This story is part of The Sun’s 2017 spring supplement. To view the rest of the supplement, click here.
“Get better everyday.” These three seemingly simple words have elevated the Cornell women’s lacrosse team from being an underdog to a juggernaut.
Led by head coach, Jenny Graap ’86, and assistant coaches Bill Olin and Margaret Corzel, the relentless squad quickly established itself as a force to be reckoned with and earned its reputation as one of the most dominant teams in the nation.
Currently ranked No. 11 in the national polls, the Red has had a season for the books so far and looks poised to continue the trend heading into the postseason. The team’s record (11-4, 6-1 Ivy), is one of the best in program history, and after taking down Harvard on Saturday, ties the 2002 and 2006 squads for the best conference record. It is also the first time the Red won the Ivy League Regular Season Championship since 2006. Both the 2002 and the 2006 teams made the national tournament, and the 2002 team made it all the way to the NCAA Final Four.
Proving itself on the national stage, Cornell also downed powerhouses No. 7 Penn and No. 6 USC, en route to forging an eight-game win streak and securing a spot in the Ivy League tournament.
Never going down without a fight, the Red has only lost to teams ranked in the top 20 nationally, and three of the four losses were by a one-goal margin.
Statistics like these are impressive for any team, but even more so for Cornell, who graduated a stellar class of eight seniors last year, leaving many wondering if this year’s team would be able to maintain a national presence.
“Our eight seniors in 2016 were passionate and charismatic,” Graap said. “Not having their strong personalities was a void which we needed to fill.”
Instead of cowering away from the daunting challenge, this year’s squad rose to the occasion by elevating its play as homage to last year’s seniors’ legacy.
“Last year’s senior class showed our team that with hard work and the will and want to win we could accomplish anything,” said sophomore attacker Sarah Phillips. “This message I believe has been the way we have responded this year without them. By playing for those values and being so determined to not only win, but get better every single day.”
“Throughout the fall and winter training, our team had time to gel and time to develop its own signature,” Graap added. “There’s a collective will with our 2017 team that resonates and brings confidence to our younger players.”
While the team has improved collectively, many individual players have also taken their game to the next level in order to help the team achieve its goals.
“We have a wide range of players contributing on all sides of the field,” said senior tri-captain attacker Catherine Ellis. “We have freshmen playing and starting which is awesome and a lot of new people stepping into bigger roles and playing well. Everyone is always pushing the person next to them to get better and I think that’s something that is separating this team from others.”
Some of the more notable individual accomplishments this season include Ellis eclipsing the 100 career goals mark, as well as senior goalie Renee Poullott surpassing 400 career saves, becoming only the second player in Cornell history to achieve that feat. Senior tri-captain defender, Caitie Smith, has also been nominated for the prestigious Tewaaraton Award, which recognizes the top lacrosse players in the nation.
Demonstrating its incredible resilience and versatility, the Red has remained calm under pressure to pull out wins from a variety of different situations. Whether it was trailing at the half, only to outscore the opponent 12-1 in the second half — as was the case with Yale — or hanging on to the lead in the final few minutes of the game when the opponent was coming in hot — as was the case with USC — no situation was able to break the Red’s composure.
“I think what is unique about the team this year is that we are very flexible and we are always incorporating new ideas, new plays and new defenses into practices and games,” Smith said. “We have a really strong bench and can put people in games to really give us a spark.”
When out on the field, the team functions as one synchronized unit, moving together in a coordinated harmony. The players’ backgrounds, however, are as disparate as the numbers that emblazon their jerseys.
From Tualatin, Ore., to Vero Beach, Fla., the 29-women squad is comprised of athletes from all around the country that have all come to Cornell for different reasons.
Junior midfielder and Rochester native Taylor Reed said that though she “initially wanted to go to college very far away from home,” a visit to campus caused her to “[fall] in love with [Cornell].” She added that “there were so many different academic options” and that the “New York state tuition didn’t hurt either.”
Poullot said that she chose Cornell because “something just felt right” once she visited the campus and because she “really liked the team, [its] core values, the facilities and the coaching staff.”
On the other hand, Smith said that she came to C.U. because she “wanted to try something different” and that she was “honestly unaware of how the lacrosse program was, but willing to give something completely new a try.”
A Cornell Hall of Fame inductee and Red lacrosse alumna herself, Graap brings her own unique background to the team.
“Initially I did not apply for Cornell’s opening because I had only four years of head coaching experience, and I was happy living in Fairfax, Va., and coaching at George Mason, a program I started in 1993,” Graap admits. “[Athletic Director] Andy Noel was instrumental in getting me back to campus to interview, and also in advocating for the investment the department needed to make to elevate the Big Red women’s lacrosse program.”
Since beginning her tenure as head coach in 1997, Graap has led the program to two Ivy League titles, two ECAC titles and four NCAA tournament appearances.
No matter their diverse pasts or reasons behind choosing Cornell, it is clear that the players and coaches are completely devoted to the team and achieving their goals of winning the Ivy League title and earning a berth to the NCAA tournament.
“I think the driving force behind our team’s success is our willingness to push each other to get better,” Ellis said. “Our theme for the season is ‘better everyday’ and we have really taken that to heart.”
There are five days until the Ivy League tournament and the Red will no doubt embody its motto by capitalizing on all five opportunities to “get better everyday.”