The 2019 WPLL season set the stage for a 2020 in which the league would make another leap forward. Yet, much like the NCAA and NLL seasons, COVID-19 put a stop to a season that had not even started. Even though many of the WPLL players had expected that the disease would cause the season to take a different form, it was still tough news to accept for the players.
“It was a kind of a punch in the gut type of feeling. We kind of knew it was coming based on all the news that had been going around, but we were all holding on to that last bit of hope that we wouldn’t get those calls,” Kylie Ohlmiller, an attacker for the WPLL Fight, said.
Ohlmiller’s sentiment was echoed around the league. “Super devastated, we’ve all been training all year for this,” Mollie Stevens, attacker for the Pride, said.
For many players in the league, like Stevens, this cancellation was the second (and for others, even third time) they had to deal with COVID-19 taking away a season.
“Coaching collegiately and having our season cut short after a 5-0 start at Loyola, that was kind of the hardest cancellation to deal with in all this. Just knowing how our team was rolling, knowing what our Loyola team was capable of,” Dana Dobbie, a coach at Loyola and member of the defending champion WPLL Brave, said. “When I heard the news, I knew it was coming.”
“Just seeing the reaction of the girls in college, especially the seniors, that was hard,” Tianna Wallpher, a volunteer coach at Johns Hopkins and defender for the WPLL Brave, added.
The cancellation comes following what had been a successful season for the league that was set to play its third season. The league had a struck a partnership with ESPN that had increased the viewing audience for the league and introduced many to professional women’s lacrosse for the first time.
The league was reportedly finalizing a number of multi-year partnerships that would be known as Champion Partners, which would mark the first time the young league had entered into any such partnerships.
“Obviously the one thing you don’t want to have to do is cancel a season,” league founder and CEO Michele DeJuliis said. “We want to make sure we protect our players, fans, coaches, staff and anybody involved. We all as a country need to stick together and be good citizens. This is the first step… While we are very disappointed, we remain hopeful for all that lies ahead.”
DeJuliis’ optimism for what lies ahead for the young league even after the shortage is one that players around the league firmly believe in. Not just as it pertains to the 2021 season, but looking towards the future of women’s lacrosse as a whole.
Since it’s inception, the WPLL has been firmly committed to teaching and nurturing the next generation of lacrosse players, and that commitment will not stop even with the league missing the season. It was also instrumental in making the decision to cancel the season as opposed to playing in front of empty stadiums as other professional sports leagues are preparing to do.
“A big focus is on the future generations. So if we can’t play in front of future generations, then the league isn’t our league. That’s what makes the WPLL. That’s what makes it great,” Ohlmiller said.
“Growing the game across this country and getting our pros to inspire, mentor and empower the young players is part of our mission,” DeJuliis added. “We’re hopeful that this is like a life cycle of female lacrosse players.”
The WPLL announced that it plans to continue operating it’s WPLL Futures arm during the stoppage. The WPLL Futures Program brings in middle and high school girls lacrosse players all over the country and connects them with current professional players and trains them in camps and tournaments in 14 different states.
“Any opportunity I can get I’m definitely going to participate with the Futures. That’s just so great for us to grow the sport and to really work one-on-one with the younger players and hopefully give them dreams and aspirations to be like the players in the league,” Amanda Johansen, who scored the game winning goal in the 2019’s championship game, said.
While teaching the youngest generations the sport of lacrosse, the WPLL Futures program also serves older players an opportunity to get recruited, especially now with club seasons and tournaments starting to get canceled into the Fall.
“It’s a great way for those kids to get in front of college coaches. Especially now, because a lot of the players are college coaches. So they could potentially get that extra look this summer,” Stevens said.
Like seemingly everyone these days, WPLL players and the league have been using technology and social media to stay connected not only to each other, but to fans of the sport and the future generations.
“Looking at the technology we have in place to continue to inspire and grow the game. We have an excellent athletes group that we meet with and speak to regularly and we’re just brainstorming ideas right now so that lacrosse is still a regular part of our day and use the platform of the WPLL to reach these high school players, these youth players and even players that haven’t picked up a stick yet,” Dobbie said.
“We see a lot of lacrosse players doing virtual lessons. I know Kylie Ohlmiller and Marie McCool just did an online lesson and they had a bunch of people signing in just wanting to learn from some great players,” Wallpher said.
The type of content you’ll see across much of WPLL social media is very diverse. Many players had taken to Instagram to provide workouts, while others have shown off healthy recipes they are cooking, and some have taken to TikTok to participate in the viral dances that have taken this downtime by storm. But regardless of the type of content, it all serves the same purpose, which is to connect with fans of the league and the rest of the lacrosse community.
“We’re so lucky that we have this tool in technology and social media to be able to leverage that so that we can push out our message of ‘Hey, we’re looking to still get better while we’re at home. If you’re looking for some things you could try it out too’ I think that’s so cool,” Ohilmiller said. “Myself and Marie McCool we’re talking about how much we’ve learned from each other. It’s helping us try out new workouts, try out new drills and tryout new stick tricks.”
“Social media, I used to not be a huge fan of it, but it is an amazing thing. You can post a video and it can get out to anywhere. You could be teaching a kid in another country how to do cradling, or some type of stick work. Truly amazing,” Mollie Stevens said.
Even with the 2020 season now canceled, the players in the WPLL are already looking forward to 2021, and not allowing the stoppage to get in the way of their training and development as lacrosse players.
“I’m going to continue to prepare. Even though I don’t know when the next opportunity is that I’ll get to play, I’m going to prepare so that by the time that opportunity comes up I’ll be ready,” Johansen said.
Other players also view the stoppage as an opportunity to improve on weaknesses.
“For me, what I’m doing is focusing a lot on my weaknesses and things that you typically, when life gets busy and you’re running around doing a bunch of different things, you don’t have time to work on,” Ohlmiller said. “We have so much time now.”
While much of the current mood is uncertainty, there is one feeling around the league that is certain. Optimism, and the feeling of knowing that when the WPLL is back, it will be better than ever.
“When lacrosse does come back and I know that it will, I just don’t know when, I think that the whole lacrosse community and the world is going to be seeing some hungry lacrosse. It’s going to be fun to watch and to be a part of,” Ohlmiller said.
“We need to support women and we need to be able to push forward in times like these even when they’re uncertain. The priorities are the same. So, as long as we are all clear on that, in my eyes, we can’t fail,” Michelle DeJuliis said. “So, we keep pushing forward and give these women the opportunity to play on this platform and build their brand and expose that next generation to some amazing lacrosse.”