By Rebecca Binder ’02

“You have to work hard when nobody’s looking,” says Christine Paradis, head coach of women’s lacrosse.
In 1995, Christine Paradis, newly minted head coach of women’s lacrosse, went to the Final Four. Her team, however, didn’t join her: Amherst had posted a 9-6 mark that year and didn’t factor in the postseason. Paradis traveled to the semifinals of the NCAA championship tournament to watch—and to chart a course for the future. “I remember watching those games,” she says, “and wondering: would we ever get there?”

More than a decade later, Paradis has her answer. The Jeffs have reached the Final Four five times on her watch, and they’ve continued to the national title game three times. In 2003, the program picked up its first NCAA team championship—and the college’s second—via a glorious, gritty come-from-behind win over Middlebury College. Both the team and its coach now hold court with the country’s best.

The notion of Paradis’s team ranking among the nation’s finest reaches back to the coach’s own days as a lacrosse and field hockey star at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. She co-captained the lacrosse team in 1984, earning an All-America nod and a spot on the U.S. Women’s National Team. Paradis paid her dues on the national team until the 1989 World Cup. “That was the time for me to shine,” she says. “I had been on the squad five years, and I was in my late 20s. It was peak time for me.

“Then,” she says, “I hurt my knee.” She had surgery and went through rehabilitation to repair the injury, but she got cut and missed the World Cup. “Getting cut was devastating,” she admits, “but it also let me take a step back. I realized that I wasn’t just Chris the lacrosse player. I had a lot of other things that I enjoyed doing and that I was good at. It was a great thing in a lot of ways; I just didn’t realize it was great when it happened.”
It didn’t take long for Paradis to decide she wasn’t quite ready to stop playing. On a long shot, she tried out for the 1993 World Cup team, and she made it. The squad traveled to Scotland, and won. “I wasn’t a star on the team,” Paradis allows. “I was a support player. And we won a gold medal; I was part of that, and I pushed other players.”

Playing, rather than winning, was the ultimate prize. “I had a dream to play in a World Cup, and it took me three tries to make it,” she says, her voice breaking. “A lot of players cycled through much more quickly than I did. I wasn’t necessarily the most talented, but I persevered through some hard times.” She carries that lesson with her today. “Perseverance is definitely underrated these days, in a world where so many things happen instantly,” she says. “But I try to instill in my players that you have to work hard when nobody’s looking. It’s not going to be handed to you. You might not be as talented as this player, but you might be a harder worker, and that might pay off.”

At Amherst, it’s paid off in spades. Paradis’s former players have fond memories of intense practices, hard work and their coach’s demand for excellence. “I keep one photo next to my desk,” says Mary Kate Allen ’03. “It’s of the team after receiving the national championship trophy, and I remember that anything is possible if enough heart and hard work go into it.” Abby Ouimet ’03 describes Paradis as intense but calm: “She’s a competitor, and she brought out the intensity in us, but she also had this way of making sure we all had a great time.”

Paradis is deeply involved in the lives of her players off the field. “She sees the players as athletes, but also as students and, most importantly, as people,” explains Carol Knerr, Paradis’s assistant coach for the past eight years. Allison Aldrich ’04, who played lacrosse and sang with the Amherst a cappella group the Sabrinas, remembers Paradis as a familiar face at her concerts. Laura Schifter ’03 always saw her coach as a parental figure, one of the rare adults in a college student’s life.

This season, Paradis and the lacrosse team look able to navigate the crucible that is NESCAC women’s lacrosse. Inside Lacrosse ranked Amherst first in Division III in its preseason poll; conference rivals Bowdoin and Colby colleges picked up the second and third rankings, and four more NESCAC teams rounded out the top 20. Following last year’s 14-4 season (7-2 NESCAC) that drove them into the national quarterfinals, the Jeffs now boast a large, experienced senior class that includes 2006 offensive standout Alyssa Briody ’07 and defensive lightning rod Emery Sweeney ’07. “We have experience,” says Liz Wise ’07. “We have lots of seniors that have put in a lot of playing time. And we have young talent, so there’s an element of freshness.” Mary Noonan ’09, who was last year’s National Rookie of the Year, and Amy Craig ’09 will look to capitalize on their head-turning offensive debuts.

Amherst could put together a formidable postseason run, but it has to survive its regular season first. The NESCAC boasts so many first-rate women’s lacrosse teams that they all have to stay on their toes. Each team’s a big fish, and there’s only so much room in the pond. Amherst’s record—especially its conference record—will greatly determine its seed in the conference tournament and its chances for an NCAA tournament bid. “There’s a lot of excitement out there,” Paradis says. “I think they know the season’s not easy, and it’s going to take a lot of work. But I know they’ve been working hard in the off-season, and it will be interesting to see how it will all come together.”

Paradis has continued to push her own boundaries as a coach and an educator. After a long tenure as Amherst’s head field hockey coach, she handed Knerr the reins several years ago. Since then, Paradis has become active in the department’s administrative functions; she’s also become heavily involved in the practice of yoga. She’s pursuing her certification to teach yoga, and she runs a popular yoga program on campus. “I’ve always brought a lot of visualization and spirituality into what I do with my teams—I use kind of an Eastern philosophy to help them relax and see the broader picture,” Paradis says.

The women’s lacrosse team kicked off its 2007 campaign on March 11, when it hosted conference foe Wesleyan University. From there, the Jeffs took to the road, barnstorming against Salisbury University and Colorado College before returning to New England to settle into their elite NESCAC slate.

Binder, who played softball at the college, wrote about men’s basketball in the Fall/Winter ’06 issue of Amherst.