By Carolo Pascale
DURING the spring sports season at Rider University, Ben Cohen Field mostly lies dormant. In the fall it plays host to packed bleachers for games of men’s soccer, women’s soccer and field hockey. Barring a few spring soccer games, the Broncs-themed field sits baron, asleep and alone. When Spring 2024 rolls around, however, Ben Cohen Field will awaken from its wintery hibernation with a new team and program ready to make its Rider debut.
On Aug. 23, Rider announced the addition of a women’s lacrosse program to its current 20-team roster. The announcement, made by Rider Athletic Director Don Harnum, gave a rundown of why this was important for the school and how it fits with the other programs.
“We are excited to be adding women’s lacrosse to our portfolio of sports offerings for women,” said Harnum in a press release. “Women’s lacrosse is a sport that continues to grow and thrive, both nationally and in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), and fits extremely well into our geographic recruiting footprint.”
When asked why women’s lacrosse, Harnum said it was for two specific reasons: enrollment and Title IX, which guarantees equal athletic opportunities and scholarships to female athletes.
“The one thing that we’ve noticed over time is our athletic enrollment has grown. I call it the hook of the sport. The sport will get kids,” said Harnum. “From a Title IX perspective we have a larger portion of women at Rider than we do in athletics. So to add 35 more women was a positive step for Title IX as well.”
But most importantly, the Aug. 23 announcement included when the first games of the new program will commence: spring 2024.
‘Something I couldn’t pass up’
Focusing on the foundation of the team, the announcement of the program’s first ever head coach came on Oct. 19, placing Evan Mager at the helm of the program’s construction and first season.
Mager has a long history in the lacrosse world. A lacrosse player himself, he played at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Florham (FDU), earning an Andrew Helgeson Memorial Award for dedication and commitment to his team.
“When I was younger, I knew I always wanted to be coaching. I got to see a lot of different avenues of starting and playing, coming off the bench and not playing. Just a lot of different things, and it kind of helped me build some coaching mentalities,” said Mager. “My FDU connections and my history at FDU was a lot of what has gotten me here today.”
Mager originally wanted to be a boy’s and men’s lacrosse coach, but after volunteering at Morristown High School while student-teaching there, the women’s lacrosse position opened up, and he got it. With the help of the FDU women’s lacrosse head coach at the time, Mager was able to learn the women’s game, which he described as a very different game than the men’s.
After coaching at Morristown, Mager wanted to coach at the college level, and the spot at his alma mater was available for him to fill.
In just three seasons, he manufactured an impressive 34-7 record, including two separate coach-of-the-year awards from the Middle Atlantic Conference (MAC) and the Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association (IWLCA) in 2021.
Once Rider announced that they were planning on adding women’s lacrosse, Mager decided to try to step into the Division I world.
“In the interview process, seeing the support not only from the administration in athletics, but the university as a whole, and plans for the future and current, it was just something I couldn’t pass up,” said Mager. “All of my coaching opportunities have been unique, but none of them have been built from the ground up with nothing there.”
Harnum, who let his department spearhead the head coach search, could tell that Mager was the guy right from the get-go.
“His enthusiasm came through loud and clear, and it’s already, in my mind, paying dividends,” said Harnum.
After Mager was hired, he had to pick his assistant coach and start recruiting. Mager already said that his connections and time at FDU got him here, and it did the same for his assistant coach, Tristan Konen.
Konen’s journey to be the first assistant coach has some similar notes to Mager’s story. The Bridgewater, New Jersey native grew up playing lacrosse and decided to go to Montclair State University (MSU). Once at MSU, she started coaching club lacrosse during her freshman year. It became something that she wanted to pursue after her time in college ended.
“Coaching was something that made me so happy, and just to be able to spread the game to younger girls and teach them what I know was just super cool to me,” said Konen. “I knew that that was something that I wanted to keep doing.”
As for how she wound up at Rider, she called it “crazy and hectic.”
“I had graduated from Montclair in May and then expected to go to FDU and learn from Evan and be his graduate assistant. I think I started in July, and then I was there through fall ball through October, so I was there for the fall season,” said Konen.
As the fall season was coming to a close over at FDU, Mager gave Konen the news that he was leaving to take the head coaching gig over at Rider. On top of that, he offered to take her along to the home of the Broncs.
“He sat me down and told me he was leaving to go to Rider, and I was so shocked. But then he asked me if I would want to go with him, and it was a no-brainer for me because he’s such an amazing coach, and to be able to learn from him and grow this program was going to be such a great opportunity,” said Konen.
Assembling the team
After the new team found their head assistant coaches, both Mager and Konen got right to work to start recruiting players for the program. Konen’s way to get to Rider might have been “crazy and hectic,” but that would be an egregious understatement for how wild the recruiting process has been for the two and the program.
“Typically you’re recruiting one class, evaluating another class, but we’re recruiting transfers, we’re recruiting fifth years, we’re recruiting 2023’s, 2024’s and evaluating 2025’s. So we’re kind of in this five-class spin right now,” said Mager. “From a recruiting standpoint, it’s very different from other sports. It’s not necessarily going to local high schools and things like that. Like we have very specific events and event timeframes.”
Mager continued by listing off some of the places they’ve been so far, those being the rest of New Jersey, Maryland and Texas.
Part of the recruiting for the program again traces its roots back to FDU. Rider’s first-ever signee, incoming freshman defender Mackenzie Kiernan, was actually committed to play at FDU, then decided to come to Rider because of a strong prior relationship with Mager.
“I knew Evan from third grade because I used to be on one of his travel teams when I was younger,” said Kiernan. “He’s such a good coach and a good person that I knew that that’s the kind of person that I want to be on a team with.”
More of the recruiting comes back to the FDU connections as five of the nine mid-year transfers that the Broncs have added to the team so far are coming from the program at FDU.
One of those transfers being former FDU captain, junior midfielder Katie Walsh. She will pick up right where she left off at FDU, being named the first captain of Rider women’s lacrosse.
“Being a captain and being on and leading a new program, it’s good to be in the history of Rider and being a good example for the upcoming future here,” said Walsh.
At the start of the spring semester, all nine transfers were able to meet for the first time and get acclimated with Rider’s campus. They have now been practicing and training together three times a week, in what’s become a surreal feeling for Mager and the entire program.
“I think the most exciting thing was just how quickly everything came together,” said Mager. “Getting nine players here so quickly was not something necessarily we thought could happen, but it happened and we’re excited about it.”
As for what Mager has planned for the inaugural season of the program, he doesn’t know how good the team will be yet, but he at least wants to instill good culture, communication and competition in the first season.
“Instilling that right away at Rider at a Division I level is extremely important because if the players are comfortable and they want to be in that culture that you’re creating, they’re going to want to perform as well,” said Mager.
With the first game in program history a year away, the constructors of the team don’t know what to expect yet, but the consensus belief from all of them is that the team can only go in one direction.
“Where our starting point is, I have no idea,” said Harnum. “But wherever it is, we’re only going up.”