California Dreamin’: Danielle Spencer Reeling in Top Recruits at Stanford

Growing up in Binghamton, N.Y., Peep Williams idolized Kayla Treanor. Though she never made the 70-minute trip down I-81 to see Treanor break ankles at the Carrier Dome, Williams, like many in her generation, grew up watching the prolific attacker’s highlight reels on YouTube.

Williams hadn’t heard much about Stanford for lacrosse, though she knew all about the school’s academic reputation. The program had been Division I since the late 90s, but it wasn’t really on her radar growing up. It’s not breaking news to say that Division I women’s lacrosse has been dominated by a few schools from the East Coast and one from the Central time zone. (That’s Northwestern, if you’re new here.)

Despite the history — or lack thereof — Williams was excited when she heard the Stanford coaching staff wanted to see her highlights after watching her in a showcase.

“I was like, ‘Stanford is in California and is one of the best schools in the country. What more could you want?’ I had never dreamt of it,” Williams said.

Williams committed to Stanford in September of her junior year, turning down her close-to-home team in Syracuse. She went on to be named the MVP of the Under Armour All-American Game this summer.

Williams is the latest to take a flight of faith and head west. Last year, Stanford boasted the No. 1 recruiting class, according to Inside Lacrosse. It included Ashley Humphrey — who last year set the Division I single-season assists record — and Sarah Jacques, who decommitted from Northwestern and chose the Cardinal over North Carolina and Boston College. It’s rare air — and exactly where Spencer wants to be on the recruiting trail.

“Ideally, my standard is that we want to be in the mix for the top recruits against the Final Four programs,” said Spencer, who took over as Stanford’s head coach in 2019. “Make no doubt, I came here to win. I don’t just want to be coasting in a good career at a great school. I want to win and go at the highest level.”

“Make no doubt, I came here to win.”

— Danielle Spencer

But Spencer can’t sell the same legacy of women’s lacrosse greatness as schools like Maryland or the other blue bloods, nor can she offer the chance to play in your own backyard (at least to many recruits). What she can sell is an adventure.

“Stanford is special because it’s across the country,” Spencer said. “If it’s a northeast player, we talk about when else you might get a chance to live in California for four years. You could choose to do something different.”

And the roster won’t be full of people who grew up on the same street or played for the same club team for years. Stanford isn’t a commuter school — students stick around on the weekends. The shared experiences of leaving home bonds.

“It reinforces the need to take care of each other and create a strong family here,” Spencer said.

The deal-sealer is usually the campus visit, which spans six jurisdictions in Northern California and includes more than 40,000 trees. Nearly every route on campus is a scenic one.

But this visit wasn’t possible for Williams, who coaches could begin contacting on Sept. 1, 2020. California was still under strict COVID-19 restrictions that prevented even normal fall practices. Like so many things that year, Williams’ “visit” took place over Zoom.

“Danielle Spencer put together the most impressive Zoom slideshow,” Williams said. “She made me feel like I didn’t need to be there. It was like nothing else. The chapel, the tower, everything is so beautiful. It took me one day to commit.”

Thinking fast and on her feet is something Spencer has had to do often during the recruiting process. Jacques de-committed from Northwestern shortly after Spencer accepted the Stanford job. The new head coach barely knew her way around campus when giving Jacques a tour. But Spencer had coached Jacques’ sister at Northwestern, and that foundation made way for an instant and genuine bond.

Jacques accepted — somewhat to Spencer’s surprise.

“I came to Stanford knowing it was a place where we could win more than conference championships … we can win a national championship,” Spencer said. “That was my first evidence that I wasn’t just saying that. We really can recruit the best players. Commitments like that help because great players want to play with other great players.”

At Stanford, greatness is a standard athletically, academically and post-collegiately. Stanford has won 131 national titles in team sports, the most of any Division I school. Of course, women’s lacrosse is still searching for its first. It’s allowed Spencer to combine the chance to do something for the first time with proof that it’s possible.

Academically, the school ranked third among national universities in the latest U.S. News & World Report, ahead of every Ivy League school except No. 1 Princeton. The median earnings of a Stanford graduate six years after turning their tassel is $94,000, nearly three times the national average, according to Niche.

“Stanford stands alone,” Spencer said. “It’s not just high academics. It’s not just a great athletic department. It’s both.”

Women’s lacrosse has come a long way in recent years, and Athletes Unlimited provides professional opportunities. But it’s not a full-time gig. And players like Williams, who plans to major in economics, are looking to not only build a program but also a foundation for their futures.

“You are making a choice about the course you want your life to take, the network of people you want to surround yourself with, the type of career and your earning potential,” Spencer said. “I think that’s why Peep and I meshed right away.”


Ashley Humphrey (right) set the Division I women's single-season assists record last spring.

Last year, the freshmen class immediately meshed. Humphrey dished 88 assists in her record-setting spring. Annabel Frist started and scored 56 goals, and Jacques played in every game and tallied 20 goals. In an NCAA landscape currently dominated by fifth-year players, the Cardinal offers the sport — and recruits — a breath of fresh air.

“The fifth years and sixth years and graduate students are taking over the game,” Williams said. “Stanford has no transfers. We have no fifth years. This is a new, fresh team, and that makes me excited for the future. We are on the rise, and that’s all I could possibly ask for.”

Spencer admits that part of the reason it’s challenging to take transfers is that Stanford is difficult to get into, and she never promises playing time. But the bottom line is that recruits are seeing she’s playing the long game — and they want to be a part of it.

“I want to play,” Williams said. “I want to set records. I want to be a really good teammate. I want to go out there and set the tone. We already are on the map, but I want to excel in the NCAA tournament rather than just get there.”

And that’s the next step for the Cardinal, which has won the last two Pac-12 tournaments. But last year’s NCAA first-round exit — a 20-8 loss to Jacksonville — still stings.

“It wasn’t representative of what we are capable of,” Spencer said. “I don’t want recruits to have doubt about our potential. I take that very seriously. I want people to look at us and see we are getting better each year.”

Williams has no doubts.

“Winning a national championship is in our future,” she said.