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Major changes in BU’s Department of Athletics

With new New Balance Field on campus, BU’s field hockey players no longer have to travel all over town for practices and games.

STEVE MCLAUGHLIN/BU ATHLETICS

With new New Balance Field on campus, BU’s field hockey players no longer have to travel all over town for practices and games.

In theory, the vans could fit 15 people.

Sally Starr’s challenge was to figure out how to squeeze the 23 girls on Boston University’s field hockey team into both of them.

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Along with the practice equipment.

And the goalie equipment.

“The back seat had to be taken out,” said Starr, who’s been the Terriers’ field hockey coach for 32 years.

Driving over the BU bridge a few weeks back, she caught herself thinking about it.

For 12 years, her team didn’t have a field on campus to call its own.

They used the term “home game” very loosely.

Two years ago, Starr’s team played three of its home games at Harvard and four at Boston College.

Then there was the game against the University of New Hampshire, that started on a Friday at Harvard but, after a thunderstorm, ended on a Monday at BC.

“That’s crazy, right?” she said.

The Terriers split 12 years running back and forth from either MIT, Harvard, or BC to practice and play their games.

Just based on the traffic situation alone, she was amazed they were able to do it, let alone keep the program in the Top 20 year in, year out.

“It reminded me that when we came back from MIT, at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, that would be a half-hour to 40 minutes,” she said. “Sometimes the girls would just get out of the vans and run back. They could get back quicker running than driving in vans.”

Over the course of a season, the time added up.

“You’re spending your first 15 minutes in vans and your last 15 minutes,” Starr said. “At the minimum it was two hours a week that we were traveling, and really, that’s a practice day.

But now, from her office in the BU athletic facility, she can look out her window and see the tops of heads over the new brick facade across the street.

Once upon a time, all she would see were the cars parked in the lot with the cracked pavement.

On this day, a few of her players were getting individual workouts in on the school’s newly constructed 110,000 square-foot New Balance Field.

“Looking out the window right now, my girls are doing individuals,” she said. “We have not been able to do that type of a workout for 12 years.”

Lots of buzz

The field is a only part of the makeover that BU athletics has undergone over the past year.

Between opening that facility this fall, officially joining the Patriot League over the summer, hiring a new hockey coach in the spring, and adding a men’s lacrosse team to begin play next spring, the school sees itself entering a new era.

“With all the big things that are happening this year, it’s really creating a new identity for us,” said athletic director Mike Lynch. “We’re making excellence a priority.

“I think all of these things, all of these changes that we’re going through — the Patriot League, the new field, the new team, our new hockey coach — all those things are creating a lot of buzz around here.”

It didn’t come without some difficult changes, however.

A year ago, all of Lynch’s programs were in limbo, leaving the America East Conference after being there since its inception in 1979 and bracing for a move to the Patriot League.

Aside from some of the glitzier perks, including the new Patriot League Network, which launched this fall, the benefits of switching leagues went beyond some of the dollars-driven conference jumping that’s become normal on the college landscape.

By joining schools such as American, Army, Navy, and Lehigh, BU not was only surrounding itself with rich athletic history but with strong academic backgrounds.

“Once the Patriot League expressed interest, it was an easy decision for BU because BU wants to be known as one of the preeminent institutions in the country that places a premium on both of those areas, that doesn’t feel like you have to give on one to get the other,” Lynch said. “And I think we’re proving that we can do that.”

But that didn’t make it any easier for coaches and student-athletes to cope with playing a season knowing they wouldn’t be eligible for conference titles and possible NCAA Tournament bids because of an America East ban.

With seniors Chantell Alford and Mo Moran in the backcourt, Terriers women’s basketball coach Kelly Greenberg knew she would have one the best teams she’d ever coach. She also knew that the 24-6 season they went on to have wouldn’t be as memorable as it might have been.

“It was very hard because we had one of our best teams ever,” Greenberg said. “And we had two seniors who had unbelievable careers here. It was just so sad for them not to be able to end their careers the way they wanted to. So seeing that being taken away from them was very hard and it was really hard for our seniors.”

Last year, Starr’s field hockey team was on the NCAA Tournament bubble. The team lost just six games, all but two of them to ranked teams. But because of a 1-0 loss to Hofstra, BU missed an at-large bid and couldn’t earn its way in by winning the conference.

“That was a really tough year,” she said.

Lynch could tell.

“I felt like last year, in many ways for us, was a gauntlet,” he said. “Having to go through that year when we knew we couldn’t compete in a conference championship, when we had been perennial contenders in a lot of sports and that we couldn’t do that all of a sudden, that was an awful experience for all of our student-athletes, for our staff.”

In the spring, things were still rocky. Lynch announced in April that he would cut the wrestling program because of budgetary constraints as well as the program’s struggles for more than a decade.

On top of that, the school’s storied hockey program had to deal with a seismic shift, when legendary coach Jack Parker decided to step down and David Quinn was hired to be his successor.

Lynch said, “In hockey in particular, you have a legend who just left, who decided to retire from his position, and the student-athletes that are here now, there’s got to be that level of trust that the new guy coming in — he’s never going to replace Jack Parker and he’s got to know that coming in, too, he’s got to carve his own way — but we all have to trust that he’s the right guy for the job and he’s going to continue to help our team ascend in the way that we want it to move forward.”

Breath of fresh air

But once the year was over, Lynch could see the coaches and players put it behind them.

“By the end of last year everyone was tired,” he said. “Then July 1 comes around and it’s like you flipped the switch and everyone’s ready to go. It’s like a breath of life was breathed in on July 1 when we actually made the Patriot League.”

Among coaches, there always was a sense of trust in Lynch.

“I had a lot of confidence in Mike,” Starr said. “I knew he came from development originally. So he really understood the necessity of trying to get this done for the campus.”

Lynch took the reins in 2004. Five years ago, he went through an exhaustive examination of the department, talking to coaches and staff to determine a handful of critical areas to focus on.

Along with advancing the program athletically and academically, one of them was fiscal management/resource development.

Conversations about building a new facility started three years ago, with president Robert Brown recognizing the need for more green space on the school’s urban landscape and Lynch recognizing the need to bring one of its teams back on campus.

A $3 million naming gift from New Balance and $7 million in funds raised from alumni ultimately made it possible.

Now, when Lynch looks, he can see the athletic department’s full footprint. Starting from the softball field and the track and tennis center, he said he can walk through the administrative building, then cross the street to get to New Balance Field. Right next to that is Nickerson Field, Walter Brown Arena, and the fitness and recreation center. At the very end is Agganis Arena.

And still, Lynch said, he sees more potential.

“When you see Agganis Arena on one end and you see the track and tennis center on the other, those are really strong anchor stores,” he said. “In the middle is where we have to do our work. One of those open spaces that we saw that we could utilize was the old parking lot.

“We were able to fill that with a really high-quality field. Our next couple of moves are going to be further in the interior, taking a real hard look at Nickerson Field and how that’s going to develop over the years, taking a look at the Case Center and Walter Brown Arena to see if there are things that we could be doing there to make them more efficient, more effective. It’s all part of a big puzzle.”

In that sense, the dots were easy to connect. Between constructing a new field and moving to the Patriot League, in which seven of its 10 schools play lacrosse, adding that sport as the school’s 25th program made sense, especially with BU having been the home of the Major League Lacrosse Boston Cannons for two seasons.

“I think Boston and New England in general is a hot spot for lacrosse and it’s growing rapidly,” said new coach Ryan Polley. “And I think the powers that be at BU realized that we could take advantage of that. We can get people excited about it, we can get people at our games, and we can build this thing the right way.”

Starr’s field hockey team will play its first Patriot League home opener this weekend, and Polley already has been out on the recruiting trail and has his team practicing with the short fall season opening next month. Lynch can see things slowly taking shape.

“There were multiple pieces to this whole puzzle that have all come together in a really nice way,” he said. “We were connecting all those dots all along the way. It all kind of worked together.”

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.
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