As Abigail Jackson prepares to start her first season as head coach at Union College, she can sense an excitement spreading through the Division III school’s entire athletic department, created by the school’s men’s hockey team, which leads the Division I ECAC Hockey conference and is ranked No. 5 in both national polls.
“I know that when I was an athlete,” Jackson said, “and the men’s basketball team was doing well, we wanted to do well. When the men’s soccer team was doing well, the women’s soccer team wanted to do well.
“There is a level of excitement that is generated when you see that you look on a website and see that a team that wears the same uniform as you do is nationally ranked, getting recognition. Just to have the association that you all represent the same athletic department, the same college, there’s definitely a sense of pride that gets developed. You definitely feel motivated, and you feel that you belong in the higher ranks of your sport.”
With her players, however, Jackson has sensed the excitement from the moment she stepped on campus in Schenectady. The Dutchwomen are ranked No. 11 in the Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association preseason Division III poll after going 11-7 a season ago and falling to Hamilton College in the Liberty League championship game, and are eager to get started living up to their billing.
“From the start, everyone’s had great attitudes,” said Jackson, who took the reins of the Union program following Jessica Critchlow’s resignation. “The girls were motivated, they were proactive. They were stopping by my office just to say hi to sort of introduce themselves and tell me their stories. I found out who the jokester is, who the look out the window of my office, and there’s 15 of them at a time in the gym doing their preseason workouts, and as a group, not individually.
“When we started getting going, everybody came into preseason fit, everybody came in motivated. Morale was really high. It was nice and easy to make the adjustment, so we’re pretty excited.”
Jackson, meanwhile, is excited to be focused fully on lacrosse. A three-sport student-athlete at Williams College who played soccer, lacrosse and basketball for the Ephs, Jackson has been coaching some combination of the three sports ever since she graduated. She spent the 2003-04 academic year as an assistant coach for both the women’s soccer and lacrosse teams at her alma mater, was a graduate assistant for both the women’s soccer and women’s basketball teams at Trinity College from 2004-06, was an assistant coach for the women’s basketball team at Plymouth State during her first season as the Panthers’ lacrosse coach, and coached the women’s soccer and women’s lacrosse teams at Roger Williams University before coming to Union.
As she prepares to guide the Dutchwomen for the first time, Jackson is thrilled to be able to give the 24 players on her roster her full attention.
“For me personally,” Jackson said, “Union represents a goal that I have been working toward since I started coaching. Every coach wants to focus on one sport, wants to be able to have time to go recruiting and have a certain level of quality of life. It makes all the world of difference. Even when I was at Roger Williams, coaching two sports, it was very difficult. You work very long hours, and you’re happy to do it because you love what you’re doing, but at the end of the day, you know that there’s always something that you could have done.
“There’s always one more phone call you could have made or one more e-mail, or you could have looked at one more [recruiting] tape. It’s really important to me to be able to put in the amount of time that I want to put in in order to be satisfied with the job that I did. You really can’t do that unless you’re only coaching one sport.”
And for Jackson, who was a freshman on the Williams team that went to the 2000 NCAA Championship game, there was little doubt that lacrosse would wind up being that “one sport.”
“I think lacrosse, from the start, always came the easiest to me in terms of strategy,” Jackson said, “When I was an athlete, I was consistently the most confident when I was playing lacrosse. I think that I could have coached soccer or basketball, but I don’t think that it would have been such a good fit for me personality-wise.”
Still, as she prepares to lead the Dutchwomen into the 2011 season – which, for Union, begins on March 5 at Utica – Jackson knows that her time spent coaching basketball and soccer has helped to make her a better lacrosse coach, just as playing multiple sports during her own student-athlete days made her a better athlete.
“I think that one of the downsides of specialization now is that playing different sports, you get different ideas,” Jackson said. “You work different muscles, you develop yourself more completely as an athlete. It’s the same thing with coaching. I take strategies from soccer and strategies from basketball and apply them to the lacrosse field, and if you have a coach who doesn’t do that, I think that if the two of you were to play a game against each other, the coach that took from a broader area of sports would be successful, because there are so many additional possibilities.
“I think, when I look at things like set plays, transitions, there’s lots of aspects of basketball that I apply. When looking at things like defensive positioning, there’s aspects of soccer that I apply. I think the kids are finding that the way that we run offenses, the way that we set up our defense, there’s more of a team approach as opposed to individual responsibilities.”
Now, with that varied experience as an important part of her background, Abigail Jackson is ready to move forward, and help her Union Dutchwomen do the same.