Feb. 18, 2010

By Amy Farnum
NCAA.com

William & Mary is definitely a program on the rise in women's lacrosse, and a key reason for the Tribe's return as a nationally-recognized team is their sensational junior class.

When Christine Halfpenny accepted the head coaching job at William & Mary in the summer of 2006, the former Duke University assistant had just put the finishing touches on the Blue Devils' recruiting class. Immediately, she went into recruiting mode for her new program, and ended up with an athletic group of eight players that immediately made an impact their freshman year in 2008.

"I think I was one of the very first hires that summer, and that was a time when there were 26 changes of head coaches," said Halfpenny. "William & Mary was the first job to open, and after that, the chips all fell. I was lucky that William & Mary was so interested to get a good head coach early on. Their administration showed to me how important the women's lacrosse program was."

The Tribe struggled through Halfpenny's first season with a 3-13 record in 2007, but with those eight commitments that filled much-needed spots throughout the roster, she knew she had a shot at improving the program the next year.

"I basically had to sell them a 'believe in me' story - that I just didn't leave Duke to take a job, but to win my own national championship," said Halfpenny.

"When I first met with (Coach Halfpenny) as a junior in high school, you could tell she was going places," said junior attack Ashley Holofcener. "You knew she was definitely going to change a program. She was willing to do whatever it took to be a new and different program."

Halfpenny landed several multi-sport athletes, especially basketball players, in a class that was headlined by former U.S. National Under-19 Team member Emily Geary, who has been the Tribe's goalkeeper for the last three years.

"They had everything that you can't teach, and all the innate abilities that you can't really coach," said Halfpenny. "We've just been trying to develop them individually so they are put in a position to achieve all the goals they have set out to accomplish during the summer of 2006."

"As a freshman, there was also the potential to see playing time which is a great experience," said Holofcener. "The top schools are always the dream when you're little, but when you are put in that spot and get an opportunity to come into a program and make difference, what else could I ask for?"

The group made an immediate impact, leading the program to a share of the regular season Colonial Athletic Association title in each of the last two years. Holofcener, who registered 42 points that first season, is a Preseason All-CAA selection along with teammates Sarah Jonson and Grace Golden.

"It's something very rare that all of us had on-field presence as freshman, and something that clearly has benefitted us now that we're juniors," said Holofcener. "I can almost read the minds of the other attackers."

William & Mary was ranked No. 20 in the IWLCA Preseason Poll, and opened the season with a thrilling 15-14 victory over No. 16 Ohio State on Feb. 14 - a hard-fought game that saw six ties and four lead changes - with all eight juniors starting the game.

"It was huge on Sunday," said Halfpenny. "I actually saw juniors - veterans on the field - that had experience and had a 'can't lose' attitude."

"In past seasons, we've definitely had our difficulties finishing and playing for a full 60 minutes," said Holofcener. "We followed our game plan, and fought for all 60 minutes. It was a huge, huge win. I think it was the perfect way to start the season, and set the bar high."

The Tribe's next test is even tougher as they host No. 5 Duke on Feb. 21. Halfpenny says it is always fun to play her former team, but is more looking forward to the challenge.

"The really exciting thing is that we've been building, and each year we feel we've gotten closer -- the margin of defeat has gotten smaller," said Halfpenny. "We're excited about it. We get to see where we really stand with another week under our belt to improve after Sunday's game."

"It's exciting that we get to play at such a high level of competition and the schedule that (Coach Halfpenny) has set up for us couldn't prepare us better for where we want to go," said Holofcener. "We want to be a Top 10 team. We want to show everyone how hard we've been working and how good we are."