By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle

For Johns Hopkins University's women's lacrosse team, the 1998-1999 school year has been a series of epiphanies. There was the first "fall-ball" season when the Blue Jays scrimmaged many of the top teams in the country, including the likes of Maryland. There was that exciting 8-7 win over neighborhood rival Towson in late March of 1999. There was the loss to national powerhouse Duke, with whom Hopkins was playing even until the second half.

But for the Hopkins women and their fans, reality set at about noon on Saturday, March 6, 1999. At that hour, 23 women were ready to march out of their dressing room in order to play perhaps the most important game of their lives.

"We were absolutely excited, and we're an easily excited team," said Hopkins tri-captain Ramsey Neale. "And to tell you the truth, I don't remember what (head coach Janine Tucker) said."

Awaiting them was their first opponent of 1999: Davidson College. But the identity of the opponent was much less important than the implications of the game: it was the Blue Jays' opener in their first year as a Division I scholarship program after 23 years in Division II and III play.

As such, the game represented a large step in terms of equality between the men's and women's programs at one of the elite men's lacrosse schools.

Johns Hopkins lacrosse teams -- men's lacrosse teams -- have existed since 1881. They have been playing at the corner of North Charles St. and West University St. since 1906. The headquarters of US Lacrosse and The Lacrosse Museum have been built right next to Hopkins' lacrosse venue, Homewood Field.

But until 1999, the women's lacrosse program has not had nearly the respect or perks the men had. That, however, is changing. The women were the lead story in one of the campus-based lacrosse publications, and the sophistication and knowledge therein have reflected the fact that Baltimore is not only ready for a Division I program at Hopkins, but Baltimore is ready to take the team seriously.

Hopkins is the latest institution to upgrade its women's program to complement a high-caliber men's team. In the last five years, Syracuse (which has had men's lacrosse since the 19th century) and North Carolina have joined Hopkins in Division I.

The high schools have followed suit. In 1997, four New Jersey schools with championship-caliber boys' lacrose programs -- Westfield, Bridgewater-Raritan, West Morris Mendham and Ridgewood -- got around to forming girls' lacrosse teams.

Hopkins' first season has had its share of adjustments, undoubtedly. Co-captain Mimi Sokolowski has suddenly had to mark players who are as strong and as fast as she.

"I'd been conscious of it for several years, but I had never experienced high-caliber lacrosse until we played Maryland in a small fall-ball tournament, and their intensity level, talent, and ability to execute are as close as you can get to being perfect and still be human," she said. "The mistakes you make, you pay for a lot more, and I have found that I have no room to make any mistakes."

A good chunk of the team had come to Hopkins knowing that they would have these kinds of adjustments to make. The biggest adjustment, obviously, was the schedule which, is lighter on powerhouse programs than they might like. The Blue Jays scheduled but a handful of ranked teams in 1999 -- notably Duke, George Mason, and North Carolina.

The rest of the teams ran the gamut between Stanford, Villanova, Howard and Mount St. Mary's.

"I think, when we played Duke, it was the first time that we've been prepared for a Top 10 Division I team," said junior tri-captain Danielle Maschuci. "It was really exciting to see us make the changes."However, the schedule also included Towson, and the one-goal win for JHU in March 1999 is destined to be the first chapter in a long rivalry between the schools located less than four miles from each other.

"It was huge," Sokolowski said. "We came out on fire in the first half, and in the second, Towson stole our fire a little bit. To come up with a win like that is so gratifying, because you know you gave everything you had, and it was enough."

Now that the team is playing Division I lacrosse, the Jays are reportedly to have up to eight scholarships at their disposal by 2003. Tucker has been able to attract talent to the program, including an outstanding Class of 2002, members of which ranked second, third, and fourth in scoring for the 1999 season.

For the spring of 2000, Hopkins returns more than three-quarters of its scoring as well as Maschuci, a solid first-team All-America candidate. All this will help the Jays in bumping up its schedule to one resembling a Maryland or a Virginia.

"They (the recruiting class) has already made a big difference in our team," says Maschuci. "By next year, we're definitely going to play more teams that are like them." 1