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God Squad: How will Liberty University's new team mix the cross with lacrosse?
Regan Denham knows how to take on the challenge of building a women's lacrosse program at a Christian college. Two years ago she became the head coach at Missouri Baptist in the program's second year. Her only season resulted in a winning record.
That helped her get hired at Liberty University in May. But Liberty's program is the ground floor, not the second floor. And this isn't the NAIA like it was at Missouri Baptist or NCAA Division III like when she coached Springfield College to a winning record. This is NCAA Division I, and Liberty, located in the Bible Belt in Lynchburg, Va., is the school of Jerry Falwell and the most recognizable name in evangelical Christian higher education.
"She's a great fit for us, a perfect fit being the kind of person she is with her relationship with the Lord," Liberty athletic director Jeff Barber said. "She's done all the groundwork in other programs. She understands the game, has great passion for the game."
Denham, who finished her playing career at Division III Messiah College in 2004, understands the challenge she faces after filling her roster through an open tryout in early September. This first year is about building a foundation with the players she has and turning her recruiting focus toward Division I athletes who want to attend a Christian university.
Can those two segments mesh? Can Liberty replace "play hard, party hard" — a mantra that has defined at least a part of lacrosse's culture for years — with "play hard, pray hard?"
"I think there are girls definitely looking for this opportunity," Denham said.
All Liberty students must sign the code of conduct, called "The Liberty Way," to be admitted. This code includes standards for attire and hair, and it prohibits alcohol, drug use and sex outside of marriage. On-campus students are expected to attend chapel services three days a week.
Employees, though not students, must sign their agreement with a doctrinal statement that reaffirms their foundational beliefs in Christianity. Regardless, the message of Jesus Christ will resonate in class, in the dorms, in chapel and from coaches.
"Having that same world view and that same focus makes it very close knit," Denham said. "I think there's a lot of really good positive peer pressure here keeping you out of trouble, really focused on your spiritual life, your academic life, the whole person. And I think that's really what we offer, is educating the whole person."
Laura Miller has become a whole person at Liberty. In her fourth year there, she has played for the school's club team since arriving on campus. With the switch to NCAA play, she'll be a junior athletically.
She came for a degree in kinesiology so she can teach physical education and coach lacrosse. And she's enjoyed the kind of spiritual growth she didn't have in high school in Woodbridge, Va.
"I wasn't the greatest of all kids in high school," she said, "but coming here really turned my life around."
She listened for two years to the speculation that lacrosse might be added as a varsity sport. It wasn't until lacrosse got the most votes in a student survey that she knew she would have a chance to play in the NCAA.
"I never thought I would be playing Division I lacrosse," Miller said. "I'm very excited and I'm very blessed. God is the only way I'm on this team."
The experience of current students on campus can vouch for the school's positive effect on young adults, but can the Flames recruit the talented lacrosse players needed to win? On the surface, some aspects of the lacrosse lifestyle don't intuitively match the tenets of a religious college.
Judging from women's basketball, however, that answer could be yes. The Flames have recruited well enough to compete for and win conference championships. Liberty has been to 12 NCAA tournaments in 13 years.
Another challenge for lacrosse, though, is that elite play at the high school level hasn't yet caught up with increased national participation.
Liberty's backyard of Central and Southwestern Virginia has few high school programs, but Lynchburg is a day trip to Northern Virginia and Baltimore. Denham also will expand her recruiting efforts nationally to places like Colorado and California. Why? Liberty typically attracts students from across the country.
Denham's own experience as a lacrosse recruit in high school gives her hope. She was interested in Liberty but crossed it off her list when she found out there was no lacrosse team.
"I think there are Division I caliber athletes out there that are looking for the type of school that Liberty is," Denham said.
Liberty will join Presbyterian, Howard, Longwood, Detroit and fellow 2010 newcomer Jacksonville in the National Lacrosse Conference. Winning any games, even against recently established programs, will be difficult.
"I'm hoping that some of those girls realize what they're getting into and are ready for the challenge of competing in D-I," Denham said.
Barber added women's lacrosse to bring Liberty into line with Title IX requirements, and that had an immediate impact.
Sophomore Kristin Crowley left Colorado Springs, Colo., to play lacrosse at St. Bonaventure University in New York, despite an original desire to attend an evangelical Christian school.
With no such NCAA Division I opportunities in her sport, she went through the fall season and then began looking for a place to transfer.
When she heard Liberty was adding lacrosse, she got in touch with the school that day.
"I really enjoy the Christian atmosphere," Crowley said. "I enjoy having that support behind you, and it's that way with the team as well."