Boissonneault, Pitt lacrosse prepare for 2021 debut


Photo Courtesy of Pitt Athletics

Emily Boissonneault is the first head coach of Pitt’s inaugural varsity women’s lacrosse team.

By Ben Bobeck, Senior Staff Writer

Since being introduced as the first head coach of Pitt’s inaugural varsity women’s lacrosse team in late June, Emily Boissonneault has been a coach without a team, without a staff and without more than one jersey to show off to visiting recruits.

Though the team won’t play its first season until 2021, Boissonneault has embraced the distinct challenge of building a program from the ground up. But Boissonneault wants to make sure the program does more than simply exist — she already pictures a team capable of contending within the ACC and on the national stage.

“I’m ready to be a head coach and there’s a reason I’m here,” she said.

Boissonneault, along with Dustin Gray, senior associate athletic director for administration, and various Pitt Athletics administrative staff, has been tasked with the monumental job of putting together Pitt’s 14th varsity team — the newest since the softball program came onto campus in the 1997-98 season.

The process of building a roster with 12 scholarships and more than 30 players was set in motion when athletic director Heather Lyke announced the formation of the program on Nov. 1, 2018.

“We believe our program will be highly attractive to outstanding prospective student athletes as well as talented coaches who aspire to compete at the highest level in the nation’s top lacrosse conference,” Lyke said in a press release.

With the coach in place, the foundation of the program can now begin to take shape. Boissonneault has started identifying potential talent, making trips around the country to build relationships with prospective recruits. She’s also begun the process of hosting prospects on visits to campus, including a series of camps starting on Sept. 29.

But what needs to be done each new day is not always crystal clear.

“I think every day [the process] changes,” Boissonneault said. “I have a general idea of what I want to do. I think the biggest part is getting Pitt out there, you know, being in front of the kids as much as I can be.”

That’s just the first step. What comes next is the process she is fully immersed in now — hosting potential recruits on campus so they get to know her, the University and the City. The final step is to bring prospects into the program as part of her first signing class. It’s a good formula, but Boissonneault is the first to say that it won’t be easy.

“The process changes, like I said, daily, just because I think these athletes are constantly changing,” she said. “What they want and what they believe are their options are changing, and so I think that goes a long way in how my process works too.”

This won’t be Boissonneault’s first time helping establish a new program. As a player, she joined the women’s lacrosse team at the University of Detroit Mercy for its debut season in 2009. After graduating from Detroit, she took her first job as an assistant coach at Winthrop, where she was hired in 2013 during the program’s second year of competition. She later joined James Madison University’s staff in 2015, where she helped the team win a National Championship as the associate head coach in 2018.

Gray, who oversaw the coaching search committee and will function as the sport’s athletic director going forward, emphasized that Boissonneault’s prior history with this sort of undertaking was a major reason for her hiring.

“One of the things that stood out with Emily was certainly that she’s been a part of building programs before. She’s no stranger to it,” Gray said.

The decision to introduce a new program — and for it to be lacrosse — was the result of an arduous process that examined which sport would have the best chance at achieving success.

“One of the things we studied was, what’s the level of lacrosse around the area?” Gray said.

What Gray found was a cradle of top-tier talent in Pitt’s own backyard. As he pointed out, 75% of first-team All Americans over the last three seasons are recruited out of Pennsylvania and contiguous states, primarily Maryland and New York, according to the Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association.

“Everything pointed that we feel like we can do really well in lacrosse,” he said. “Now, we know the challenge the ACC is going to be, we know there’s going to be growing pains, but we think we have … the right leader to do it.”

Boissonneault has begun to form a vision for what the ideal Pitt lacrosse player will look like, as she continues searching for the first wave of 12 scholarship athletes that will begin signing this November before arriving on campus in the fall of 2020.

“I’m definitely looking for strong individuals. And I guess, more specifically, I’m looking for a strong character,” she said. “I’m looking for leadership attributes that I can mold into the type of athlete I want.” 

Her vision for the athlete extends into the goals she conceptualizes for the program as a whole and is rooted in her own experiences as a player.

“In my career at Detroit and my first year, I remember wanting to be a leader immediately,” Boissonneault said. “I was a sophomore captain with two of my classmates and that opportunity was, you know, you can’t say very many people had ever done that in college athletics. It’s not easy, but to have that opportunity to be a leader right off the bat, I think is pretty cool.”

She wants to provide the program’s first group of student athletes that same opportunity, the chance to be a leader the second they step foot on campus. Having that opportunity is a centerpiece of Boissonneault’s recruiting pitch, which when paired with the Pitt Life Skills program, the academics and the location of the City could form a powerful selling point.

Pitt announced Wednesday afternoon that Daniela Eppler, former player at UVA and the New York Fight of the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League, would be the first addition to Boissonneault’s staff as an assistant coach.

Boissonneault, Eppler and other assistants to come still won’t be coaching a full team next year. They’ll hold practices and meetings, but full competitive play won’t start until the 2021-22 season. For that reason, Boissonneault isn’t looking to bring in a full 30-player roster, planning instead to keep an intimate atmosphere with mainly the 12 scholarships filled. That small group environment is where she feels she thrives.

“I love being around athletes. I love being a part of the competitiveness. I love individuals, small-number practices which is what next year is going to be all about,” she said.

Rome wasn’t built in a day — the Pitt women’s lacrosse team won’t be either. For now, Boissonneault is just ready to keep building her staff and get some players to work with. 

And maybe a couple more uniforms.

“I’m really excited to start creating those relationships,” Boissonneault said. “It’s probably been one of my biggest strengths and one of the things that has made me the happiest as a coach is making those relationships.”