After a transformative sophomore season coaching the University of Toronto Varsity Blues women’s lacrosse team, head coach Jeska Eedens is heading back to her family home in St. Catharines. On a Friday morning, a few hours before she’s scheduled to depart Toronto, Eedens, alongside co-captain Sarah Jamieson, recounts the year-long journey the team underwent following their second consecutive seventh-place finish in 2016.
It was not a fluke that just a week prior, the Blues defeated Wilfrid Laurier University to earn bronze at the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) Championships.
“At the end of last season it was very clear afterwards that we are better than this and we have the talent, the systems, and everything in place that we shouldn’t be in seventh anymore,” says Eedens. “This time last year, literally a week after OUAs, I was getting messages from our girls being like, ‘Hey, when are we lifting, when are starting the offseason, when are we going?’ And so we spent a year working towards it, and our goal was a gold medal, a championship.”
Jamieson believes Eedens has provided Toronto with an outline for success, one that begins with her constant effort to reinforce a strong team culture. She expresses that prior to Eedens’ hiring, the team lacked cohesion and the ability to set an overall goal.
“Since Jess has taken over we’ve been able to see that we, as players, have such an impact on how we play on the field and also what we put into our offseason,” says Jamieson. “Our goal-setting, our working out really dictates what’s going to happen… She’s given us a vision [and] the girls have grasped it.”
“It was important to me to make sure the girls always knew that I 100 per cent believed that they can do it,” adds Eedens.
As the Blues enter the offseason with a plethora of graduating players, Eedens is excited by the challenge of rebuilding the team. She spent last summer tinkering with different lineups and shift changes, scheduling when and where each player was subject to play depending on the various game situation, but without last season’s veteran squad, she no longer has the luxury of knowing her entire lineup.
“Going into next year is going to be a lot of fun because everything is going to be so different, we’re going to be seeing new players really stepping into roles that they were just starting to get into at the end of this season,” says Eedens.
A self-described lacrosse nerd, Eedens appears jovial. Earlier in the morning she provided Edmonton’s Vimy Ridge Academy lacrosse team with a campus tour, where she highlighted the campus and facilities as well as the benefits of competing at a Canadian university.
“A lot of players look to the States, but… more and more girls are starting to stay in Canada to play as the OUA becomes more competitive,” explains Eedens. “It’s really nice to outline for them: you can have this really competitive varsity experience and this great student athlete experience while coming to this amazing university.”
“I hope we can do more stuff like that because they were really engaged,” she says.
Eedens wants to build a program that can rival the Western Mustangs, the “perennial powerhouse” and side that defeated Toronto 10–4 in the semifinals, a match she admits felt a lot closer than the final score suggests. Eedens notes the Blues had a tough time finding the back of the net in the match and were unable to stop the Mustangs. Western went on to win the championship, their sixth title in the past seven seasons.
“The girls on the Western team said we gave them a battle… despite it being a loss, we were still proud of our efforts in that game,” Eedens says. “We gave them a run for their money.”
PHOTO BY MARTIN BAZYL, COURTESY OF THE VARSITY BLUES
The offseason, which began unofficially with lifting sessions that will go until Christmas, ramps up in January with three lift days per week and one weekly practice and scrimmage. Last year, the Blues went to the US and faced Williams College in an exhibition match during the offseason, and they are looking to do something similar in the coming months, as well as play in a tournament. Eedens utilizes the offseason as a period of time to break down mechanics and focus on the little things with each player. Graduating players will also participate in workouts to help bridge the gap and better prepare next year’s team.
“That was something that during the season our players were really good about. They understand that some of the newer girls need some playing time in games, trying to set them up, and trying to teach them, so that when it’s their turn next year they’re a little more prepared,” explains Eedens. “We still have some great leaders returning and it’s going to be up to them to step up and were really going to be looking towards them.”
She also makes a candid pitch for other athletes around campus to participate in lacrosse.
“Female athletes who are looking for something new and have played a lot of sports should play intramural lacrosse hands down,” she says. “I played for a year and I became a captain, the government paid my tuition, I played for Team Scotland, [and] I’m the head coach now. It’s an easy sport to learn because it uses so many skills from other sports.”
Through Eedens’ meticulous preparation and vocal leadership, it’s easy to see why she was selected OUA lacrosse coach of the year by her peers. Describing the magnitude of the award and her immediate thoughts upon receiving the achievement briefly stagnates the well-versed coach.
“To know that people you have a lot of respect for wanted to recognize me is a great honour,” explains Eedens. “I was really surprised, pleasantly surprised.”
“I think that she deserved it more than anyone else…We implemented certain systems that wouldn’t have been able to be implemented without her,” adds Jamieson. “We are so lucky to have her.”
Eedens first picked up a lacrosse stick at 17, before she entered U of T about a decade ago. She knew she wanted to play on a Blues team but was unsure which one. She considered volleyball, soccer, and rowing, but her path was ultimately dictated by her love for lacrosse. After spending her rookie season as a bench-warmer, Eedens blossomed as a key defender for Toronto under the guidance of Blues assistant coach Jamine Aponte. She earned the OUA most valuable defensive player award and all-star honours in 2009.
The following season, Eedens’ playing career was halted by a concussion, and she dropped out of school that same year. She came back to school for a fifth year, but she didn’t play, then she became a part-time student and soon found a full-time job. She suggests that over the course of her four year-layoff, she likely earned only “a credit and a half.”
In 2015, Eedens made a return to lacrosse, even though she hadn’t touched a stick in three or four years and wasn’t in shape.
“I was working full-time and was not super happy,” admits Eedens. “I had this dream job, amazing life in Toronto, but I was like, ‘I’ll take a step back to go forwards and finish my degree.’ I came back and the coach at that point said they were short on girls, so I thought, well if I’m taking a step back to my undergrad, I guess I should go back and play lacrosse too.”
“I was not a star player that year… Coming back was really me trying to finish off my degree. I got my concussion at my peak: I just had the best season of my life and I got knocked out of it, so I wanted a bit of closure.”
The following January, then-head coach Taryn Grieder needed help to run the offseason and hired Eedens as an assistant coach. When Grieder resigned, Eedens decided the most natural thing would be to apply for the vacant position. She knew the program, the girls, and she was confident she would be the best person for the job.
“I got the phone call on my convocation day, so that was a good day,” remembers Eedens.
Jamieson has had the best vantage point to view Eedens’ growth. Their relationship began when Jamieson was 14. A hockey player, Jameison was instructed to play lacrosse over the summer, and the following season Eedens was at the helm of her local team.
“It was funny coming back because I coached Sarah… this young woman with all these leadership skills and everything, I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I’m so old,’” laughs Eedens.
“The year that [she] coached me with Jamine was actually my first year with a real coach and I was kind of like, ‘Oh, this is what lacrosse is like,’” says Jamieson.
“And it was my first time coaching, so I was like, ‘Oh this is what coaching is,’” laughs Eedens again. “Sarah will be our assistant coach next year, when she graduates.”
“Full circle,” replies Jamieson.