Virginia State’s First-Year HBCU Lacrosse Programs Are on the Right Path


Virginia State, an NCAA Division II member, becomes just the third men’s varsity program and fourth women’s varsity program among HBCU schools.

At Virginia State, two of the newest members of the athletic department are frequently referred to as ‘the twins.’ Although not biologically related, Shaun Church and Ashley Lawrence were both hired over a year ago as the initial head coaches for the men’s and women’s lacrosse programs.

Their similar paths and shared priorities since arriving on campus in Petersburg served as the catalyst for the nickname from their colleagues.

“We’re constantly talking with each other and collaborating on the things we are trying to do to get these programs started,” Church said. “There are a lot of common issues we are facing.”

Recruiting players, building a schedule, finding assistants and coordinating operational logistics have been just a few of the tasks both coaches have tackled. Both are now managing their first fall ball seasons in preparation for their inaugural varsity campaigns in the spring.

Virginia State, an NCAA Division II member, becomes just the third men’s varsity program and fourth women’s varsity program among HBCU schools. Historically Black Colleges and Universities are institutions of higher education that were established before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the intention of primarily serving African Americans.

“With so many new players, I’m focusing this fall on getting buy-in to the system,” said Church, who won a JUCO national championship as a player at Onondaga (N.Y.) Community College and two more as a transfer at Salisbury. “It’s about understanding our mission and gaining some miles together.”

Church’s buy-in for the 35 players on his men’s roster is based on the acronym MUDD, which represents the four pillars of his coaching philosophy (Mental, Understanding, Discipline, Dedication). He says it’s the foundation of everything that he hopes to build in the VSU program.

Similarly, Lawrence is helping a roster of 20 girls, including 16 freshman, get acclimated to the demands of college athletics.

“Even something like fall competition is new to most of our kids,” said Lawrence, who was a three-year captain at Howard. “Basically, everyone is a newcomer. I’m trying to help them understand what the level of work is that is needed of them. We’re figuring it out together.”

Virginia State’s women hosted a first-of-its-kind HBCU Play Day earlier this month, welcoming Howard, District of Columbia, Delaware State and club teams from Morgan State and Spelman. The significance of the event was not lost on Lawrence.

“Having four varsity programs with four minority coaches is rare, but it’s a strong force in the lacrosse world,” she said. “It’s a strong push forward.”

Lawrence acknowledged that Virginia State’s commitment to establishing varsity lacrosse programs goes beyond just putting players on the field. It’s about creating a new narrative.

“I tell our girls that, ‘You have to know your why.’ This game is bigger than just playing,” she said. “Our goal is to make the minority world more focused on our sport.”

The message from the other coaching twin to the men’s team members is quite similar.

“I remind them that it’s not just about you, but also about those who will come after you,” Church said. “The other thing we ask is, ‘How much are you willing to bend to be a part of something bigger?’”

Virginia State’s men’s team scrimmaged at fellow HBCU Hampton last weekend and left Church feeling encouraged with his team’s early development.

“I’m very pleased with how competitive and gritty we are,” Church said. “I think we’ve also identified some of our leaders and playmakers.”

Among those on-hand for last weekend’s scrimmage was Lloyd Carter, who launched the Hampton men’s program in 2016 and was the school’s head coach for its first four seasons. Carter is now serving as a lacrosse advisor for Virginia State and noted that the start-up process at an HBCU includes one very important element that can’t be overstated.

“You have to really educate and indoctrinate the administration because they are not truly familiar with lacrosse,” Carter said. “You have to help the administration understand the level of the financial investment that is needed.”

While much has already been accomplished at Virginia State as the teams draw closer to their first varsity campaigns, more work, both on and off the field, lies ahead. Both head coaches highlighted the same priority during different conversations.

“We really need dedicated locker rooms for our lacrosse teams,” Church said. “We have good facilities here, but our teams need a place that belongs to just lacrosse.”

Discussions are also in progress with several existing conferences that could welcome both Virginia State squads as affiliate members. The Trojans are slated to compete as independent programs in 2024, with the men currently facing a 12-game schedule and the women having an 11-game slate.  Among other benefits, a conference affiliation would be a boost for both coaches in scheduling games.

“We just want to keep moving forward in getting the things that our players deserve,” Lawrence said.

Carter is impressed by the progress he has seen from the programs as their first varsity seasons draw near.

“Virginia State is doing a great job taking lacrosse from a concept to reality,” he said. “They are on the right path.”


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