It would be easy to assume Heather Holt holds her players to a very high academic standard. There are 26 players on the roster of Old Dominion University’s women’s lacrosse team and last month when ODU unveiled their Dean’s List student athletes during a men’s basketball game at the Ted Constant Convocation Center, 14 of Holt’s players walked across the court to polite applause.
As I sat on the sidelines watching this, I watched the beaming smiles of those lacrosse players as they took the court. But I also watched the faces of the student- athletes from ODU’s other sports. They looked at the lacrosse players with a different expression, as if asking, Just how many lacrosse players are going to walk out on this floor?
When more than 50 percent of your team is on Dean’s List, it sends a message.
Holt is in her first year as head coach of the ODU women’s lacrosse program after serving as interim head coach a year ago. It’s a program she wants to turn into a powerhouse. Having taken over for long-time women’s coach Sue Stahl, Holt inherited a program that already had a reputation for strong academics. Now she wants to make it a program with a reputation for strong winning percentages.
It is a women’s lacrosse program that is somewhat at a crossroads: ODU’s move to Conference USA as an athletic program leaves the lacrosse program searching for a conference. Conference USA doesn’t sponsor lacrosse, a sport that has its roots in the northeast.
The Monarchs could end up playing lacrosse in the Colonial Athletic Association, but that isn’t a guarantee. Or they could end up playing in the Big East Conference. There is a lot up in the air, enough so that Holt has been working hard to carve out a schedule as an independent team should circumstances necessitate such a path in 2014.
What Holt is certain of is that this women’s lacrosse program has the necessary tools to take off in a positive path and she looks at her neighbor, football coach Bobby Wilder, as a big reason for that.
“Ten years ago, there were players who we’d lose in recruiting battles with other schools because they were looking for the ‘complete’ college experience,” Holt said. “They ended up going where there was a football team because they wanted to be at a school with football that had the complete college experience. Now, ODU has that.”
Women’s lacrosse shares the L.R. Hill Sports Complex on the corner of Powhatan Ave. and 43rd Street with the football team and the field hockey program. And Holt has no issues with riding the coattails of the football program to where it may take her.
Besides, Wilder is Holt’s next-door neighbor in more ways than one: The Wilders and Holts actually live beside one another in Larchmont, the neighborhood just north of ODU’s campus.
“We try very hard not to talk shop around the neighborhood,” Holt laughed. “Bobby and my husband David are good friends and their kids play with our kids.”
Holt’s squad went 4-13 last season when she had the interim tag. Now that the program is all hers, she’s been working diligently to upgrade the talent pool while maintaining the goal of having a roster full of Dean’s List student athletes.
And that is one major way in which football and lacrosse differ.
“None of my girls are going pro in lacrosse,” Holt said. “Usually the first thing I talk about with recruits is that you come here to work four years toward earning a degree. But this is an Olympic sport and you have to remember that. Your time here should be about diplomas and life lessons.”
The flip is that the NCAA is taking women’s lacrosse much more seriously these days. The NCAA Tournament pool for women’s lacrosse was recently expanded from 16 teams to 26 teams. ODU, right now, is somewhere in the 50s nationally. Holt wants very badly to get into the Top 20 and make things happen. And in a building that houses a field hockey program with nine national titles and a football program that is the best start-up program ever with a 38-11 mark after four years, the bar is set high.
What people should know about Holt is that she’s a Monarch. She played for Stahl. In fact, Holt was the goalkeeper for the 1995 team that won a CAA title (back then she went by Heather Walden). She returned to ODU when she decided she wanted to be a college coach rather than a high school coach.
Holt laughs when asked if having a smart team can be a curse, as in, Do your players ever overthink the game?
“There’s good and bad with it,” she said, getting the joke (Don’t think; just play).
But she’d have it no other way.
“I look at this team and some of these Dean’s List students are in really hard majors,” Holt said. “(Sophomore midfielder) Christina Rae is majoring in graphic design. Maggie Clough is a freshman and although she hasn’t declared a major yet, she made a 4.0 in the fall. (Senior midfielder) Shelby Davis is a psychology major.
“There’s no doubt that peer pressure exists on my team and I’m OK with that. You should want to get good grades and your teammates should want you to get good grades too. It’s why we’re here.”
Ultimately, ODU’s lacrosse program will be measured on wins and losses. But it is far too early in Holt’s career as a head coach to be counting those, particularly when she had the “interim” tag on the job last season and the Monarchs tumbled hard when Carolyn Burns, one of the team’s better players, broke her wrist halfway through the season.
For now, this is the number to focus on when talking about Holt’s squad: 3.21. That was the team’s cumulative grade point average this past fall.
Something tells me this team is smart enough to eventually figure out the winning equation.