Lacrosse is indeed the fastest growing sport in the country and the growth of women’s lax is off the charts. In their most recent survey (2011), US Lacrosse indicated that the growth of women’s lacrosse at the collegiate level is up almost 32% and at the high school level, it’s up 48%. With the meteoric rise of the creator’s game, the need for coaches is equally as great. Many men have jumped into the women’s coaching pond. The mantra seems to be, “If Gary Gait can do it – why can’t I?” Gait is the Women’s Head Coach at Syracuse and previously coached the women’s team at Maryland. For those new to the sport, Gary and his brother Paul are considered to be the best players…ever. Let’s talk about the Gait’s the Powell’s and Jim Brown later.
Two collegiate coaches are leading the way in Michigan: Towbey Kassa at Oakland University and Greg Normand at Michigan State. Towbey and Greg shared their stories and ideas about the current landscape of women’s lax and where it might be headed in the future.
Lacrosse Examiner: The first question for you guys - How did you get involved coaching women’s teams?
Towbey Kassa – Oakland University
I was asked to coach the girl’s varsity team at Troy High School in 2002 since they no longer had a coach and was in need of one.
Greg Normand – MSU
I am not exactly sure how I first started talking with the folks at Michigan State. I know I interviewed two years ago and walked away from what I thought was a troubled program. But a year later I talked with the men’s coach Dwayne Hicks, who said he thought the program needed some direction. Dwayne was a friend; I followed him at Eastern, so I thought it would be a good fit. Two guys with a friendly background trying to grow both programs at Michigan State. I have to tell you the president at the time, Liz Mroz, was the primary reason I agreed to take the job. She was elected president and did a remarkable job of turning the ship around. I helped a bit, but Liz did much of the work.
Who did you play for / coach in the men's game?
I played at Troy High, went on to play at Oakland University where I was a captain all 4 years, and a US Lacrosse All-American. I played for the Chicago Machine in the MLL for a season. I also coached the men’s team at Oakland for 3 years then was asked to coach the girl’s team fall of 2006.
I coached the men at Central and Eastern and I’ve coached the high school teams at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s and Waterford.
What are the major differences between the men’s and women’s games?
The RULES!!!!!! You are also able to play with 7 players on offense and 4 players on defense. There is to be no contact unlike the guy’s game.
My favorite line about comparison is ‘men’s and women’s lacrosse is like comparing watermelons and Ferrari’s’…..I know its catching and passing, but the game is really different and I’ve learned to enjoy those differences.
The hard part of transition between the two games was the way the girls played. There were a lot of aspects of women’s lacrosse that were contrary to anything I’ve ever been involved with as a player or a coach. I didn’t know you were penalized for shooting too hard? I didn’t know you marked your spot on the field with a stick? I never fooled anybody from the beginning about my understanding of the women’s game – I made it clear to all of those involved in our program that I was learning the game from the ground up in the beginning.
I was fortunate enough to have a couple of really respected coaches, who made the transition from men to women, which supported my decision. They told me not to worry about the small stuff because lacrosse is catching and passing. They both told me my coaching strengths off the field, maybe organization and culture, were something that would help Michigan State and that I could always learn the game as I moved along in the beginning of my coaching tenure.
Discuss all of the whistles and the stoppages of play? Aren’t there a ton?
There are a ton of whistles and not that many “play on” calls. There is shooting space and 3 seconds that get called a ton. Charges and checks close to the head of the player also get whistles. The reason there are so many whistles is safety for the players
At first, all the play stoppage makes you nuts as a coach. The truth is there is a huge gap between good women officials and everybody else. We’re lucky enough at the collegiate level to land pretty solid officials most of the time, but when we get whistle blowers, it slows down the flow. Now, I understand that most whistles are based on safety - the girls don’t wear protective equipment except goggles, so there should be more calls. But sometimes it’s overdone, although I am not sure you can screw around with sticks and the fragility of your brain. The major discussion in this sport is whether or not helmets should be used. Before I began coaching I would have supported helmets and now I won’t because I like the game differences.
Do you get a different sense of satisfaction when the girls learn something or they make a great play?
100% different satisfaction! I get to see them get something that I drew up or talked about and for them to achieve the style game I bring is so very rewarding!
One of the few rewards in coaching is watching your student-athletes learn and progress and that has nothing to do with gender. I think the quiet satisfaction for me as a coach at MSU is watching our young ladies adapt to something specific we bring from the men’s side and then watch them adapt and accept those methods.
The gender line was obvious in the beginning, but blurred when we began to improve and win a few games. Now, I think my young ladies would tell you I am just another picky coach looking for improvement.
Do women listen more?
Yes I believe that they do listen more. I think guys have a bit more of an ego at times and it holds back their sense to pay attention. Girls are more chatty, and more emotional than guys, so I guess there are good and bad points for both. (Towbey added a smile on this one.)
Having never had a sister or a daughter, I won’t answer that question. I think good athletes who want to improve listen to good information and those who don’t want to get better, don’t listen. I would say there are specific differences between genders, but I don’t address those issues. I have young female assistants to deal with that. But, here is one slight difference that I noticed. Last year, my mom was battling cancer and nearly half the MSU team called her or wrote to ask how she was doing, that shocked me. This weekend, I received several texts from my athletes about having a happy holiday - that never happened coaching boys, never. Again, no sister or daughter, I guess I’m the dumbest guy in the room at times.
Do you incorporate men's strategies into your game plans?
Yes 100%. To be honest everything I do is from the men’s game with a twist to incorporate the women’s rules. Using men strategies is what has helped elevate my program at Oakland to the national stage!!
Most of what we do is from the men’s side because it’s the only thing I know. We have certainly adapted to the specifics of women’s lacrosse, but we still run my read-and-react motion offense and I was told it wouldn’t work last year. We scored nearly 300 goals in 22 games, so I am fairly sure that execution works on either side of the gender aisle, and believe me when I tell you that bad goaltending or poor shot selection is not gender based.
What are your thoughts about the girls wearing those soft helmets?
I hate it to be honest! The reason why is that it hurts the integrity of the game! It’s just going to make it more aggressive. If they use the soft helmets, we might as well get the ladies into full lax gear from Brine and Warrior!!!
As I mentioned earlier, adding any type of protective gear would lead to more aggressive play and I think that’s a slippery slope for women’s lacrosse. You can’t make this the man’s game, period. I like the game the way it’s played and we should celebrate the differences not calculate ways to make them similar.
Where do you think the girl's game will be in Michigan in 5-10 years?
I think that with schools like Oakland, MSU, Wayne State, Eastern, and Saginaw Valley, universities will want to add NCAA lacrosse! It’s a fast and interesting sport to play and watch! I think that once universities add lacrosse you will have more girls leaving soccer, softball, and track to play lacrosse!
I think in 5-10 years you will see a huge growth of girl’s lacrosse!
The first issue is opportunity. There are a lot more college lacrosse teams being established for women than men because it’s cheaper to field a women’s team. I think that will have a profound difference in a decade because it means more opportunity. And as much as I would like to forecast the future, I can’t for all kinds of reasons. I am going to get ripped for this statement, but the women here in Michigan are three to five years behind the men in Michigan and I think the men are two-three years behind areas like Columbus, Ohio or Denver.
The improvement that has to occur can only come from playing better competition, but then we begin this discussion about playing 12 months a year.
I have no trouble with the MHSAA’s 300-mile restriction because it’s a rule that regulates all prep sports in Michigan. The travel restriction rules are fair for the entire body of high school student athletes - is it fair for high school lacrosse in this state? Probably not, but overall I think it makes sense because I think our athletes should be multi-dimensional. That said, if we are going to progress as a sport, we have to find better coaching. I am an adequate coach, but watching some of my girls, who hail from some pretty strong high school programs, amaze me that they aren’t stronger fundamentally. I have athletes, but not always lacrosse players. That’s not a knock on their high school coaches, but it illustrates the lack of opportunity. So when I say they lack opportunity but support a travel restriction, I sound like I am talking out of both sides of my mouth and I am not. I think we need better coaching, statewide, and then we need to trust the learning curve to solve those improvement questions. The women don’t play off-season nearly as much as the men and I like that because the frenzy for making money off these girls hasn’t infected the sport like it has on the man’s side. Where are we in 10 years? Better, but balanced.
Any other thoughts or comments?
There are a few universities in Michigan that are rumored to add women’s lacrosse to their programs. I hope that young women will show interest and help support these programs! We need more coaches and officials in this game!
I just wanted to add that the biggest joy for me is learning more about lacrosse in general and then watching the ‘die-hard’ folks on the female side learn something from the new guy. I had an assistant last spring that played DI lacrosse and fought me tooth and nail about my methods. By the end of fall, and after taking a new post at Hofstra, she told me before leaving that she actually learned something from the men’s game and our practice habits. I think both sides could learn from each other, but if I have a single criticism in that statement it would be that the women are a little less receptive to change than men, but with enough folks coming from the men’s side in the past couple of years, who knows. Gary Gait has done fairly well in recent years at Syracuse.
Thanks coaches – good luck this season!
Oakland gets their season underway against the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on February 7, while MSU travels to Mt. Pleasant to play CMU on February 8.
For information on Oakland U, go to:
For information on the Lady Spartans go to: http://www.hometeamsonline.com/teams/?u=MSUWOMENSLACROSSE&s=lacrosse&t=c