Ahead of the Game: Sweet Briar Lacrosse

Jennifer Crispen

Note: Many thanks to Theresa Carriveau ’20 for letting us use her Honors Summer Research paper, “Ahead of the Game: A Look at the History of Athletics, Field Hockey, and Lacrosse at Sweet Briar College from 1900-1930,” to write this story.

Lacrosse came to Sweet Briar in 1912, brought by recently hired physical director Cara Gascoigne. The first club team at the College was organized in 1914. It appears that Sweet Briar may have been one of the earliest institutions to introduce the sport. In fact, it may have been the first institution in the country to play lacrosse.

In 2007, long-time Sweet Briar coach Jennifer Crispen wrote in the Alumnae Magazine, “You cannot underestimate the influence of the early physical educators at Sweet Briar. They valued athletics and competition not only as necessary, but as good for their students. Much of the early progress in women’s competition was due to the competitive philosophy of women’s college athletics, particularly the Mid-Atlantic and Southern women’s colleges. Cara Gascoigne left a legacy that still benefits Sweet Briar student-athletes today.”

Sweet Briar Athletics: The Early Years

In 1907, when Sweet Briar College launched its athletic association, college-supported athletic competition for women wasn’t all that common. Mount Holyoke had introduced physical education in 1837, but it didn’t much resemble what we consider athletics today; it included light exercise, walking and calisthenics. By the end of the century, more sports had been introduced to college women, including horseback riding, croquet, bowling, boating, ice skating, archery, tennis, crew, walking, bicycling, fencing, swimming, baseball and football. But some sports were considered inappropriate for women. Basketball, it was thought, was too rough for girls, causing them undue exertion.

Cara Gascoigne
Cara Gascoigne in 1917

Intercollegiate athletic competition among women was rare. Lucille Eaton Hill, the director of physical training at Wellesley College, noted that “fiercely competitive athletics have their dangers for men, but they mainly develop strength. For women their dangers are greater and the qualities they tend to develop are not womanly.” In addition to the worry about introducing “unwomanly qualities,” people worried about the expense of hiring professional coaches and paying for equipment. Furthermore, women’s athletics for the enjoyment of spectators was frowned upon. Women were supposed to enjoy the game rather than emphasize winning or individual accomplishments.

Sweet Briar students formally created their athletic association in June of 1907, just one year after the school started accepting students. These Sweet Briar women challenged the ideals of the time, suggesting that they could be interesting without being pale and “sufficiently intellectual without rising our health.” Further bucking trends, Sweet Briar began scheduling intercollegiate contests in field hockey and basketball in 1919.

Crispen began coaching lacrosse at Sweet Briar in 1977 and became not only a beloved member of the Sweet Briar community but also boasted an impressive history of accomplishments as a coach. She won many collegiate championships, was named ODAC Coach of the Year four times and coached 12 All-Americans in lacrosse. She also coached eight All-Americans in field hockey. In her 30-year career at the College, she coached more than 500 lacrosse games and two nationally ranked lacrosse teams. Among her many legacies: the Sweet Briar athletics logo, which she drew herself, and which is affectionately known as the “Crispen Vixen.” She mentored hundreds of lacrosse and field hockey players before her death in 2008.

Jennifer Crispen
Jennifer Crispen

Today, lacrosse is in good hands at Sweet Briar.

Jodi Canfield, who joined Sweet Briar as athletics director in 2018, is a longtime lacrosse coach and player and like those early Sweet Briar women back in 1907, Jodi believes that athletics are a critical part of the academic mission of the College. “Athletics helps foster leadership abilities through being a part of team, conflict resolution and communication skills,” she says. “As a department, we have educational sessions, mentoring programs to be proactive on the academic front, and then constant contact with our student-athletes to try and intervene at the first spot of difficulty.  Student-athletes have a higher GPA than the general student body.”

She is optimistic about the future of Sweet Briar lacrosse. “The Sweet Briar program is growing and should be competitive in the conference in the coming years,” Jodi says. “Teams that are as large as a lacrosse team (20-25 players) often need more time to develop to become competitive. Specialty positions in attack, midfield, defense and goalies need time in the recruiting process to develop and yield.”

Jodi’s faith in the program’s future is justified by Meredith Newman ’09 as the head coach. Prior to coming back to Sweet Briar in 2017, Meredith was the founding head coach of the lacrosse program at Beloit College in Wisconsin. She also spent two years at Augustana College in Illinois, where she compiled an overall record of 37-5, a perfect 12-0 regular season conference record, and back-to-back College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin (CCIW) tournament titles, as well as NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 appearances.

Meredith Newman ’09
Meredith Newman ’09 coaches one of her players

Meredith takes being a head coach seriously and knows that her job is about more than just teaching the rules of the game. Her own open-door policy comes from what she learned from her own favorite coaches at Sweet Briar. “My experience as a student-athlete molded me into a more responsible, committed, organized and effective leader because of the incredible mentorship and leadership of the coaches during my time as a player: Missy Ackerman and Hilary London,” Newman says. “I am honored to be in such an influential role and aim to provide the same degree of mentorship to our athletes today as they gave to me.”

Meredith is excited about the future of the Sweet Briar lacrosse program. Her immediate goals are to increase scoring opportunities, limit turnovers and establish a tradition of relentless defense and hustle, but she also looks forward to recruiting the next generation and leaving a strong foundation for the future. “The lacrosse players who will carry the torch in the future will be committed to pushing the program forward and may very well find themselves in fiercely competitive company with some of the strongest programs in our conference,” she says. “They will be competing in the conference tournament.”

This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 Alumnae Magazine.