Gross Understatement: Bri Gross, Vanderbilt Just Want to Dance

PHOTO COURTESY OF VANDERBILT ATHLETICS


Eighteen years ago, Vanderbilt captured the attention of the women’s lacrosse world by advancing to the final four in just its ninth season of existence. The Commodores’ Cinderella run came to an end in an NCAA semifinal loss to Princeton.

At the time, Beth Hewitt was co-captain and the top scorer at North Carolina. The Tar Heels lost to Vanderbilt 12-8 during that fateful 2004 season. Now Hewitt is in the midst of her fourth season as the coach of the Commodores, hoping to recapture the magic that once made people talk about Vanderbilt as an up-and-coming program.

An All-American and All-ACC midfielder, Hewitt got into coaching right out of college. She made pit stops at Oregon and Le Moyne before Vanderbilt hired her after the 2018 season to succeed longtime coach Cathy Swezey. She said it was a goal for her to get the team dancing again.

“Anytime you take over a program, you’re looking to make it better in any way that you can,” Hewitt said.

Hewitt said, according to the timeline she created, the Commodores are a year ahead of where she thought they would be. Vanderbilt made the NCAA tournament last year for the first time since 2010. The Commodores lost in the first round to Jacksonville.

Making small adjustments, such as the strength and physicality of the players to continue to compete at the national level, would prolong Vanderbilt’s season into May, Hewitt hoped.

“You’re not used to postseason play at a conference level, and then getting used to postseason play on the national level, it really extends your season by another month or so,” she said.

The current freshman class is the first recruited by Hewitt and her staff as a whole.

“Seeing these guys come into their own in the next couple years and what I think they’re going to be able to do on the field, we’re really hoping that not only do we have conference championships in sight, we’re hoping to work towards that national championship level,” Hewitt said.

With a young team, leadership is needed. That’s where senior Bri Gross comes in. An underrated yet decorated midfielder, Gross is one of the best players in the country, Hewitt contended.

“She’s obviously looked up to by a lot of players and is really respected by her teammates,” Hewitt said. “I’m just really excited to see how her season progresses.”

The midfielder kicked off the 2022 season with a hat trick against Liberty, assisting in the Commodores’ 18-13 win. Hewitt said the senior continues to build and get better and her skill set makes her stand out. Gross leads Vanderbilt with 27 goals and 64 draw controls. She’s second on the team in points (36) and ground balls (28) and third in caused turnovers (21).

Hewitt said Gross’s ability to be around the ball helps her to think one step ahead. She’s a factor in every facet of the game.

“I know that everybody knows who she is,” Hewitt said. “And to me, she always finds a way to come out on top and be the person leading us in the greatest games that we’re having against the toughest opponents.”

Gross said her goal for herself is to keep growing as a leader. After she came back from the 2019 World Lacrosse U19 Women’s World Championship in Canada, Gross, who starred for the U.S. team there, said she gained more confidence and began to use her voice. But that was her sophomore year. Now in the midst of her senior season, she said the squad is starting to get things figured out.

On Feb. 19, the Commodores defeated then-No. 12 Notre Dame 14-12. Gross had seven draw controls and two assists. While others may think the victory was a fluke, Gross said, it was authentic. Vanderbilt has stumbled some since a four-game winning streak in March, but it remains in the thick of the American Athletic Conference playoff race.

“I know that it wasn't and our whole team knows and wholeheartedly believes that it wasn't, and we know that we are a good program and we should be making the tournament,” Gross said. “I don't think the public realizes how different of a program we are.”

Hewitt echoed a similar statement, saying the team is a lot tougher. Gross said spectators don’t see the work she and her teammates put in every day in practice or the drive and the grit that holds them together.

“They haven’t seen the changes in culture and discipline,” she said.







Gross is used to change. The El Dorado Hills, California, native said coming to the East Coast where girls lace up their cleats practically out of the womb forced her to improve quicker. She picked up a lacrosse stick for the first time in fourth grade on a team of players spanning fourth to eighth grade. It was the first team in her county.

“It was just so much smaller,” Gross said. “It's not like you had a ton of games that you could watch. You couldn't just grab all your friends to go out and practice because chances were most of them didn't play.”

But Gross was resilient. Her father, Randy, used to coach her. She said he instilled these words in her from day one: “At the moment of truth, you'll not rise to the level of expectation but fall to the level of your training.”

Gross is a self-proclaimed perfectionist. Off the lacrosse field, she majors in engineering science, which, according to Hewitt, is one of the most difficult majors at Vanderbilt. Gross said sticking to a schedule allows her to succeed in both areas.

“I don’t ever want to do anything halfway. It’s all or nothing,” she said. “Everything I do on the field, off the field, in the classroom, it’s going to be 100 percent.”

The all-or-nothing mentality stemmed from her brother, Evan, who played basketball at Oregon. Gross said when she’s nervous before a game, she calls him.

“I know he’s going to give me the words that I need to hear,” she said. “He’s always been an inspiration for me. I’ve always looked up to him and just his work ethic to get where he was.”

Thousands of miles away from her family, Gross relies on the Vanderbilt coaching staff to inspire her. She said Hewitt holds her to a higher standard because she sees her great potential.

“I just know that everything I do I have to work for. It’s not just going to fall into my lap,” Gross said. “I'm not just going to be this amazing player when I step up onto the field if I'm not practicing it every day, and I think Beth believes the exact same thing.”

Hewitt said Gross never lets the moment be bigger than she is. Gross doesn’t just rely on her athleticism, Hewitt said, but she also studies the game inside and out to know where she can attack — no matter the opponent.

Even though Gross previously held out hope of qualifying for U.S. Sixes team competing this summer in The World Games in Alabama — she was not one of the 12 women named to the roster after training with the U.S. last summer — she said her focus is on her family. Her team. The black and gold. Even if it means showing tough love to hold each other accountable.

It helps that she’s not alone. Among other key veteran contributors are fifth-year players Gabby Fornia (team-high 43 assists and 63 points) and Melissa Hawkins (team-high 26 caused turnovers), as well as fellow seniors Karlie Bucci (24 goals), Maddie Souza (24 goals) and Callie Sundin (21 goals).

Vanderbilt (9-6, 2-2 AAC) closes out the regular season Saturday against Cincinnati and then likely will play in the conference tournament May 5-7 in Greenville, North Carolina. With an RPI ranking of 30 and a crowded bubble this year, the Commodores probably have to unseat Florida as AAC champion and grab the conference’s automatic bid to qualify for the NCAA tournament.

“We’re going to fight for each other every second on and off the field,” Gross said. “We’re just all fighting for each other and for one common goal, to win.”

And that’s exactly what they want to do. Dance.

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