Winning Not Only Measure of Success for 4 New Division I Women's Teams

Clemson checked all the boxes when Marina Miller was looking for a landing spot as a graduate transfer.

The midfielder who played the last four years at Richmond would like to pursue coaching, and Clemson’s athletic leadership master’s program was the perfect fit with a wealth of resources to guide her path. Athletically, coming to Clemson brought its own challenging environment, an ACC schedule and the chance to build a legacy as part of the first Tigers women’s lacrosse team. Miller and 10 other graduate transfers are looking to buck the trend of tough inaugural seasons for first-year programs.

“There’s 11 of us that came in and said, ‘We’re ready for this,’” Miller said. “We’re pretty dead-set on, I don’t want to say just winning — sometimes success isn’t measured in just wins — but we’re here to compete. That’s a big part of why all the transfers came here.”

Clemson is one of four Division I programs preparing for their first seasons this spring along with Eastern Michigan, Fairleigh Dickinson and Xavier. The fall has served as an important starting point for the programs. It’s their first chance to see their teams together, establish culture, find leadership, form bonds that will benefit them this spring and start to grow.

“Seeing that growth from our first practice and what that looked like to our first fall ball event, and then from that first fall ball event two weeks later to our second fall ball event, they can see that,” Clemson coach Allison Kwolek said. “They can feel that they are getting better, they’re working together better. Every time they step out on the field, their confidence is growing because they are seeing that growth, and they can feel that growth through the fall.”

Growth this fall and through their first season is a common theme among all four teams, though each has their own challenges, approaches and goals for the upcoming year. Among goals, winning may not be the only measure of success, but it is important to Division I programs, and first-year teams have traditionally faced an uphill battle.

“Sometimes success isn’t measured in just wins.”

— Marina Miller

High Point started its program 15-4 in 2011, and Florida was 10-8 in its first year in 2010 before leaping to 16-4 in its second season, but those are exceptions. Michigan didn’t have a winning record until its sixth year in 2019. Another Midwest team, Akron, went 7-8 in its first full season in 2021 (the Zips were 0-7 to start 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic hit) as a Mid-American team. Eastern Michigan is joining the MAC under Sara Tisdale, who led fellow MAC member Central Michigan to a 6-10 campaign in its inaugural season in 2016. She went 51-8 as the first coach at Division III Augustana before then.

“You have to talk about wins,” Tisdale said. “That’s what we’re here for — to get some quality wins. But I’m a big believer in doing it the right way. We’ll never cut corners when it comes to strength and conditioning. We’ll have high expectations for our players in terms of work they’re putting in on their own time outside of practice to really develop their own game, watching film, kind of gaining those IQ pieces. We’re definitely talking about it.”

Tisdale feels comfortable in her third startup. Eastern Michigan announced it would start women’s lacrosse in 2020, and its infrastructure under athletic director Scott Wetherbee was enough to lure Tisdale away after leading Central Michigan to the NCAA tournament.

“This is the largest operating budget I’ve had out of anywhere I’ve been in my third go-around now,” Tisdale said. “He’s done it the right way in that he’s put the pieces in place for this program to be incredibly successful. That was one of the largest contributing factors for me saying yes to coming down. I knew everything was there that I needed to be successful.”

Xavier coach Meg Decker feels similarly. Decker won one game apiece in her first two seasons at her previous stop, Hartford, and helped VCU start its program with three wins when she was an assistant coach.

“I learned a ton,” Decker said. “You can’t help but learn. I learned the biggest factor to the success of a young team is confidence. It’s not skill, it’s not even growth, it is confidence. So, managing that and caring for that is an important priority. And then also being clear in what your expectations are so they can meet them.”

Decker has focused on points, transition play and draw controls. She is hoping by mastering those areas that Xavier can be .500 at least in its first year. They beat fellow Big East member Butler in a fall ball scrimmage, and she believes her squad can upend Marquette and Villanova. Decker set up a smaller 14-game schedule because of her team’s smaller roster size this year.

“Going back to the confidence piece, I picked our schedule in a way that success is possible for us,” Decker said. “And not just possible, but probable with the way we’re trending right now. We have a lot of talent. We got lucky with COVID that there was a delay in the recruiting process, so in our first two classes, we have nine All-Americans coming in. It’s a much different recruiting experience than I’ve had the pleasure of having in the past just because of the caliber of the school and the caliber of the conference. It’s a whole different animal for sure.”

It helps the Musketeers to have some experienced players. They already have five transfers and will add four more before the second semester to bolster a roster of young talent. Then they will have to figure out how to fit them in, for which the fall has been critical. Decker said new programs are challenged with finding where everyone fits, not just filling a couple holes.

“I brought in a ton of players that really can play anywhere in the field, and we’re just figuring out who is able to learn it the fastest in what area of the field,” she said. “That’s something we’re looking forward to. Also building trust in each other is a huge part of the fall for us. Trusting that we’re going to sell out for each other, trusting that we could follow plays and they did.”

The transfer portal is a game-changer for start-up programs. Tisdale, who has a pair of fifth-year graduate transfers and is talking to more who could play this spring, says the portal offers players the opportunity to jump at a new chance like a new program. And their arrival can raise expectations for new programs.

“That’s one of the biggest differences in that we don’t have only freshmen,” Tisdale said. “We have two fifth-year grad transfers. We have sophomores that were on campus from last year. So, we have some leadership experience. We have players that know how to live that student-athlete lifestyle successfully. I wish that was around back in 2014 and 2011 because being able to bring in players that have experience is huge.”

Fairleigh Dickinson doesn’t have that advantage after aiming to start building from the bottom up. Jessica Pandolf brought a graduate student, Saige-Lyn Gidzinski, with her from Stetson, where Pandolf was an assistant coach. Aside from her, the Knights have 13 freshmen and a senior who will come over from the women’s soccer team for the spring along with a freshman soccer player.

“We’re a little smaller, probably a little smaller than I wanted, but that’s OK,” Pandolf said. “I also didn’t just want to bring in anybody. I wanted to make sure I was selecting the right people, the right fit for what I wanted our program to be so in the next year, we have the right fit type of kid come to FDU and it’s not just like a big retention type of thing.”

Without a lot of players with previous college experience, Pandolf and her graduate assistant are answering more questions for their young team. They’ve also been able to set the standards, rules and expectations as they build a team culture. They are looking for daily growth and trying to keep their team from looking a year or two down the line when they will have more experience.

“We’re focused a lot on our culture, especially this year,” Pandolf said. “So, I try to say to them even if a game isn’t going to go so well in our favor, let’s just make sure we’re not losing ourselves in that. Let’s make sure that we continue to hold the standards that we’d continue to do throughout even if were winning games. Staying true to ourselves is the biggest thing that I think we’ll have to focus on.”


Clemson is dealing with the other end of the spectrum. They have 11 graduate transfers and eight undergraduate transfers leading their first class of seven freshmen. The Tigers are trying to blend players from a lot of different college cultures. They started that process with a team meeting during which each player described how they envisioned the Clemson program.

“What I loved is that they gave us the opportunity to tell them what we wanted to be, which is important because this is a unit,” Miller said. “It’s up to us what we want to make of it. It’s cool being in an environment where you have all these different styles, and when we first started, people were throwing out words like, ‘I want to see people who are gritty and respectful and grateful.’ Now it’s all coming together, which I think is awesome.”

Clemson had to address even the smallest details like the terminology the players use on the field. The fall has helped them start to trust their roles more and what each player can bring.

“It's like, we’re all in this mixing pot together and all learning from each other and finding that commonality in terms of what we’re doing and what we sound like together,” Kwolek said. “It’s been really neat. I feel like we’re at that point where we’re all using the same language for the most part on the field. Our last game against Jacksonville, if you came to that field, you wouldn’t have necessarily seen us and looked at us as a new program. It didn’t feel that way.”

Fall ball games have given players on the new programs an opportunity to play real competition without worrying about wins and losses yet. Coaches have been able to see growth from scrimmage to scrimmage.

“They’re learning all these lessons that you can’t just replicate that pressure and intensity at practice,” Tisdale said. “We can do that same thing in a drill, but it doesn’t carry the same purpose and passion that it does when you have an opponent coming down the field doing that to you. I think fall ball is absolutely critical for a young program.”

“Every time they step out on the field, their confidence is growing because they are seeing that growth and they can feel that growth through the fall,” Kwolek said. “And, two, it’s really exciting to play other teams. For them to be a part of Clemson and playing other teams, and have this new team that’s showcasing their efforts on the field. It’s been really exciting. It’s been really fun. I know everybody is really looking forward to playing again.”

Clemson has kept its focus on day-to-day improvements and fostering a competitive atmosphere in practice that drives growth. Every day that they improve they get closer to the lofty goals in the back of the players’ minds. Though they haven’t formalized their season goals yet, their veteran group that came from strong programs didn’t transfer to lose.

“We’re pretty much looking to make an immediate impact,” Miller said. “And that’s in and out of conference. Those games will be at different levels. The ACC is basically the biggest conference in lacrosse, and I think that’s going to be a challenge, but something we talked about at the beginning of the year was not shying away from that challenge but being excited that we’re here for that challenge.”