in the program.”
Redlands graduated seven players from last year’s team, leaving plenty of questions heading into the inaugural SCIAC season. U of R has had a winning record in eight of its 12 seasons, but the first season as a conference member is different.
“The progress since January is impressive,” Soboti said. “Finishing second the first year in conference, I’m happy with that. Am I satisfied with that? No, but I’m happy with that.”
Top-seeded Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (12-2, 8-0) will play Pomona-Pitzer in the first game Saturday. The tournament final is Sunday at 1 p.m.