Ulehla not shying away from top competition

Daily Sports Writer
Published March 11, 2014

Striding out of the locker room almost 30 minutes after the final buzzer went off in her team’s 20-6 loss to Northwestern, Michigan women’s lacrosse coach Jennifer Ulehla had her explanation ready.

“Sorry I took so long,” Ulehla said. “This was a learning opportunity, and I wanted to use it.”

Determined to use her team of freshmen as the building block for a nationally respected program, Ulehla wants to ensure that her young team can take something away from every game they play, win or lose.

The Wolverines’ first-year coach understands that while it is hard for her fledgling team to compete with the nation’s top teams, in the long run it will be beneficial for the program. In its first five games, Michigan (0-5) has already faced No. 5 Florida and No. 8 Northwestern (4-2), a program that has won seven of the last nine national titles. While both have ended in lopsided defeats, Ulehla knows this will improve her program down the road.

In Tuesday’s matchup with the Wildcats, Ulehla stressed the importance of taking advantage of the opportunities before them, controlling what they can control and giving all the effort they can.

“Northwestern is an incredibly talented team, so for us to have that opportunity — especially on defense, the way they worked our defense — was really a great chance for us to get better,” Ulehla said. “We’re making progress, it just takes time. In our last game, we came out real flat and were more or less watching the other team play as opposed to competing.”

The offense, while only scoring six goals, looked more engaged and competitive than it had since its home opener, committing fewer unforced turnovers than in previous games and creating some wide-open looks in transition. Several posts and some acrobatic saves by the Wildcats’ goalie kept the Wolverines from adding a few more goals.

“One of the things (Northwestern) isn’t doing as well this year is getting in and getting balanced defensively,” Ulehla said. “To just get the ball and go hard was one of our goals.”

Compared to her teams last game against Florida, which ended 20-4, Ulehla saw some improvement.

“It was similar in the score, but different because I felt we were working much better as a team. I thought the effort was better,” Ulehla said. “(On the field) it’s about getting a young group moving forward.”

While coaching a first-year program comprised solely of freshmen is a rare occurrence, Ulehla has been through the situation before. She was an assistant coach for Florida in its inaugural 2008 season and stayed there until 2010. The Gators have since become one of the nation’s top programs, a rise she is hoping to duplicate at Michigan.

“A lot of what we’re going through right now is what I went through at Florida,” Ulehla said. “It’s a good thing for me because it keeps me grounded and reminds me that we’re building — and we’re building a foundation this year and each and every experience is a great opportunity to get better. The future is bright. This is gonna be a tough year, but we’re gonna get better.”