WestConn women's lacrosse faces former coach, Jennifer Thomas and JWU, in first NCAA Tournament

Photo of Maggie Vanoni

Earlier this week, there was a night when Johnson & Wales women’s lacrosse coach Jennifer Thomas couldn’t sleep.

She was up late trying to plan how her team would break through WestConn’s defense.

It was past 3 a.m. and she was losing the battle against insomnia, so she opened the Instagram app on her phone to help ease her mind.

There in her feed was a post from WestConn’s team. She double-tapped the image to like it.

Within minutes, WestConn coach Meghan Els texted Thomas, “I see you’re up too.”

Thomas replied, “Welcome to being a head coach. You literally never sleep.”

It’s been three months since Thomas left her job as WestConn’s head coach to become the head coach at JWU. Els, Thomas’ former assistant coach since 2019, was Thomas’ immediate recommendation to take over her role as interim head coach of the Colonials’ program.

Both coaches went on to have successful seasons and win their respective conference championships this year, including WestConn winning its first LEC Championship title. So it was almost ironic when the NCAA DIII Women’s Lacrosse Tournament bracket revealed that Thomas’ Wildcats would face off against Els’ Colonials in this weekend’s second-round matchup.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Els said. “There’s a reason why there was a coaching change and there’s a reason why we are playing and there’s a reason why we’re playing Johnson & Wales and it’s one of those things that she’s the reason I’m in this position right now and I’ll forever be grateful in what she’s done for me and help me grow as a coach.

“I’m excited for after the game because that’s when we can go back to being our normal friends. But we’ve been saying this all along, it’s business, so we’re going there on a business trip and we’re going to get the job done.”

After five years with WestConn, Thomas said spending so much time at home during the pandemic made her realize she wanted to work closer to her family in Waterford since WestConn’s campus was nearly a two-hour drive away. When she saw JWU’s position was open, she applied and got it, making her commute only an hour each way to JWU’s campus in Providence.

“I always knew I was going to try to make my way back to that area, I just didn’t think it was going to happen so quickly,” Thomas said. “But you know, that’s kinda how coaching goes. I always, say, ‘You’re never ready for a new experience, it just kinda presents itself and you either take it or you don’t.’”

While it was hard to leave the WestConn program, Thomas knew it was going to be in good hands. She knew the Colonials were on the right path for success this season with Els at the helm and especially after the team’s 14-5 season in 2019.

“I knew that WestConn was going to win it (LEC Championship) and that was really hard personally, for me to leave just because I knew that they were going to be successful,” she said. “It helped me realize, ‘Hey it’s okay to go for another position,’ just because I knew the transition was going to be so easy and so fluid with the team. … I knew they were going to be successful regardless if I was there or not.”

Both Thomas and Els found themselves in similar positions to start the season with each having about three weeks to adjust and transition into their new roles before the first game.

Despite losing three straight games to start the season, JWU (7-3) came back and won out the GNAC Championship, 16-12, over Emmanuel on May 1. It was the Wildcats’ fourth-consecutive conference championship.

In Connecticut, the Colonials (9-0) finished the regular season undefeated and won their first conference championship title, earning the program’s first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Els was named the LEC Women’s Lacrosse Coach of the Year.

“It was a very smooth transition for the players because even with the short time together we built such a good relationship with coach Els,” WestConn senior Caroline Galligan said. “We’re so lucky that she was willing to stay and bring us to the championship and do something that we have never done before and I’m just happy that she did this for us.”

While the two, along with the other WestConn assistant coaches, usually talk frequently during Thomas’ long drives to and from work, they’ve stayed distant this week in preparation for this weekend after learning they’d face each other in the tournament.

“I had this gut feeling it was going to happen, but then when it happened, I was like, ‘There’s no way this is happening,’ My mouth just dropped and I was like, ‘You’re kidding.’” Thomas said.

Thomas said she hasn’t spent too much time scouting WestConn, instead she’s teaching her new players the schemes and drills she once taught her players at WestConn. With all the attention around her and the WestConn program, she wants to make sure her JWU players understand this game is about them.

“I sat down with our team and I was like, ‘Listen, this is not weird for anyone. This is not even about coaches. This is about you guys and what you guys have done this season,’” Thomas said. “I’m going into the game acting as though, they’re not WestConn and just focusing on us and focusing on the girls because their hard work, I don’t want that to go unnoticed, that’s really why we’re here.”

WestConn is looking for its first NCAA Tournament win when it faces Thomas and the Wildcats on Saturday. On the others side, JWU has one NCAA Tournament win over the course of its last four appearances.

“We’re just so thrilled that our season has been extended into May, something that hasn’t been done before,” Els said. “It would just show how resilient and dedicated our girls are. Obviously, it’s something that’s has been years in the making. And that’s what you want to see in a program so this is something that many classes have had such an impact on. We’re just having fun at this point.”

The Colonials play JWU at 2 p.m. on Saturday at Bill Alfond Field in Waterville, Maine in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The winner will move on to the third round and face the winner of TCNJ-Babson.