Leaps and Bounds When Acacia Walker-Weinstein first arrived at BC, she talked about winning a National Championship. Now, six years later, it's a nationwide expectation.

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fter last year’s heart-wrenching loss to Maryland in the National Championship, a narrow 16-13 setback, Boston College lacrosse coach Acacia Walker-Weinstein sat at the podium alongside Zoe Ochoa and Kenzie Kent with tears welling in her eyes but a proud smile on her face. For some coaches, making it to the national championship game might be a once-in-a-career thing. Each year, new teams emerge, paths wind and are complicated, players get hurt, and a window can close. For Walker-Weinstein, it was just another step in her path to bringing a title to Chestnut Hill.

So, as she looked out at the assembled reporters, she didn’t speak of disappointment, instead speaking about how the senior class had “changed everything.” She spoke about how the culture had developed, how the players she had were now battle-tested, and, in emphatic fashion, that she was “looking forward to the future.”

What the future has brought, simply, is the next step in her years-long plan to bring BC’s program into the elite tier of college lacrosse teams. Walker-Weinstein has managed this through a unique coaching style, one of embracing an underdog mentality, even when her team is no longer regarded as one in the country’s eye.

There’s a special sort of power that an underdog brandishes, whether in sports, politics, or assorted contests. What ends up happening, almost inevitably, is that the favorite’s strengths are exaggerated, while the underdog’s are underestimated.

Walker-Weinstein’s teams are fully tapping into this power, exploiting it to drive a program that has spent the last five years steadily climbing toward the pantheon of the sport. It’s for that reason, as her team prepares for the NCAA Tournament with a near-perfect 19-1 record, that Walker-Weinstein is the deserving recipient with The Heights’s 2017-18 Coach of the Year Award.

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fter two years as an associate head coach, Walker-Weinstein was handed the keys. With Bowan Holden at the helm, BC tied the season wins record and booked its first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament, but regressed soon after, prompting a coaching change—hence Walker-Weinstein’s promotion.

Walker-Weinstein was the youngest coach in the ACC, hadn’t been a head coach before, and was better known for her illustrious playing career than her fledgling coaching career. Describing herself as “in over her head,” Walker-Weinstein still was able to produce a vision of a program climbing to great heights, overcoming the underwhelming expectations surrounding it.

The team quickly bought in, helping to make her debut coaching season a tremendous success, tying the wins record (12) and returning to the NCAA Tournament.

“All I knew was to try and get the girls to understand what my vision was—to win a national championship and become a powerhouse,” she said, reflecting on that first year. “I was lucky enough that the kids got on board immediately, and that started everything. I really just took it from there.”

Walker-Weinstein was lucky enough to inherit two exceptionally talented players in Covie Stanwick and Mikaela Rix, but the growth of the program from there rested solely on her shoulders—and grow it did.

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hen Kate Weeks, BC ’17, talks about her former head coach, you immediately sense the love and joy she experienced during her four-year collegiate career. You also sense the respect and admiration she has for Walker-Weinstein, gushing about her time at the program, starting from the beginning.

When Weeks was in the recruiting process, her sister was attending BC, so she initially looked elsewhere, including national powerhouses like Duke and North Carolina. The Eagles were ranked 10th in the country, but were still very much a team on the rise. Weeks visited BC last.

Walker-Weinstein and her staff immediately hooked her, as Weeks identified a drive within them that she hadn’t found elsewhere.

“In my heart, based on the coaching staff, I felt that they were the ones that with everything in them wanted to win a national championship,” she said. “More than anywhere else I visited—it was just something in my gut and I went with it.”

Four years later, Weeks was wrapping up an prolific career. The 5-foot-9 attacker finished with 132 goals and 36 assists, comfortably joining the 100-point club, and was a part of the first BC team in program history to not only reach the Final Four, but to make a championship appearance.

In my heart, based on the coaching staff, I felt that they were the ones that with everything in them wanted to win a national championship. Kate Weeks

None of it would’ve been possible without her passionate and caring head coach, though, as Weeks remembered the steady improvement she made under her guidance. Her first two years on the Heights? Just 17 total points in 32 games, a number that reflects how she hadn’t been able to really find her footing in the college ranks. That’s where Walker-Weinstein’s coaching style came in, she says.

“Acacia has a way of being a really, really tough coach, but then always putting your personal health and happiness above it all,” Weeks said. “She does both perfectly so you’re a successful athlete, and I don’t think people realize how hard that is.”

It worked wonders for Weeks, who described a moment when she found herself slipping into a slump. The then-rising junior felt off and couldn’t shake it, worried about how the upcoming season would go. Walker-Weinstein took her aside and said something that has stuck with her to this day.

“Kate, outside of the field you’re this confident, loud, crazy person, and if you don’t play like that with your personality, you will not play your best lacrosse.”

That flipped a switch. Weeks went off for 43 goals in her junior year and only furthered that in her senior year, piling up 76 in the 2017 campaign alone, a remarkable rate of improvement that reflected the ability of Walker-Weinstein to get the best out of her players.

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arah Mannelly, BC ’17, was a freshman when her new coach came in, but had played under her in the Eagles’ winter camp, and as an under-recruited high schooler, felt incredibly grateful when Walker-Weinstein took a chance on her. Her new coach quickly wore off on her.

“When you have someone like that as your leader, it is infectious and as a player you want to match her level of intensity and passion all of the time,” Mannelly said. “She genuinely cares so much for each individual and wants everyone to be successful both on and off of the field.”

Like it had for Weeks,  her coach’s impact brought out Mannelly’s best, propelling her into the record books. Mannelly scored early and often in her career on the Heights, piling up 173 goals and over 250 career points.

Being part of Walker-Weinstein’s first year, Mannelly was in on the ground floor, and had a front row seat to watch the program grow. By her senior year, the Eagles were consistently winning games, impressing with season-defining moments, like the team’s first win over Duke. And she’s continued to watch the team develop over the past two years—a hobby that brings her plenty of satisfaction.

“Now, as alumni, it is just as exciting to watch Acacia and the team continue to create program first moments and achieve everything she has always imagined for the program,” she said. “Her core values have played such an important role in the team’s success and it’s something that goes beyond the game of lacrosse.

“Both on and off the field she is always going out of her way to help take the program to the next level.”

Now, as alumni, it is just as exciting to watch Acacia and the team continue to create program first moments and achieve everything she has always imagined for the program. Sarah Mannelly

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eeks and Mannelly are just two such examples of players that Walker-Weinstein has helped to mold into successful collegiate athletes, both who saw themselves grow as people too. Walker-Weinstein credits the BC atmosphere for enabling her to recruit, but her underdog mentality of modesty is an equally powerful force attracting talented student-athletes—just ask Weeks.

“Acacia, in my opinion, is hands down the best coach in the country,” she said. “Past Cathy Reese with her four national championships. Past that.”

Walker-Weinstein has steadily built up a program that deserves plenty of attention on the Chestnut Hill and Newton campuses, one of remarkable consistency and an attitude of always needing to be better. It’s not often you see a team win 17 games in a row in the regular season and still feel like the underdog, but that’s how the Eagles play.

She might not think her team is an underdog anymore, but her coaching style reinforces core concepts like never taking a minute for granted, breeding an attitude of us vs. them, of an upstart program hellbent on disrupting the entrenched hierarchy atop the college lacrosse world. When BC took on Maryland in last season’s national championship and lost, Walker-Weinstein said in the postgame press conference that it was “like slaying a dragon.”

Now, after five years on the Heights, Walker-Weinstein appears to have created a dragon of her own—one poised to have an impact for years to come. Just look at next year’s recruiting class, which will be one of BC’s best ever, adding several of the countries top talents, to see just how far the Eagles have come under her watch.

“I want to be coaching in an environment where the girls are happy, hard-working, and honest, good people,” she said. “That’s the culture we’re trying to create, and I think we’ve done a really good job with that.”

Featured Image by Lizzy Barrett / Heights Senior Staff
Photos by Keith Caroll / Heights Editor and Amelie Trieu / Heights Senior Staff

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About Bradley Smart

Bradley is the associate sports editor for The Heights. He believes that America does truly run on Dunkin, March is the best month, baseball teams should always wear stirrups, and being down 3-1, in anything, is never cause for concern. You can follow him on Twitter @bradleysmart15.