Good Friends, Better Rivals – Boston College Athletics

Acacia Walker-Weinstein couldn’t believe what was finally unfolding. After three previous trips to the Final Four, her Boston College lacrosse program was no longer a plucky upstart underdog, but after three previous disappointments in the national championship game, she still sought to finish a job left unresolved. Standing on the sideline across from Gary Gait’s Syracuse Orange, Walker-Weinstein felt the tears come to her eyes as the unfinished vision finally reached its conclusion.

Her Eagles were about to win their first-ever national championship, and it was the first time Walker-Weinstein would ever hoist an NCAA trophy as a head coach. She realized the gravity of the moment, and as she turned to hug her assistant coaches, Kayla Treanor reached out and embraced her. If there was a bittersweet piece of Treanor upending her alma mater, it didn’t show, and the smiles reflected off of the trophy that had previously avoided the head coach and her staff.

The watershed moment remained etched in Boston College program history, and two years later, the sibling rivalry between the Eagles and their orange-colored ACC sisters reaches another climax when Treanor’s Orange battle Walker-Weinstein’s Eagles in the Final Four’s national semifinal round on Friday night.

“We had a great season,” Walker-Weinstein said. “It was very challenging in many ways, in such a great way. We played so many teams that helped prepare us. I’m really proud of the entire coaching staff and all the BC girls and our BC family for helping us get this far. We are really excited to have an opportunity to compete in another Final Four [and] against an amazing Syracuse team.”

Women’s lacrosse is one of America’s booming sports, but the exploding popularity is driven by coaches and players who crossed paths during halcyon days of a smaller, niche clique of programs. They grew up in the game, and they played or coached against one another at high levels under national spotlights. Everyone had their own style, but the copycat nature of sports allowed them to blend their creations as they continually worked with and against their team.

There are arguably no better examples than Walker-Weinstein and Treanor, who saw each other on opposite sidelines before they led the Eagles to that first national title. Both are two of the most recognizable faces in college lacrosse, and both were hired as head coaches after serving as assistants on national championship programs. 

Both excelled as players and graduated as Tewaaraton Award candidates, but their roads to the Final Four diverged from their program’s respective fortunes. For Treanor, the all-time goal-scoring leader in Syracuse history, four consecutive trips to the Final Four produced a national championship game appearance in 2014, and she finished with nearly 400 points while setting records at both the local and national levels. A three-time finalist for the sport’s highest honor, her teams continued a trend that started just prior to her arrival when Syracuse went to the Final Four twice in 2008 and 2010 – the first appearances in the Orange’s history.

Walker-Weinstein’s path through Maryland was a little different because the Terrapins were always one of college lacrosse’s most glamorous programs. Her freshman year was the last of the program’s consecutive national championship streak, and the triple-overtime victory over Georgetown was a hometown celebration in a Final Four featuring three Beltway-based lacrosse programs. Jen Adams was finishing up her college career, and the Terps’ title capped a perfect, 23-0 season.

Those backgrounds served as separate launchpads that ultimately led to a similar coaching trajectory. A decade before Treanor played for Syracuse, Walker-Weinstein was an assistant coach for Northwestern’s three straight national championships. She eventually moved east to Massachusetts before Boston College hired her as its head coach, where she hired Treanor away from Harvard, where she had been an assistant coach for one season, to help complete the national championship mission in Chestnut Hill.

“She and I had many moments together,” Walker-Weinstein said. “Her impact is hard to put into words. I loved my time with Kayla. She was so impactful on all the girls, their confidence. I think something that I valued so much about Kayla was that she brought such brilliant insight.”

That 2021 national championship was the capstone of their time together, but Syracuse reshuffled its lacrosse programs in the offseason by moving women’s head coach Gary Gait into the men’s program following John Desko’s retirement. To replace Gait, a men’s lacrosse legend in Western New York who led the Orange to three consecutive national championships as a player, Syracuse tabbed Treanor, who subsequently returned home to the JMA Wireless Dome, and over the next two years, the all-sports rivalry between the Orange and BC reached new heights on the lacrosse pitch, the zenith of which was this year’s ACC regular season finale.

Syracuse led that game for virtually the entire 60-minute stretch, but the undefeated, No. 1 Orange dropped the fourth quarter by a five-goal margin as the Eagles erased a four-goal deficit. Three goals by Belle Smith, Cassidy Weeks, and Courtney Weeks stretched a two-minute span to finally tie the score at 15-15, but after Sierra Cockerille posted Syracuse to a one-goal lead with under five minutes left, Cassidy Weeks and Mckenna Davis stacked two goals to hand the Eagles a memorable, 17-16 victory.

“That was a really unfortunate loss for us because we had a pretty significant lead early, and we had it for about 59 minutes of that game,” Treanor said. “The first time they led was under that last minute. So the players were really bummed and frustrated after that game, and it just took us some time. We had to make adjustments as coaches and do a couple of different things that I think really helped us in this NCAA Tournament.”

The closeness of the two coaches was evident in that game, and as Walker-Weinstein previously alluded, the copycat nature of success saw two teams essentially throw each other’s game at each other in that first meeting. BC’s defensive style melted into a late-game track meet against the Orange, who posted similar season-long numbers to the Eagles but individually had two 90-point scorers and one player, Meaghan Tyrrell, who broke the century mark as a 100-point scorer.

Yet there were differences and idiosyncrasies that made the teams play a unique style. It’s been two years since Walker-Weinstein coached alongside Treanor, and the short-term memory erased by any sport’s recency bias has each program playing to their own coach’s strengths. The fingerprints of both coaches are obvious on each other’s styles, but by the same token, they’ve done enough differently that the teams aren’t mirror images.

“The most common overlap is that they are very unselfish,” Walker-Weinstein said. “There’s a very unselfish style of play that I think both Kayla and I believe is ultimately the most powerful thing that you can have with your team. There’s a lot of deception behind their offense [and] a lot of deception behind our offense. I know they are always trying to be different and trying to be better, but the philosophies overlap a lot. 

“But at the same time, it’s been two years since we’ve been together,” she reinforced. “That’s a lot of time for change. Kayla has picked up her own steam and become such an incredible head coach that I think her team has morphed a little bit more into ‘Kayla’s team.’ We are very different. Our teams are very different, [even if] there is a lot of overlap.”

No. 3 BC and No. 2 Syracuse will play in the second of two national semifinal matchups on Friday afternoon at the WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina. Opening draw is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. and can be seen on national television via ESPNU with online streaming available through ESPN’s platform on the Internet and mobile device apps.

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