PHOENIX – When Arizonans think of sports, lacrosse isn’t the first one that comes to mind. The game is dominant on the East Coast and is slowly making its way across the country. However, the sport is alive and well in Tempe with the Sun Devil lacrosse program.
Five years ago, the ASU women’s team was just beginning its first season in program history. The inaugural season ended up being only one of two losing seasons in program history.
Now, the Sun Devils are coming off a monumental season, which included a trip to the Pac-12 championship game, and are hungrier than ever to continue growing. They kick off the 2023 season Saturday with a home game against St. Bonaventure, one of those storied East Coast lacrosse programs.
The past offseason was full of changes for ASU with 16 players graduating, 12 new players joining the team and an entirely new coaching staff coming on board. Coaches Tim McCormack, Nicole Graziano and Dorrien Van Dyke had been with the program since the summer of 2019 but left at the conclusion of the 2022 season, with McCormack taking over the women’s program at Johns Hopkins University and bringing Van Dyke and Graziano with him.
Taryn VanThof was hired in July to helm the Sun Devils’ women’s team, and she brought on board as assistants Caroline Wakefield, a former James Madison assistant coach, and 2018 national champion Haley Warden. The trio already have built a strong identity.
Over winter break, the team read “The Energy Bus” by Jon Gordon to learn about positive energy and success. The book has outlined much of the team’s approach to the season.
“We talked about “The Energy Bus” a lot and they’ve jumped right on,” Wakefield said of her players’ response.
The consensus among the players is that this season will be full of energy. With 12 new players, 10 of them true freshmen, the Sun Devils hope to use youth to their advantage. Kaylon Buckner, a graduate student midfielder and captain, said the team chooses to focus on the freshness the new players bring to the team.
“Fresh legs and fresh experiences,” Buckner said.
Those fresh legs and experiences will be important this season for one of the toughest schedules the Sun Devils have ever faced. After Saturday’s opener, the Sun Devils head out on a five-game road trip. The last two games of that trip will be against lacrosse powerhouses Florida, where VanThof coached before being lured by ASU, and USC.
The Sun Devils will be tested early on in the season and hope the energy of the team can propel them to success.
The 2023 schedule is a tough one for any team, but even tougher for a team with an entirely new coaching staff. VanThof, Wakefield and Warden have been careful to build upon the success the program has already had while also adding their own touches. The entire program has embraced the change going into the season.
“We bought into that change and change is good,” VanThof said.
Despite all the changes the new season has brought, junior goalkeeper Flynn Murphy said the team remains a family. The new coaches have made it a priority to keep the family aspect of the team that has been built over the course of the past few seasons.
VanThof, Wakefield and Warden all bring years of lacrosse expertise to ASU, including multiple years in professional lacrosse. Warden and Wakefield still play professionally in the summer with Athletes Unlimited and their experience has enabled them to be the best coaches they can be, as they are still directly involved in the player side of the game.
“They’ve taken what they’ve learned and molded it to fit the style that we play and the personnel that we have,” Murphy said.
The coaches are in a new territory – literally. All three coaches have played and coached on the East Coast and are experiencing West Coast lacrosse for the first time. As the sport makes its way to new pockets of the country, the trio hope to continue to elevate awareness of not only Sun Devil lacrosse, but West Coast lacrosse as a whole.
“It’s a different ballgame playing West Coast lacrosse and we want to be known on the East Coast just as much,” Wakefield said.
VanThof has also launched a series of camps and clinics for girls in Arizona to improve their lacrosse skills. Wakefield and Warden are also involved and together, the coaches work to grow the Arizona lacrosse community.
As the coaches settle into their roles throughout the season, Wakefield said they will likely try different plays and approaches to different situations.
“Expect the unexpected out here,” Wakefield said.
The ultimate goal for the Sun Devils every season is to win the Pac-12 championship and earn a bid to the NCAA tournament, but that goal means even more this season after coming so close last season. The Sun Devils had their winningest Pac-12 season and beat No. 16 USC for a trip to the conference championship game against No. 17 Stanford, ultimately losing 18-12 to end the season.
“I think they have a chip on their shoulder and they’re willing to work hard,” Wakefield said.
As the Sun Devils start their campaign for the Pac-12 championship, the energy of the team is palpable. Every member of the team is engaged during practice, and coaches can hardly tear their eyes away from the players, even during conditioning.
Even after a year filled with change, from players to the coaching staff, the Sun Devils have taken everything in stride and continue to ride the energy bus as far as possible. They are also committed to remaining a family through all the changes within the program.
“No hesitation whether or not we love these girls or want to be out here,” Wakefield said.