‘Didn’t hesitate’: Boissonneault embraces challenge of building Pitt lacrosse program


Image via Pitt Athletics

Emily Boissonneault is Pitt’s first-ever head lacrosse coach.

By Dalton Coppola, Assistant Sports Editor

Emily Boissonneault held a steady, stable assistant coaching position with the James Madison lacrosse program for four years — a team that regularly competes in the National Championship. But when Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke called to offer Boissonneault the job as the Panthers’ first-ever lacrosse coach, she didn’t think twice.

“I didn’t hesitate very much, to be honest,” Boissonneault said. “This was the job I wanted from the start. I think a lot of other people second-guessed it and it was tough. Starting a program isn’t easy, but starting a program in the ACC is a whole new thing. You have to really be committed to what you’re doing.”

Boissonneault has never had an issue being a contrarian — even if doing so creates a challenge.

When people think about Canada, the things that typically come to mind are maple syrup, the classic accent and its favorite sport — hockey. Boissonneault grew up in Ontario, Canada, and is no stranger to this way of life.

But for Boissonneault, hockey was just a stepping stone to her true calling — lacrosse. The rest of her siblings all played box lacrosse, essentially a hybrid between hockey and lacrosse.

When Boissonneault reached high school, she decided to take the lacrosse stick outdoors and play field lacrosse. It wasn’t long until she realized what she had gotten into — a very niche community that people were proud to be a part of.

“It’s definitely a small-knit community,” Boissonneault said. “Everybody really knows each other … field lacrosse really isn’t that big [in Canada]. But the people that play it are like die-hards. It’s a really strong unit of lacrosse but it isn’t a huge sport.”

Boissonneault’s high school lacrosse career granted her opportunities to come to the United States to play in tournaments and visit colleges along the way. It was on these trips that she realized when the time came, she wanted to play lacrosse in college and in America.

“We went to Florida to play in this lacrosse tournament over spring break and I just kinda knew then that that’s what I wanted to do,” Boissonneault said. “We used to play in this tournament in Buffalo every year and every time we went over to Buffalo we’d go visit a college. That was my first experience in a college or university setting and I just kinda fell in love with it. I never really considered a Canadian college.”

The Canadian lacrosse standout decided that she’d spend her college lacrosse career at Detroit Mercy. There she went on to score more than 200 goals and finish in the NCAA top-20 in career steals, earning her a spot in the Detroit Mercy Athletic Hall of Fame.

Boissonneault quickly blossomed into a leader and a figure that her teammates turned to. While studying as an education major, she coached middle school and travel lacrosse teams on the side — giving her some experience in a coaching position.

When Detroit Mercy underwent a head coaching change her senior year, Boissonneault helped navigate the transition — a task that she felt prepared to undertake due to her experience and character.

“I felt like I was always trying to provide insight to help my team be better,” Boissonneault said. “When I stepped into the college spotlight, I think I was ready. I was ready to coach … the aspect of speaking in front of people and teaching skills and breaking things down was very natural to me.”

Boissonneault quickly moved up through the ranks of college coaching. Starting at Winthrop University in South Carolina in 2013 as an assistant, the Canadian ascended the American college lacrosse scene before earning the job of building a program from scratch in 2019.

The first-time head coach knows the odds are stacked against her brand-new team, but this isn’t stopping her from inspiring the girls on the team. According to graduate student midfielder Chloe Jones, Boissonneault has fostered a culture of competition amongst one another — everyone is always pushing one another to be their best.

“They’re looking to everyone for everyone to bring what they have to the table – everyone has something different,” Jones said of the coaching staff. “They’ve been so encouraging, so positive, I’ve never experienced something like this. They’re so involved with everything that we’re doing and it’s been a really great standard for us to step up to.”

But selling high school athletes on coming to Pitt wasn’t easy. There were no trophies to boast, no uniforms to show, no branding for social media and there wasn’t even a stadium to play in up until a few months ago

Yet, players still came. Boissonneault attracted players with a mindset similar to her own — wanting to build something of their own and make history as the first-ever Pitt lacrosse team. Senior midfielder Payton Reed said everyone is trying to follow Boissonneault’s vision in helping lead the new team.

“We have girls from such diverse backgrounds, but the one common thing we have is that no one has played for the Pitt [Division I] lacrosse team before,” Reed said. “Every single person on this team has the opportunity to be a leader and to lead in their own different way. Every single one of us can step up.”

Boissonneault has her work cut out for her, and she knows this. But she’s never been one to shy away from a challenge.

“This is a clean slate for everyone,” Boissonneault said. “I think that’s really appealing to some people, the idea of making history, building history. We have a lot of conversations about history and I think a lot of people buy into that.”

Boissonneault and her team will embark on their first-ever season this spring and compete in the ACC. The goal for this year is simple for the Canadian head coach — keep building a culture that breeds competition and one that brings players with mindsets like her own.

“My ultimate goal is that we’re creating a foundation of strong tradition,” Boissonneault said. “The culture piece is so important to us … I think the only way to be successful is to have a culture that can sustain the intensity of a full ACC season. I want the girls to feel great about this first season, even the girls who have one year here, I want them to feel like they put everything into it.”