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The birth of a program

By Theo Dubin, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 22, 2013

To get to the Michigan women’s lacrosse offices, you have to follow a rather strange path. Walk down State Street, past the athletic and ticket offices, then right into the parking lot just before Yost Ice Arena. Once in the parking lot, look for the last trailer behind the outdoor track.

Trailer?

It’s 42 degrees and windy on the second day of a storm that knocked out power for 1,600 residents living near South Campus on Friday. Undoubtedly, conducting an interview in one of the well-lit, winged-helmet- and silver-trophy-decorated athletic offices visible from State Street would’ve been much more comfortable.

Thinking wistfully of the athletic department’s warm lobby, I stick a questionably executed long jump over a puddle and ascend the seven wooden stairs into the trailer. The atmosphere is different in here.

The trailer has a warm, homey feel. It’s decorated with maize-and-blue wallpaper and features a large, silver Starbucks coffee machine. This trailer has been inhabited for nearly two years by head coach Jennifer Ulehla and assistant coach Jen Valore.

They have spent that time building a women’s lacrosse program from the ground up. Working day after day, they make recruiting calls, write the team handbook, draw up the strength-and-conditioning program and even create a marketing book complete with original team logos.

“Sometimes it’s challenging because you just want to get out and work with the kids, that's what we love to do,” Ulehla said. “We want to have that daily interaction, coach the sport that we love and just watch individuals grow.”

Ulehla’s passion for lacrosse is immediately evident in conversation. She lights up when talking about the girls she’s bringing in and the program she wants to establish.

She was hired in 2011 by athletic director Dave Brandon because of her experience as an assistant coach at Florida from 2008-10. She was there, in Gainesville, as the Gators started their women’s lacrosse program from scratch.

“It takes someone with a lot of perseverance, it takes someone with a vision, who can see beyond the difficult times,” Ulehla said. “It's all part of having that builder’s mentality. To be able to see beyond the present to what the future is going to be like.”

Vision is certainly a necessary attribute for the task at hand. A search of the team’s official website shows an empty roster. Of the 28 recruits who will play in the Wolverines’ inaugural 2014 season, only one – junior Kelly Becker, a transfer from Ohio State – is even on campus.

Becker has been on campus all year, the lone member of a team meant to be 30 deep, working out one-on-one with the coaching staff.

The team’s culture, style of play and work ethic will have to be created by a group that has never lived in Ann Arbor, never taken college classes and, with one exception, has no college lacrosse experience.

A quick look across the trailer at the men’s lacrosse offices doesn’t conjure many positive thoughts either. The men’s program won its second game this past weekend, but it took until its second season to get it.

Even at the mention of this troublesome fact, Ulehla refuses to waiver from her optimism.

“(The men’s lacrosse coaches) took the club team over, and I’m starting this program from scratch,” she says. “That was something I discussed with Dave Brandon in my interview. The importance of me being able to bring in freshmen that I recruited, they have my mentality, they know what they are coming into, what the goals are. They are all on the same page, as opposed to taking over a club team, which is a totally different mentality.”

It's clear that she relishes the opportunity to build a program after watching someone else do it for three years. Using the word “daunting” to describe her job illicits an immediate shake of the head and a wry smile.

“It's exciting,” she said. “I would not have taken the job if it was daunting, that's for sure.”

Michigan will be joining the six-team American Lacrosse Conference, a league with four top-20 teams, three of which rank in the top six nationally. Still, Ulehla predicts an above-.500 record for her first season.

“We want to use (the first year) as a foundation going into our second year, and then in that second year, we want to really elevate,” Ulehla said. “When we get to where we have the depth and the experience we need, I want to play a very high-tempo game. I want to be able to play a high-pressure defense. The midfield transition is quick, always looking to create man-up and fast-break situations.”

She hopes to contend for a national championship by her third year. By then, she will have had two recruiting classes and enough seasoned players to play the fast-and-furious style she describes. It’s clear that she can’t wait to finally coach lacrosse again and see her new recruits in the flesh.

But between now and then, she still has another couple months in the trailer. She has more plans to make and more workout programs to design. At least, she has embraced her surroundings.

“They make us very comfortable in here,” she said. “They give us everything we need to be successful.”

Outside, the wind blows bitter and cold. But inside, for now, it’s warm and calm. Maybe the trailer isn’t so bad after all.


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