Publisher Dave O’Sullivan spoke with national championship-winning women’s lacrosse coach Jenny Levy of the University of North Carolina on Tuesday morning in a phone interview to give Glory Days Magazine readers some insight into what it takes to win an NCAA championship, what college coaches are looking for in potential recruits and what high school lacrosse players can do to improve their chances of earning a spot on a college team.
Coach Levy has 18 years of experience and is the NCAA’s sixth-winningest coach of all time with more than 200 wins. She has led the Tar Heels to seven appearances in the national semifinals and this year North Carolina beat Northwestern, perhaps the most storied NCAA program, in the semifinals before outlasting ACC rival and previously undefeated Maryland 13-12 in three overtimes to win the national title. In addition, her teams are known for academic success. In 2012, the team posted a GPA of 3.227, best in school history. Levy, a 43-year-old mother of three, was an outstanding player at the University of Virginia from 1988-92 and was a member of the U.S. National Team three times in the 1990s.
Sully: How does it feel to be a national champion?
Levy: It’s great. I’ve been here 18 years. I started the program back in 1995. We’ve always been a top program and it’s nice to see all the hard work come to an ultimate reward for our players and our program.
Sully: How did you go about constructing a national championship-type team?
Levy: It’s not just a one-year thing for us. We’ve been in the Final Four in four out of the past five years. It’s something we expect. Although we hadn’t won a championship (until this season) we expect to be in this position every year. For us its recruiting, recruiting and recruiting. We have great kids who aren’t just talented but willing to work hard and sacrifice some of their self interest for the team. When you come in here as a freshman we expect you to be on a constant ascension of personal development, athletically, academically and in the community. It’s a process. It’s not something where we’re going to win one and go away. It all starts with bringing in the right kids.
Sully: When you say the right kids, are there particular qualities you look for in a recruit?
Levy: We’re not just looking for the most talented kids. We really value kids with integrity and character, and people with a tremendous work ethic. There’s a couple things we say, and we borrowed this from our women’s soccer program. We’re looking for three things that are hard to define, and they are self belief, competitive fire and self discipline. Those three things, combined with great athleticism and talent, we feel like we can mold those types of kids into players who can help us play at the highest level.
Sully: How different athletically is a high school senior from a college junior or senior?
Levy: I think there is a pretty big difference. Each year we bring in seven to 10 players and it’s our hope each year that maybe two freshmen start and maybe there are two or three who can contribute off the bench. That’s a good year for us as a recruiting class. Obviously not every freshman is going to get on the field. We also don’t usually have freshmen in significant roles on the field and the reason is because if you’re a junior or senior in my program you should have a lot more experience and understanding of what’s going on, and physically you’re stronger. There are freshmen who can come in and play right away at Carolina, then there are other freshmen who either maybe they are just behind lacrosse-wise and they need to learn or maybe their strength isn’t where it needs to be or their stick work isn’t where it needs to be. There are a whole bunch of different things that will land people on the field early and there are things that will keep people off the field early. I think our program is one of the best at developing talent. We take all sorts of athletes and make them into great lacrosse players.
Sully: How difficult is it for a high school senior to make the adjustment to the demands of a college season?
Levy: It’s a pretty big adjustment for them and some kids just do it easier than others. The speed of the game, and you’re training every day, so that grind, the freshmen toward the end of the year tend to get a little tired. It’s the first time they’ve trained in a Division I arena … and you’re demanding more of your body than what a high school program demands. I’m always surprised when there’s a freshman who is shocked they’re not on the field. I’m like, well, how many freshmen were on your high school field? They say “none.” Well, there are no freshmen on your field in high school, why would you think there would be any in college? The college level is even more difficult. We tell the players, look, if you’re ready to play, it’s on us to get you on the field, but it’s on you to be ready to play. So make us find a way to get you on the field because your performance in practice is that exceptional, and I guarantee you it won’t go unnoticed.
The high school practices, I’ve watched enough of them to know most of them don’t really demand that much out of their athletes. We may only go an hour and 45 minutes, but you’re working the whole time. If you’re going to hide in practice you’re not going to be on the field on game day.
Sully: What would you say is the biggest challenge you have in recruiting?
Levy: We’re lucky, we have a great school. It’s a great academic school and we’re known for our tradition of success athletically. You combine that with an opportunity to get a great education and it creates a great platform for us to recruit. We speak a different type of language, not only in the recruiting process but once you get here, too. Because of that you either buy in or you don’t. It pretty much separates the kids who understand what we’re talking about and the kids and families that don’t. If you don’t understand what we’re talking about then we move on pretty quickly. The recruiting process is getting so early. The bigger challenge for us isn’t getting great talent, it’s that people are in a hurry to make decisions. We want to take our time. We don’t want to take a commitment from somebody we don’t know enough about. Our biggest challenge is trying to get to know an athlete and their family, and you’re trying to get to know a 15-year-old. I don’t know if they know what they want. Kids may want one thing when they are 15 and might change when they are 17.
We’re also not close to the mid-Atlantic area, so that may not be close enough for a 15-year-old and their mom who wants to keep little Suzy at home. And I’m like, well, if you have a chance to go to a top-25 school and get a great education and have a great athletic experience, a 5-hour car drive is not a big sacrifice. I was able to use my athletic opportunity to get to a school I wouldn’t have gone to without playing college athletics and that’s obviously served me well. That’s my own philosophy, try to go to a school that you couldn’t go to without your talent.
Sully: Are there certain talents you look for when looking at a recruit, such as speed, height or strength?
Levy: We’re extremely athletic. You can be really small and be great. We have a kid from Mendham (N.J.), Aly Messinger (West Mendham High School), and she’s teenie, and she’s unbelievable. We balance the size thing out. It’s not a whole team of small kids, and we also don’t want a whole team of tall kids. We want that balance. Quickness, speed and hands. Those are the three things. You have to be special in one of those three areas. You can’t train slow feet, and if you don’t have good, quick hands you’re not going to be able to do much with that. God-given speed is a must and the stick work is really important to us. I love all the kids who write to us and say, “Hey, will you come look at me play?” And we go look at them and we’re like, “Seriously? Have you seen us play?” I’m not being cocky, I just think it’s interesting. I think women, because they don’t watch a lot of sports, their general sports IQ is pretty low and I don’t think they do a very good job of evaluating their own talent in comparison to other people. My husband played college lacrosse too, and he said he knew, if a guy was kicking everyone’s ass in practice he knew that guy was better than him.
Players will ask me, “Why aren’t I playing?” And I’ll say, “Well, is there someone on the field you are better than?” And they will say, “Um, well, I don’t know.” How do you not know that? You should know that. If you know you are better than someone, say it. But I think we are pretty good at what we do. We’ve been doing it for 18 years.
Sully: When it comes to recruiting, how much value do you place on travel teams? Or do you focus more on the high school the kids go to?
Levy: We do both. We really like to see the player play with their high school team to see what kind of role they have on the field. We want to see what they do with their high school team, but we also want to see what they do with their club program because that’s all the same age. I tell my staff, look, you’re recruiting for North Carolina. You should not have to look very hard to find the kids on the field who can play for us. They should dominate in some way regardless of their position. You should notice that within the first five or 10 minutes of watching them. They should be physically and mentally better than the rest of the players. If they’re not, how are they going to stand out at the next level? We want kids who kick ass. If you can’t kick ass in high school, how are you going to kick ass in college?
Sully: What is your impression of high school girls lacrosse in New Jersey?
Levy: We love our Jersey girls! We have great success with them. (Carolina has six players on its current roster from New Jersey). We really like to pull from New Jersey. We come to the New Jersey area quite a bit. We like their toughness, we like their athleticism.
Sully: What can high school players do to make themselves a more attractive college recruit?
Levy: What blows me away is their lack of skill in their stick work. They play on these big fields and they scrimmage, but when you put them into small space drills they can’t execute at a high level. We do a lot of small-space work. I think if high school kids would spend a half an hour a day of their own time working on their sticks and their shooting I think they would become much better. I’m always amazed at how much they are behind in their stick work. The freshmen we have coming in every year are the top kids in the country and their stick work just isn’t very good. We have a freshman this year and she has a great stick, but she works on it. She seeks people out who play college lacrosse to work with her. She’s passionate about that. (High school players) think two hours of practice and scrimmaging is enough, but you really have to work at it.
We tell them –I don’t know if you’ve read ‘The Outliers’ (by Malcolm Gladwell) — but it talks about being great at something takes a minimum of 10,000 hours. You have to put in the time. Have you put in the 10,000 hours? Because when you do, things will change for you. But if you haven’t gotten close to that, I don’t know why you expect things to miraculously happen. It just won’t. You must think I’m a real jerk, but I say all this with a big smile on my face. My players love me, I’m really a players coach. But I’m truthful. It’s not a hard thing, it’s a priority thing.
Sully: What’s it going to take for UNC to repeat as national champions?
Levy: Nothing’s changed, but everything has changed. We’re a tough group, and I think more than anything this championship is a tipping point for us because it validates what we’ve always talked about. Now our players have experienced that and they won’t forget that. We’re going to enjoy the championship right now but we’ll begin again in August and we’ll start from the very beginning and work our way back up. It took a lot of hard work, a lot of belief and a lot of trust and I think those lessons will stay with us for a long time.