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Return to glory: Third-year coach has turned Big Green around

  • Dartmouth College women’s lacrosse head coach Danielle Spencer, right, watches a March 26, 2017, Big Green men’s lacrosse game alongside then-assistant coach Mike Wilus. Spencer, now in her third season, has led Dartmouth to the four-team Ivy League championships for a second consecutive season. (Valley News file photograph - Tris Wykes)



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, May 02, 2019

HANOVER — Credit for the resurrection of Dartmouth College women’s lacrosse sits squarely on the strong shoulders of third-year coach Danielle Spencer.

At a fit 6-foot-2 and a onetime star player at Northwestern University in Illinois, Spencer brought imposing form and credentials to Hanover. Winning a department-wide burrito-eating contest, the finals of which were shown on Memorial Field’s video board during a football game, only burnished her lore.

Spencer helped Northwestern win three national titles as an All-American player, but it’s not her championship rings, height or appetite that’s turned the Big Green around. It’s her ability to adapt, coach an up-tempo style and a willingness to be open and empathetic with her players.

“I’m not afraid to ask my players for feedback or tell them when I make a mistake,” said Spencer, whose second-seeded team shared this season’s Ivy League title with Princeton and plays third-seeded Pennsylvania on Friday in the league’s four-team, postseason tournament at Columbia. “I’m open to respectful constructive criticism. I give them feedback, so they should be able to give me feedback.

“Over time, that helps the players see us as more human and builds a sense of trust, because we’re willing to admit our mistakes.”

To say that this approach is different from Spencer’s predecessor, Amy Patton, would be a serious understatement. Patton was a terrific coach, but she ruled her program with an iron stick and made it crystal clear that other opinions paled in comparison to her own. “The General,” as she was called (but rarely if ever to her face), was old-school to the core and produced acolytes and enemies in seemingly equal measure during a 24-year career.

Patton resigned in July 2016 following a college investigation that concluded she “engaged in conduct inconsistent with the standards of Dartmouth Athletics.” If you think that sounds like carefully crafted lawyer speak, you’re exactly right, and although no further details were released, the public reactions of current and former players, parents and assistants revealed deep divides among them.

Patton, who adamantly disagreed with the investigation’s findings without ever publicly addressing them, has continued to coach in other lacrosse ventures. She was 248-138 overall and 119-44 in Ivy League play at Dartmouth and helped it win nine league titles, the last of which came in 2013. The Big Green reached the national semifinals four times and lost the 2006 title game to Northwestern.

By the end of the 2016 season, however, Dartmouth had suffered three consecutive losing campaigns, and Spencer was hired. Even now, she’s coaching only three players she recruited, all of them freshmen. The rest of the team is comprised of Patton’s former players and recruits, and Spencer’s ability to get them to buy into vastly different tactics and culture has been impressive.

“It’s cool to see us start to play with some swagger, to go into the tournament and be the higher seed and know that we’ve been here before,” said Spencer, whose team lost to Penn in last year’s tournament, its first trip to the postseason since 2013. “You talk about being confident, but you have to small successes to build it. It doesn’t come from thin air.”

Dartmouth (11-4, 6-1) plays an attacking style that’s fun to watch and is influenced by the national implementation of a shot clock three years ago. Gone are the days when the Big Green might stall by holding the ball for five, six, seven minutes at a time, as did many opponents.

“The mentality is to never stop moving and to always be aggressive,” Spencer said. “You want to take as many shots as you can, but you have to learn what’s a good shot and what’s not. I don’t want to stand around and draw up set plays. We wear down the defense by not giving them time to rest and think about their slides.”

Dartmouth’s Kierra Sweeney has 52 goals and 13 assists in 15 games. The Big Green has five players with more than 30 points, dominates draw controls and has a stout defense. The Big Green lost, 15-11, at Penn earlier this season but received a standout, 14-save performance from goaltender Kierra Vrindten. Spencer said her team is familiar enough with the Quakers (11-4, 5-2) that it’s been focused more on itself this week.

“It forces me not to overthink it like I might with a team we didn’t know,” the coach said. “It actually helps ease our minds a bit.”

Dartmouth’s 2 p.m. game Friday will be streamed live by ESPN+, as will the league’s title contest at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday. Top-seeded Princeton plays fourth-seeded Cornell in the event’s other semifinal on Friday.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com.