Composed of 17 student-athletes, this team has successfully defended a division title for the sixth year in a row and has beaten powerhouse teams such as the University of Michigan and West Virginia.
However, this team fails to attract large crowds. In fact, many students on campus do not even know of the existence of this defending champion.
The team in question? The Oakland women’s lacrosse team. Ranked No. 8 in the nation in the Women’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association Division II poll, the team sports a 10-5 record.
“It is really unfortunate that we don’t get the same recognition that other sports do,” Jessica Burke, a freshman defender, said. “We compete nationally and we’ve given Oakland lacrosse a good reputation, yet no one would know.”
The squad sports the black and gold in their matches, but lack the key distinction of being a varsity team. Instead, they’re a club without any scholarship players who must pay to play.
According to head coach Towbey Kassa, each player must pay at least $1,500 to cover expenses for equipment, travel and officials.
Players still must work extra jobs and come up with extra finances on top of what they already pay for their education.
“People don’t realize the hard work and dedication that goes into this,” Burke said. “Many of us work two or three jobs to afford playing.
Not a ‘cupcake schedule’
That dedication has paid off for the Golden Grizzlies this season as they won four games over Division I opponents such as Central Michigan and Michigan State.
While Kassa was pleased with the wins over the big name schools, he pointed to some of their losses as signs of the strength of his team.
“I am really proud of our five losses,” Kassa said. “We played North Carolina tough, and we took the No. 1 team in the country (Westminster) to double overtime.”
On Saturday, the girls will head to Columbus, Ohio for the WCLL Conference Championships as the No. 1 seed.
If Oakland wins the tournament, which would be its fourth straight, they will clinch the automatic qualifier for the National Tournament in Colorado in May.
Other teams in OU’s conference pad their schedule with lesser opponents to build up their record and ranking, but the Golden Grizzlies prefer a trial by fire.
“We don’t have a cupcake schedule,” Burke said. “By showing that we can compete with the top teams, hopefully that will pay off in nationals.”
Kassa cited the quality of the schedule as not only something to prepare his team, but also as a motivational tool.
“I put together a schedule that is hard to be perfect in,” Kassa said. “We proved that we were not scared of anyone.”
Experience at the top
While Kassa is quick to pass off the credit to his team, the players believe much of the success is a direct result of his guidance.
“In my six years as the head coach, I have worked very hard on putting out a good product on the field and giving young women a place to play competitively after high school” Kassa said. “Our goal as a team is to win nationals and one day help elevate to varsity status.”
Before becoming a coach, Kassa was an All-American on the men’s team at Oakland, serving as the captain from 1998-2002.
He played professionally for the Chicago Machine in the Major League Lacrosse for a season.
“Towbey (Kassa) is honestly the reason for most of our success,” Kassa said. “He pours so much of his time and energy into this team and this program”
Finishing the journey
If Kassa is the leader from the sidelines, junior midfielder Desiree Messina is the field general.
Messina, a co-captain of the team, leads the WCLL with 68 goals and 26 assists.
“(Messina) has an aggressive nature, (because) she wants it more than anyone else,” Burke said. “Sometimes in practice I play defense against her, but there’s no point because she will score through 17 people.”
While Messina is the focal point of the team, she loves her teammates and the journey they have taken together.
“Being a member of such a competitive and successful team has given me an identity in college I never thought I would have,” Messina said. “I definitely think we have the talent.”
With the pieces all coming together, the team believes they can add another trophy, and more importantly, recognition from their peers.