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150W at Cal: Cal Lacrosse Through The Eyes Of The Coaches Who Built It

Sep 24, 2021
Jill Malko put Cal lacrosse on the map.

URAP: 150 Years of Women in Cal Athletics
Cal lacrosse by Ashley Ward and Catherine Roxas
As based on interviews with Cal lacrosse coaches.

"It's a man's world": a quote that is often used to describe society, but could also describe a mostly male-centered culture of athletics that the coaches of California lacrosse faced in building their program from the ground up.[1] In this particular story of the history of women's lacrosse at Cal we note that from the very beginning, the coaches of Cal lacrosse had to push for everything – funding, field space, time, and respect. They had to earn their "seat at the table," as most females in any industry have had to do, and build the program's reputation to garner support from others in the athletic community.

The program that is Cal lacrosse would not be what it is today without the woman who built the foundation: Jill Malko. Malko came from Saint Mary's College to UC Berkeley when it was decided in 1995 by the Cal Department of Intercollegiate Athletics to move the club program up to become a Division I program. To get her foot in the door of Division I athletics, she believed making the transition would help her to do so. However, as Malko recounts this early history, in taking on the transition, she faced many challenges but not only those from the department. She found that a commitment to a Division I level program by the players was lacking; the players now faced different standards. As many student-athletes know, your sport consumes your life; it is your job throughout your four years in college. Malko had to convince her players that it was possible to succeed in school and play lacrosse at this level.  In the end, one thing remained the same during Malko's time, the commitment to academic excellence by the players. While Malko wanted them to remain on top of their studies, she also wanted them to appreciate the experience they were given by being able to compete at the collegiate level. Malko instilled that commitment has value, and playing a sport has value. This is an inevitable challenge in so many sports: while it can still be "fun" and competitive, it is also more demanding than at a club level, especially in an institution that highly values and demands academic excellence.

Furthermore, Malko herself found that the time commitment on her part increased as well. From recruiting to paperwork she found an increased scale in her duties, including establishing a reputation for her team within the athletic department. When speaking with Malko, she reflected on her time as a head coach and told us that even at six weeks into the new role she had to explain to others in the department the difference between lacrosse and another female counterpart sport, field hockey. Would you ever confuse basketball and football? Malko always promoted her players and demanded the respect they deserved. Likewise, Malko desired to bring in new talent that would embody the newfound team culture of a Division I program. There were challenges to recruiting that Malko had to overcome, such as limited scholarships and restrictive funding overall. One particular obstacle Malko recalled was the changing dynamics of funding in terms of cost of attendance - as tuition increased, funding in the program remained the same. This posed difficulties when trying to recruit top talent; an issue that is still with us in the Olympic sports especially.  However, the rigorous academics and beautiful campus of Berkeley were often enough to bring in hardworking and committed student-athletes.

In the first season for the Golden Bears as a Division I program in 1999, they put up a 9 win-7 losses overall record, playing in the Western Women's Lacrosse League (WWLL). The 2000 Bears had an overall record of 12-6. In the 2001 season, the Bears' record was 12-6, and they were top contenders in the Western Women's Lacrosse League, falling short to Stanford in the championship game, 11-6. As the game of lacrosse continued to spread throughout the West, the league expanded into the Mountain Pacific Lacrosse League (MPLL). In 2003, the Bears would lose a second time to Stanford in the league championship game, 15-14. However, the feat would come to an end when Cal beat Stanford in 2004 inaugural Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) Championship game, 11-10, securing an overall record of 10-8. The Golden Bears and The Cardinal would meet once more in the Championship game during Malko's reign in 2005 where the Bears lost 12-9. During Malko's time as head coach from 1998-2007, her overall record was 79-62.

Despite the obstacles she faced bringing the team from a club program to Division I, Malko fostered a competitive team culture that led the Golden Bears to compete in several championship matches as one of the top contenders on the West Coast. Her success on the field can be attributed to Malko's own playing experience, as she would frequently reflect while she was coaching. Off the field, Malko wanted her athletes to know that she cared about them and the program above all and that they were deserving of the same opportunities and respect as any other student-athlete. She would advocate strongly and insistently for field time alongside the players, inspiring them to be assertive women and to be relentless.

Malko would pass this baton of pushing hard for what you want to her assistant coach Theresa Sherry. Sherry, who had been an assistant with Malko in the 2007 season, would come to take over the program in 2008, instilling the same values that Malko had previously ingrained. During Sherry's career, she drew from her time as a player herself to help build on the team culture that Malko had created. She found that her drive for perfection allowed her to push herself during her time as a coach. The drive for excellence was a well-rounded goal that stemmed on the field as a player, who worked relentlessly to get better. Sherry boasted an immensely successful college career herself, graduating from Princeton as an All-American before joining the California coaching staff as the assistant coach. In her first year as the head coach for the Golden Bears, the squad would go on to have an overall record of 9-9, securing notable wins over Stanford and the University of Connecticut. That same year, Sherry would be selected as the MPSF Coach of the Year. The following season in 2009, Sherry and the Bears found themselves back in the MPSF Championship against rival Stanford, where the Bears would fall 18-13. Outside of the game of lacrosse, she hoped that the student-athletes could become more committed and closer as a team. She wanted to continue to increase camaraderie, and create lasting relationships for the players. This drive would have to be drawn upon to help Sherry with the obstacles she faced as well during her time at Cal.

In 2010, Sherry faced the biggest challenge that any coach fears, having their program cut. Due to budget constraints in the whole UC system, every program felt the financial strain that came down on the athletic department.[2] When Sherry recently reflected on her initial reactions, she said how it felt like death, she was helpless and without a solution to the despair. She commented on how it was the closest she had come to being a parent, saying how she wanted to protect her "kids" from the pain. The players had to soon focus on an identity shift that they did not plan for. The future of losing their scholarship, not being able to take classes that were being cut, and graduating later than planned were among the things that a current student-athlete could not fathom. However, Sherry believed they would always reinstate the program, which happened as part of a complex set of solutions, but the challenges grew. Without a new recruiting class, or being able to recruit during this "down" time, she felt the program was set back two years in the making. Yet, she continued to create the emerging program that was once at the height of the MPSF league. After a 34-38 overall record during her time at Cal, Sherry stepped down as head coach in 2011, after the program had been brought back as a varsity sport.

The restoration of the Cal lacrosse program was the culmination of new beginnings, starting with Ginger Miles being named the head coach in June of 2011. Miles had graduated from the University of Virginia as a goalie and had previously been the head coach at the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps colleges. In her first season, Miles led the Bears to an 8-8 overall record in 2012. The Bears' record improved the following year with a 9-7 overall record in 2013, as midfielder Megan Takacs earned MPSF Player of the Year honors for the second year in a row. Takacs was also the first and only player thus far in the history of the Cal lacrosse program to earn All-American honors. Miles placed a heavy emphasis on providing an environment for players with a natural talent to flourish. As a coach, she gave her players confidence to take risks and play with chances that may not always be in their favor. Confidence, Miles noted, was critical for young females, and she wanted to ensure that each of her players felt they had a place on the team. Under Miles's leadership, she believed that confident young girls developed into strong leaders on and off the field. Like those who came before, Miles experienced hardships while taking on her position in a newly reinstated program. The financial strain of the program having first been cut and then restored but still with a very limited budget provided by the athletic department forced Miles and her coaching staff to alter their recruiting process. While she wanted to recruit the very best talent, she had to balance the budget to ensure that she was providing her players with the best collegiate experience possible. Miles reflected on her success with her former program as well as her own playing experience to rebuild the Cal lacrosse program, despite its tumultuous past. As a goalie, she carried a "take one for the team" mindset which was helpful in her transition into a coach. She had set a goal for herself to show the rest of the athletic department the importance and the great impact of the Cal lacrosse program. To do this, she boasted about her players bringing up the entire athletic department's grade point average. Having to share facilities with the other sports, she also felt it was important to build strong relationships with other head coaches. After three seasons in Berkeley, Miles stepped down from her position, leaving the Bears with a strong footing and a promising future ahead. 

To begin a new revolution, Brooke Eubanks stepped into the empty position bringing a new vision and a new team of coaches with her. Eubanks herself had experienced a notably successful collegiate and professional career, graduating from James Madison University with that team having earned three Colonial Athletic Association championships. Eubanks was also a member of the Canadian Senior National Team for 10 years, during which she participated in three World Cups, garnering a silver and bronze medal. Before her tenure in Berkeley, Eubanks was an assistant coach at Stanford. She hoped to bring the success she found in her career and previous experiences to the current climate at Cal; a climate that had a tumultuous history but moving towards a greater future with the department. With the 2018 hiring of Jim Knowlton as Athletic Director, Eubanks looked to foster a more cohesive relationship with the department. This new leadership was invested in not just running the department but wanting to understand the needs of each team and the needs for Cal lacrosse were still those of scholarships and funding, commonly seen many years before. However, Eubanks believes you can't put a price on people. Emphasizing in every aspect of the interview the program has some of the best people, and that she truly enjoys coming to work every day to create relationships that will last well beyond their four years. Eubanks at this same time coached during the inaugural year in 2018 of the Pac-12 conference when the interest in lacrosse as a Division I sport had brought in the minimum number (6) of Pac-12 institutions for its league. This has been a giant leap for West Coast women's lacrosse to join a powerhouse division in collegiate athletics. Her revolution of the program would continue forward with this tremendous progression for the program, but not without consideration of building on the coaches that came before her.

This involves a foundation of commitment to academic excellence, off-field camaraderie, and love of the game. For Eubanks, perhaps, the most important factor is the love of the game, which follows with a love of the program, and more generally love of a player's experience at Cal. Eubanks hopes that her players will take away from her time as coach a memorable experience at Cal that keeps them coming back and staying connected to the program. In hopes to foster a community, Eubanks implements a family style of coaching drawing from her many experiences of different styles of coaches. She is dedicated to building a culture that is healthy where women can learn to be confident and compete in a safe environment, while also being able to deal with failure in the same supportive and safe environment. Eubanks believes that her ultimate job is to prepare women to be on their own after their four years at Cal, and lacrosse is the vehicle for that. In a mostly man's world, fostering the environment of "women can do it all" is Eubanks' most notable attribute for the program during her time as a head coach.

Like many other coaches, the progress made by Eubanks would be met with extreme obstacles. In the Spring of 2019, the world would be met with the devastation of COVID-19, a global pandemic that would devastate the world and the activities of college athletic programs around the country. Only seven games into the 2019-2020 season, Eubanks would say goodbye to her team indefinitely as her student-athletes returned home until further notice. Like professors, Eubanks and her coaching staff were forced to shift to virtual forms of communication to stay in contact with the team throughout the rest of the school year, and through the start of the next.

Nearly a year later, at the time of this writing, the Cal Athletic Department and the Bears are up and running again, preparing for their return to play assuming that health protocols are met and all stay safe. It has not been easy or predictable for the athletic programs that have tried to continue so far. Eubanks will continue to navigate the limitations of the world's current conditions, while also upholding the expectations for excellence herself and the coaches who came before she has set for their student-athletes. Since its inaugural season, the Cal lacrosse program has endured challenge after challenge and what are often one obstacle after another.  The program's success, however, can be attributed to the resilience and dedication of the four women who built, and rebuilt, the program. Despite the program's history, these four women and their assistants have done what has been needed to ensure a promising future: breaking the proverbial glass ceilings that many women have done before to provide for the young women that will do the same in the world after their four years on the women's lacrosse team at the University of California, Berkeley.

[1] The challenges to women in sports are well documented. See, for example the publications listed by the
Tucker Center for the Study of Women in Sports: or those by the Women in Sport
organization (

[2] Funding of intercollegiate Athletics has long been a fiscal challenge not only at Berkeley, but at many other institutions as well.  See, for example the publication listed by the Coronado Newspaper Eagle & Journal (…)