There are a lot of coaches who need to be convinced of a serious commitment to winning an Ivy League championship before they’ll consider taking a job in the Ancient Eight.
That was never a consideration for Danielle Spencer when she was interviewing to be the head coach of women’s lacrosse at Dartmouth.
That the school has an ironclad resolve to restore its standing as the top school for lacrosse in the Ivy League was a given.
But Spencer needed more.
“The Ivy League championship is the first goal and always will be,” the former Northwestern standout said. “But I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t think we could win it all. I knew when I was evaluating head coaching positions as an assistant that I wanted to go where we could win a national championship, and I believe that’s a legitimate goal here.
“From a recruiting perspective Dartmouth sells itself. There’s a winning tradition and great support from the alumni. We’re having a new locker room built in the spring and a new indoor turf facility is on the way. The support we need is here.”
Spencer certainly knows what it takes to win. She’s been doing it ever since the lacrosse coach in the Rochester, N.Y., surburb of Brighton spotted her aggressively slide tackling a boy in a seventh grade soccer game, and after a year of trying finally convinced her to pick up a lacrosse stick.
“I had decided I was going to play field hockey with my friends but the lacrosse coach kept at it,” she recalled. “Field hockey was OK, but I was curious about lacrosse, so I gave it a shot.
“It was hard at first because until you can catch and throw it is frustrating. Once that happens the whole game just opens up and it is contagious.”
So contagious, it turned out, that field hockey and soccer soon were history.
“As I caught on to lacrosse I started to realize I loved it,” said Spencer. “Typically after soccer practice at the time I would go home and do whatever. But after lacrosse practice I’d go right into the backyard and practice some more. Then I was asking for a goal from my parents. I was asking for a punch back. I just wanted to play all the time.”
As a high school junior Spencer teamed with senior Hilary Bowen to lead Brighton to the New York Class B state championship with a 20-1 record. Bowen would go on to help Northwestern to a national title the next spring and a year later newly minted high school All-American Danielle Spencer would join her best friend to Evanston.
“I kind of went through her recruiting vicariously and then just followed in her footsteps,” Spencer said. “I knew that Northwestern was strong academically and they had just won the national championship my junior year, 2005. That’s when I said, ‘OK, where do I sign?’ I thought, ‘Whatever is brewing there, I could feel it happening, and I want to be a part of it.’ ”
The Wildcats would go on to win more three national championships and finish runnerup one time with Spencer in uniform. She closed out her career with 193 goals and 45 assists, and in second place in school annals with 203 draw controls. She earned two nominations for the Tewaaraton Award – the Heisman Trophy of lacrosse – and after being selected a second-team All-American as a junior was a first-team All-American as a senior.
And then, suddenly, college lacrosse was over for her. Or at least she thought it was.
“After I graduated I accepted a position working for a startup software company in San Francisco,” she said. “I was curious about going west to work.”
What she realized working her day job was that it couldn’t compare to how she spent her free time.
“I didn’t hate my job, but I didn’t feel very passionate about it,” she admitted. “I was playing with the U.S. team at the time so I was training very heavily every day after work. I was going and shooting, playing wall-ball, running and lifting. I was also doing a lot of coaching, giving private lessons and helping out club teams and high school teams in the area.
“Before I knew it, my schedule was filled with different jobs. Almost all of them were lacrosse related and just one of them was my actual full-time job. That’s when I started to realize, ‘Wow, I am really passionate about lacrosse. I really enjoy coaching.’ ”
With that she called Kelly Amonte Hiller, her coach at Northwestern to talk things over.
“I just kind of thought, `Wouldn’t it be nice instead of having different jobs and juggling all those balls if I just make coaching my one job?’ Spencer said. “Kelly told me, ‘It’s not all that you think it is. Right now all you are doing is coaching. There’s a lot more to it than that.’
“She said, ‘I am all these other things that go into it. Two hours a day you are out on the field coaching lacrosse, but a lot of the other time is spent in an office, or recruiting, or on the phone.’ ”
With Amonte Hiller’s help, Spencer landed an assistant’s job at Stanford and when there was an opening at Northwestern a year later the onetime Wildcat returned home. She spent the last four years as a Northwestern assistant and recruiting coordinator.
Hired at Dartmouth in August, Spencer hit the ground running. Although the Big Green has finished 3-4 in the Ivy League and with a sub-.500 record for each of the past three years, Spencer is confident the first Ivy title since 2011 might not be as far off as some people think.
“We have a lot of potential right now on the team,” she said. “There is a strong foundation of athletes very eager to learn. Our goal as a staff during the fall was to teach and expand their lacrosse knowledge and IQ and to bring in another level of enthusiasm.
“We felt like we got a lot of teaching done in the fall,” said Spencer, the 2010 Big Ten Distinguished Scholar. “We have some of the smartest girls in the country on our team and they learn pretty quickly. Typically, we don’t need to teach stuff more than once, so we were able to accomplish a lot in a short amount of time.”
Northwestern isn’t on Dartmouth’s schedule this spring but it probably won’t be all that long until teacher and pupil square off.
“I would love to schedule Northwestern and I know Kelly feels the same way,” said Spencer. “It will be a fun day for me when it happens.”
Remember what Spencer said about how she wouldn’t have taken the Dartmouth position if she didn’t think the Big Green could win a national championship?
She was a year away from playing Northwestern the last time Northwestern and Dartmouth met. That would have been in May of 2006. The Wildcats won, 7-4.
Before a crowd of 6,074 at Boston University.
In the national championship game.
GETTING TO KNOW COACH SPENCER
At 6-foot-2, Spencer was a terrific volleyball player who for a while considered doubling in the sport in college. ... She did not play basketball in high school because at the time it conflicted in New York with volleyball season.
“Now, knowing what I know about lacrosse, I understand how helpful it would be to have had a basketball background with all the defense, offensive sets, picks and rolls and all that,” she said. “Everyone asks me with my height if I played basketball and I always have to tell them, ‘No, I played volleyball.’ ” …
Spencer calls herself a foodie and with good reason. Her father, Joe, was co-owner of the popular Rochester eatery Hogan’s Hideaway when she was growing up. “My brother and I grew up in the business,” she said. “I was waiting tables younger than I was supposed to. Luckily, I was pretty tall. I started working in the restaurant when I was in middle school in and started serving in high school. It was a job that I would always do when I went home on break.”
Spencer’s mother, Diane DeLorm, is a pastry chef who used to own a bakery. “She went back to school and now is a registered dietitian,” Spencer said. “It’s pretty ironic, I know. And she doesn’t actually like sweets that much herself.”
Not surprisingly, Spencer enjoys a good meal out or in.
“I am a food snob, but there’s no food I won’t eat,” she said. “I love going out to eat. I love cooking. If I have down time and I can go out to a new restaurant with a friend or cook at home, I am happy.” . . .
Spencer played professional lacrosse last summer with the Boston Storm and while that helped her grow more comfortable with changes coming to the college game – foremost among them the adoption of a shot clock – her responsibilities as a head coach may limit her athletic pursuits to running in the future.
“I have been running on the trails here a bunch and really enjoy my time alone running in the woods,” she said.
She is hopeful she will be able to try her first marathon with her father in the not-too-distant future. It figures to be memorable.
“My dad has run a marathon in 49 of 50 states and nine of the 13 Canadian provinces,” she said. “His goal is to run all over North America. The only state he is missing is Hawaii and that’s proving pretty difficult because he has gotten pretty beat up after all of the other marathons. He’s working on finding a trail marathon in Hawaii and when he does we’ll make it happen.”