When Alisa “A.J.” Silverstein found out there Mary Hopkins — her lacrosse coach during her playing career at West Orange High — would be taking over the women’s club program at UCF, she was pretty excited to tell her teammates about what to expect from their new coach.
“I told them to be ready to have fun — (Hopkins) always knows how to bring fun to practice,” Silverstein said.
At the time, Silverstein — currently a junior — was a rising sophomore. Hopkins, who lives in Ocoee and had been at West Orange High for two decades, is now in her second year at the helm for the Knights.
It was an exciting reunion, to be sure, but others — such as Olympia High alumnae Kim Goic, Casey Zimmerman and Brittney and Ashley Matthews — were understandably a little skeptical
“At first (the Olympia alumni) were kind of hesitant — we were like ‘she’s from West Orange,’” recalled Goic, who is also a junior. “But then we really liked her — she’s an awesome coach and she’s helped us improve.”
Indeed, Hopkins’ role as the head coach of the club program at UCF is just one of several ways in which the team has deep roots in the area. In addition to players who went to West Orange and Olympia, the team features student-athletes from Timber Creek, East Ridge, Lake Minneola, Edgewater and Hagerty, among others.
While there are other players on the team who aren’t from Central Florida, including some out-of-state athletes, it very much has taken on the feel of a “team of rivals” — or, perhaps more accurately, friendly rivals.
“The twins, Ashley and Brittney, I actually played with them in middle-school (in club lacrosse) and I’ve known them since kindergarten,” Silverstein said. “It’s just really cool to be able to play with them again and to be able to play with people like Kim and Casey, who I played against in high school and I remember. It’s really weird, at the same time, because I remember wanting to beat them so bad and now we’re all really good friends.”
"It’s really weird, at the same time, because I remember wanting to beat them so bad and now we’re all really good friends."
The program at UCF was formerly coached by Hopkins’ husband, Tom, and has had plenty of success over the years. Tom Hopkins was a conference coach of the year twice and a national coach of the year once, and his teams have finished as high as fourth in the nation at the club level.
In Mary Hopkins’ first spring season earlier this year (the team also plays a developmentally-geared fall season), the team spent most of the season ranked between fifth and 13th in the nation.
Part of the reason for that success, according to Hopkins, is the ability of the program at UCF to offer some enticing options for local standouts who might otherwise go out of state to play for an NCAA program. In fact, Hopkins’ daughter — Taira — chose UCF over a scholarship offer from Ohio State University to save money while still playing in a competitive program.
“If you’re an in-state kid, with Bright Futures and everything else pilled together, you can pretty much go (to UCF) for free if you have the grades,” Hopkins said, adding that about 80% of her team consists of students with strong GPAs. “We talk to them and we talk to their parents and I share my experience with my daughter — that she chose to come here for free.”
For those who chose to stay close to home at UCF — where many of their parents are able to attend home games — they are also pleasantly surprised by a formidable level of competition.
“My freshman year, when I came, every day was really hard — and I wasn’t expecting that for a club team,” Goic said. “It really surprised me.”
The team operates as a campus club at UCF and has representatives — Silverstein, for instance, is the president of the club. Those reps are responsible for reserving practice space and time at the school’s turf intramural fields, and the team does all its fundraising for travel, equipment and other expenses on its own.
That is not to mention that most of the girls have jobs, internships and a full course load to content with.
“We talk to them about time management constantly,” Hopkins said. “They’re going after high-level majors and I think almost all of them have an outside job. … It’s a lot to manage and it has to be somebody who is really dedicated.”
The local women from West Orange and Olympia are just that, though, and excited to have a connective thread between their varsity and collegiate careers.
“It’s nice to bring a little piece of high-school lacrosse with me,” Silverstein said. “When I heard (Hopkins) was coming, I was so excited.”