Ambition Can't Wait: Drexel Building a Contender in West Philadelphia

It’s 43 degrees on a crisp November morning at Drexel’s Vidas Field. An early drizzle has subsided, but persistent clouds and chilling wind gusts linger.

At 7:15, players are already well into their stretches and calisthenics for a 7:30 practice. The Philadelphia Housing Authority’s Westpark Apartments — high-rise brick buildings representing the city’s last remaining public housing complex — offer the backdrop for one of the program’s final sessions of the fall.

This isn’t the venue of a traditional NCAA lacrosse power. There’s no flashy video board or stadium seating, just one set of aluminum bleachers. Installed seven years ago, the turf is worn and firm. A navy blue crane extends over the treetops somewhere in the distance as a semi-permanent fixture overlooking the field. Ambient sounds of West Philadelphia provide the soundtrack for a music-free practice, a symphony of sirens and car horns.

This is the home of the Dragons, a mid-major program carving out its place in the national rankings of women’s lacrosse.

“That stuff’s never really fazed me,” graduate midfielder Lucy Schneidereith says as she brushes away with her foot a few paper Gatorade cups that were left on the field by one of Drexel’s soccer teams. “It just prepares you for the real world. What you see is what you get.”

“I keep it real. What you see is what you get.”

— Kim Hillier

Schneidereith, Karson Harris, Colleen Grady and Zoe Bennett — graduate students who’ve ushered the Dragons into national relevance — smirk as they watch their teammates go through the early stages of practice, a fervent combination of passing and dodging meant to hone skills while simultaneously conditioning the athletes. “This is the hard part,” Schneidereith says of the drills as the quartet prepares for a photo shoot in the corner of the field.

What happens next is an all-out blitz of lacrosse fundamentals. The 90-minute practice is a blink-and-you-miss-it display of stickwork and strategy. It’s the kind of high intensity session that new head coach Kim Hillier picked up during her time as Joe Spallina’s assistant at Stony Brook. Little time is wasted. Everything’s close to game speed. It’s go, go, go.

Despite their isolation from the group this chilly Monday, Bennett, Grady, Harris and Schneidereith are at the heart of Drexel’s sudden emergence.

A lack of continuity in leadership has not prevented them from reaching new heights. Quite the opposite, actually. The quartet has had three coaches in five years and believes that each person — Hannah (Rudloff) Wszalek in 2018 and Jill Batcheller from 2019-21 — has helped them get to that next step. Now it’s up to Hillier, in her first-ever NCAA head coaching position, to continue that momentum. She already speaks the language.

“I keep it real. What you see is what you get,” Hillier says, echoing Schneidereith word-for-word while thawing off after practice in a common area adjacent to the team’s locker room. “Success, in my opinion, doesn’t happen on accident. It’s about the people who you surround yourself with. Facilities? There are tons of plans to reconstruct things. They’re breaking ground on a new locker room at the end of the season. It’s my job to make sure that these players know their value and their worth.”

One of the surprise teams of the 2021 season, Drexel set program highwater marks with 13 wins, its first-ever top-10 national ranking and an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Much like the team, the core four players' stocks have risen over time.

Harris was hardly recruited coming out of Leonardtown (Md.) High School. She received just one offer and waited patiently for more to come. They never did. On the last day possible, she committed to Drexel.

Harris has more of a small-town than big-city essence. She’s bubbly and innocent. Her teammates comment on her awkwardness during some staged photos. The midfielder who’s on track to be a physical therapist grew up on almost two acres of land and rode horses in Great Mills, Maryland. City life, at least at first, was a culture shock.

“When I first got here, they were like, ‘We’re going to hold your hand when you cross the street,’” she says. “But I had something to prove when I got here. It was a good team to come to with that attitude.”

Having improved exponentially since her freshman campaign in 2018, Harris earned USA Lacrosse Magazine second-team All-American recognition in 2021. She was a catalyst in the midfield, scoring a school-record 61 goals with 92 draw controls and 15 caused turnovers. With three-plus goals in 14 of 16 games, Harris was a focal point for a Drexel team that reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in its 38-year history.

Underdogs thrive at Drexel. The main campus is a five-minute walk from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where fictitious Philly icon Rocky Balboa famously ran up the 72 stone steps at the end of his workouts.

“Every win feels sweet because we know the sting of being beaten by 20 goals,” says Harris, who was a freshman when the Dragons finished 4-12 in 2018. “You’re always going to have that underdog mentality because your name is Drexel.”

Like Harris, Bennett, Grady and Schneidereith didn’t necessarily seek out Drexel as much as the the school found them. Schneidereith recalled the magnetic draw of the campus when she first visited. Grady didn’t want to go to school in a city, but that similar attraction proved too inviting. Bennett, an architectural engineering major, just wanted to find a lacrosse program that would let her pursue her career at the same time.

“Right away, I got the vibe that this was the kind of place where people just worked their butts off,” Schneidereith says. “I was underrecruited. I was never a big name. Coming here, it just felt like we were a bunch of misfits trying to prove that we were good enough.”

After the Dragons’ dismal 2018, Wszalek stepped down as head coach to accomodate her husband’s career opportunity abroad. Drexel hired Batcheller, who inherited a team of players in whom others might not have seen upside. The Dragons improved to 6-10 in 2019 and won five of their first seven games in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered college sports.

Drexel proved it was for real in 2021, going 13-3 and undefeated in regular-season conference play. The Dragons lost in the CAA championship game to James Madison and couldn’t get past a much-improved Rutgers team in the first round of the NCAA tournament, but last spring was categorized as a resounding success.

“It’s really cool to look back at where we started and where we’ve come,” says Grady, who contributed 48 goals and 41 assists. “When I first got here, we were bottom tier. Nobody thought anything about us.”

Drexel ended the season ranked No. 12 in the Nike/USA Lacrosse Division I Women’s Top 20. Harris was the CAA Player of the Year, Bennett the CAA Goalie of the Year and Batcheller the CAA Coach of the Year.

“I feel like we’re kind of the queens of the city,” Bennett says.

A shock came after the season, however, when Batcheller announced she was leaving the program. Not long after, she took the head coaching job at Villanova, a program that’s never made an NCAA tournament despite its prominent location in a hotbed of high school talent.

Batcheller, who grew up two miles from Villanova’s campus in the Philadelphia suburbs, saw potential in the Wildcats, much like she saw in the Dragons a few years prior. But now left without a coach after an all-time great campaign, Drexel players were left wondering about their futures.


From left to right: Lucy Schneidereith, Zoe Bennett, Colleen Grady, Karson Harris

In came Hillier, who brought in Katie O’Donnell and Alyssa Guido as assistants. Jamie Schneidereith, one of the Schneidereith quadruplets, graduated in May but returned as a volunteer assistant.

A lifetime Long Islander who speaks her mind and commands a huddle, Hillier wasn’t looking for an out at Stony Brook. Kind of like her star graduate students, Drexel’s call was too loud to ignore. One of new athletic director Maisha Kelly’s first hires, Hillier, who played at CAA rival Hofstra, has grandiose visions of what Drexel can become.

“This was just an opportunity I couldn’t pass on,” she says. “This quickly became like a dream job. A lot of it was the people. These girls are incredible. I’m all in.”

"One of the first things that came to my mind when Kim took the position is that we made a statement hire," Kelly said. "Drexel takes lacrosse very seriously, and we’re going to identify and attract the best of the best."

Drexel players became part of the search process once it reached the final stages. They gave in-person tours, conducted phone interviews and participated in meetings.

“Her energy, drive and commitment are things I’ve never seen in a coach,” Grady says. “It’s amazing how passionate she is about the sport. She is so knowledgeable and shares everything she knows so willingly.”

"Kim was one of my highest-profile athletes at Hofstra. Kim choosing Hofstra made it cool to choose Hofstra," says James Madison coach Shelley Klaes, who was at Hofstra from 2002-06. "When you have someone who’s confident enough to do it their own way, people want to follow."

Hillier prefers a hands-on approach as the sun starts peeking through the clouds in the latter half of practice. Working with the midfielders, she sets up cones and repositions bounce-backs on her own. She walks through drills and breaks down fundamentals like a teacher, offering feedback as needed.

“We look good, huh?” Hillier asks during a brief respite. She doesn’t give enough time to respond. With a wide smile, she jumps back in to show players how to keep their elbows in and snap their shots with more oomph.

For all Drexel’s success in 2021, some say they plateaued. The Dragons fizzled out at the end of the season. Harris says their conditioning wasn’t up to par with the likes of James Madison and Rutgers. That shouldn’t be a problem in 2022, as Hillier intends to have her team prepared to run transition for the full 60 minutes if needed.

But intensity isn’t Hillier’s only trait. She’s warm and welcoming. Her team is her family. Hillier welcomes FaceTime calls from her players and has an open-door policy in her office. She even asked to meet their significant others.

“She’s always checking in with people and wanting to know about our lives,” Grady says. “It’s been chemistry since day one.”

Hillier says she doesn’t feel any outside pressure to repeat — or improve upon — Drexel's history-making season. Any pressure she feels is entirely self-inflicted. “Ambition can’t wait,” goes the university slogan. Hillier embodies that bravado. Hard on herself, she only wants her seniors to get everything they deserve.

“They trusted in me,” she says.

Eagerly awaiting a new season in which James Madison’s impending transfer to the Sun Belt Conference leaves the door wide open for a new team to win the CAA championship, Drexel wraps up its morning practice with a quick chat. Hillier and her staff prepare to leave the next day for the IWLCA Convention in Dallas.

“We’re going to miss you guys. I mean that,” Hillier says. “Call or text if you need anything.”

A fittingly family atmosphere at a place that, for some reason, can make anyone feel at home. Outsiders might drive down Powelton Avenue and scoff as they turn into the parking lot of Vidas Athletic Complex, but Drexel has committed to getting every inch out of its resources. The players are doing the same.

“I just knew this was a place I could reach my potential,” Schneidereith said. “Nothing’s really given to anyone here. I knew I would come out of Drexel a better person.”