“You’re no longer the underdog:” How Michigan women’s lacrosse learned to win
Before the start of the season in February, coach Hannah Nielsen set up a board with challenging but attainable goals for her team.
Finish over .500. The Michigan women’s lacrosse team, in its five years of existence, had never had a winning season.
A winning record in Big Ten play. The Wolverines had never done that either — or even won more than two games.
Make the Big Ten Tournament. The last time that happened was 2016, back before there were just four teams in the tournament. Michigan was winless in conference that year and exited unceremoniously with a 20-5 loss to Northwestern. Its presence was not missed.
Follow team values, on and off the field. The mantra upon which Nielsen bases her culture.
Now, the Wolverines have done all those things.
They’re 14-2, having already clinched an undefeated home record and a spot in the Big Ten Tournament. Those old objectives have been checked off and replaced by new ones — ones that seemed completely unrealistic just months ago.
Make the Big Ten Tournament championship game.
Get a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Win the opening contest there.
“There was no specific mile marker for what we were going to achieve and when,” Nielsen said. “I set out, when I took over the program, to build this team into the best it could possibly be, the quickest it could possibly get there. But at the same time, it needed to be done in the right way. … So to be where we’re at is kind of — it’s excellent.”
In one season, the team that was once a cautionary tale on the difficulties of starting up a high-major lacrosse program from scratch has become a success story.
Nielsen came into Michigan in 2018 as one of the most decorated lacrosse players of all time, a four-time national champion and three-time All-American at Northwestern who set three NCAA assists records during her career.
She’d won everywhere she’d been. She’d won so much that she’d never experienced a losing season — not as a player, not during assistant coaching stints at Penn State, Towson or Northwestern, not even when she was an assistant at Colorado in the first two years of the program’s existence.
With the Buffaloes, Nielsen learned how to build a team from scratch. She took the lessons she learned about laying a foundation with her to Ann Arbor, but this was her toughest task yet. After all, Colorado was a blank slate. At Michigan, losing was all anyone knew.
As recruits in 2014, senior goalkeeper Mira Shane and senior attacker Adriana Pendino — along with several other East Coast commits — attended the Wolverines’ inaugural game, at Villanova. They watched as Michigan scored the first goal only to eventually fall, 20-7.
For years, that was what the program was. Any sparks of hope were quickly extinguished en route to constant defeats. To survive in that environment almost requires a numbness to failure, a numbness rarely found in high-level athletes.
Nielsen saw that first-hand in her debut as head coach. Following a 20-10 loss to the Buffaloes, the players boarded the bus, laughing and talking like normal. So Nielsen stepped in and addressed her team.
That’s not OK. You can’t be coming onto the bus laughing after a first game where you lost by 10.
Two days later, Michigan lost to Jacksonville. Again, there was a sense that it was just fine. The Wolverines hadn’t played badly, per se. The defense was alright. They scored more goals than they usually did.
When Nielsen let them know that their complacency wouldn’t fly, it came as a shock.
“We were OK with losing because that was the culture around Michigan women’s lacrosse earlier, previously,” said sophomore midfielder Maggie Kane. “And so when we were losing a lot of those games, it was obviously frustrating. But I think everybody was just used to it.”
Nielsen worked to rebuild her program’s culture from the inside out. She knew it would take time, and she wanted to make sure it was done the right way. Nielsen’s goal was to change the team’s mindset and to establish the values of accountability, consistent improvement and leadership by example. Her methods were stricter than previous coaches, but she simultaneously made sure her team had fun, gelled with each other and played with confidence.
Her biggest message to the team was the first step of building a winning culture:
“You’re never gonna go anywhere if you don’t set your expectations high.”
It was the last game of the 2018 season, and once again, it was meaningless.
The Wolverines were in State College for a tilt with No. 16 Penn State. They weren’t going to finish over .500 or make the Big Ten Tournament. They had nothing left to play for but themselves.
But sometimes, when pride is the only thing on the line, funny things happen.
With seven seconds left, Michigan trailed by one. With six seconds left, Molly Garrett picked up a ground ball and shoveled a pass to Catherine Granito. Granito’s shot plopped into the top of the net. The game was tied.
With one second left, Kane sprinted down the field after winning a draw, took a last-ditch blind shot and stood, speechless, watching the net ripple as her shot went in. She looked around to see if anyone else had processed what had just happened.
Everyone was speechless. Then, they began jumping up and down and embracing each other.
“I think I peed my pants,” Shane said.
The Wolverines had won, 11-10, beating a ranked team for the first time — ever. To this day, they get chills watching the replay.
It was the first time all the puzzle pieces clicked. Michigan was nowhere near a real championship, but this could be its little championship, the small victory to pave the road for bigger ones.
“We realized what a good, big win felt like,” Kane said. “I think everyone geared up and was like, ‘Wow, that isn’t OK to lose to these teams that are even mediocre, and it feels awesome to beat a top-20 team.’ ”
Suddenly, drawn in by the taste of victory, Michigan had confidence and momentum going into the 2019 season. It was a lethal combination.
On Feb. 26, the 5-0 Wolverines faced a three-goal deficit at No. 9 Denver with less than 15 minutes remaining. At altitude, on the road, against a ranked team, Michigan stormed back to win, 12-10.
“I think win after win, game after game, when we were 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 4-0, all the way up, it was like we went into each and every game, the following game, like, ‘We will win this game,’” Pendino said. “Not, ‘We can win this game,’ or ‘We might win this game.’ So I think the confidence aspect just came with our success.”
The first step in learning how to win was setting the expectation of winning as the norm. The second — winning close games and coming from behind — came in Denver.
Through February and March, the Wolverines kept winning, stretching their streak to 13 games with their first-ever win over No. 18 Johns Hopkins on March 30. But the unexpected success wasn’t without its drawbacks.
“The hardest struggle was with winning, you’re no longer the underdog,” Pendino said. “People have more expectations and there was pressure.”
As the wins mounted so did the pressure. Michigan had never before faced the phenomenon of a winning streak, of each game feeling more and more important and more and more like a burden.
“As the ladder kept climbing, where it was just like six, seven, eight, nine, it was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m really happy, but holy moly,’ ” Shane said. “And the stage got bigger. I think that people were definitely rising to the occasion but … it was hard at some point.
“It’s hard to know how to win and this program hasn’t known how to do it in the past and I think Hannah and our whole entire coaching staff is teaching us how to do that, to walk away with — even if you feel like there’s pressure, how do you rise to the occasion and come off the field no matter what, with a win?”
In its 13-game winning streak, Michigan figured out how to do that. But then came the third step: learning to lose again.
Not losing chronically, like the Wolverines did before, but losing — as all teams do — and coming back from it.
On April 6, Michigan scored the first goal of the game against Maryland, then the No. 2 team in the country. An hour later, the Wolverines had to deal with the consequences of a 14-3 drubbing by the Terrapins.
“It was really just a relief to get the one loss out of the way,” Nielsen said. “Get it early-ish in the campaign, I’d rather lose in April than lose in May. So it was just, it was a really good measuring stick, and to come back and reflect on the game and say, ‘Alright, guys, we need to be better. We need to be a little bit more confident in what we’re doing, play a little harder, play a little faster.’ ”
While Nielsen focused on the positives, the players were crushed. It was a far cry from the athletes who had laughed on the bus after a loss to a team far inferior to Maryland. The complacency was gone, but in the immediate aftermath, so was the confidence that had carried the team so far. A year after working to teach her team that losing was never OK, it was up to Nielsen to pick Michigan back up after the suddenly forgotten phenomenon of defeat.
That, in itself, showed just how much the expectations had shifted.
The coaches had a pulse on their athletes. Practice that week was light and fun, designed to get the Wolverines back on board and ready for the rest of their season. This time, they’d earned it.
And in a way, the loss took the pressure off. No longer was each game the one that threatened to end the streak. Instead, each successive win would be gravy. The following week, the Wolverines clinched an undefeated home record by beating Rutgers, something that seemed unthinkable just months before.
Nielsen always pushed her players to think bigger and set loftier goals. Now, as they’ve thought bigger and won bigger, she’s struggling to temper her own expectations as the bar for success gets higher.
“You win games and your expectation levels get higher and higher and you forget to just sort of reflect and say, ‘We’re probably not supposed to be here,’ ” Nielsen said. “And so we’re a little harder on them than maybe we need to be sometimes.”
But even if the season does end in disappointment for Nielsen, it will be a symptom of the winning culture she’s successfully established. Even her talk of April losses being preferable to May losses would have been unheard of before, when May lacrosse existed simply as a figment of their collective imaginations.
Michigan is no longer the laughingstock. Now, it’s a team that could play a few weeks into May if everything breaks right. Nielsen, of course, is no stranger to postseason lacrosse and the way that anything can happen there. She sees that in the Wolverines’ future — if not quite this year, then soon, because with the foundation she built, the sky is the limit. Finally, the team is full of people who — top to bottom — know how to win.
Nielsen has teased the players about her experiences with May lacrosse, but she hasn’t gone into too much detail. She wants them to stay hungry, after all — and she wants them to experience the feeling for themselves.
To know they’re more than capable, all she has to do is look at how her goal board has changed since February.