BILL DWYRE

USC women's lacrosse team debuts Saturday against Northwestern

The school's first NCAA lacrosse game will be played against the NCAA title holder at the Coliseum. USC Coach Lindsey Munday was the high scorer on the 2009 World Cup gold-medal team.

There will be big doings for USC athletics Saturday at the Coliseum. And no, Matt Barkley did not get another year of eligibility.

This has to do with lacrosse, which brings to mind one of two things for most of us: a medium-sized city in Wisconsin or a sport with sticks.

Sticks it will be. Also, a beginning.

USC will play its first-ever NCAA game, at 3 p.m., in a sport that is a big deal in the East and barely on the radar in these parts. It will be women's lacrosse, 12 scholarships spread among 26 student athletes. (USC plays men's lacrosse on a recreational level.)

USC will be playing the best team in the nation, Northwestern University. Who knew? Yes, that Northwestern, the academic powerhouse whose varsity football teams could, generally speaking over the years, beat most other major universities' intramural teams handily.

At Northwestern, it's difficult to match the success of its women's lacrosse team. The Wildcats have won seven of the last eight NCAA titles — Maryland won in 2010 — and are coached by an already legendary Kelly Amonte Hiller, 39. Hiller's home-game record since 2004 is 83-2. She has, in the words of her most successful student, "changed the way the game is played."

That student is Lindsey Munday, who is USC's new coach for its new program, sport No. 21 in the Pat Haden athletic building block. She not only played for Hiller on two national title teams, she also worked as an assistant under her for three more NCAA titles. She also is perhaps the best player on the U.S. national lacrosse team that will attempt to defend its gold medal in the sport's World Cup this summer in Canada. When it won that in Prague in 2009, Munday was the team's high scorer.

One USC official calls her "the Kobe Bryant of women's lacrosse," which apparently means she is an unbashful, and successful, shooter.

Some coaches would prefer to start slowly. Munday has decided to dive right into the deep water, even though playing a first game against the sport's powerhouse is a little like Cal State Fullerton getting football back and opening against Alabama.

"Our biggest goal," says Munday, who knows she may be leading her lambs to slaughter, "is to go out and compete as hard as we can."

USC has been pushing this game hard. The opening game at the Coliseum, accompanied by a heavy advertising and promotion campaign, is Haden's way of a grand kickoff, and Munday is not objecting.

"All that tradition," she says.

Also, all those empty seats.

"Yes, I guess, from what people around here are used to, that will be a little different," Munday says.

Free admission will help. Anything free in sports these days is rare. Another incentive is a free T-shirt for the first 1,000 to show up. Quite possibly, supplies will last.

If this game were being played in the East, they'd be worried about traffic control and ordering enough hot dogs. The sport, which has a male version a bit rougher with helmets and rules allowing more physical play than the women, is huge in places such as Maryland. On many a day in the Baltimore Sun, the top sports story will be on the Ravens and the big second play, with large pictures, will be on lacrosse. And the Sun sports editor doesn't even worry about his job security.

Munday, 28, was hired two years ago to build the program for this day. She was the coach at a small college in Maryland, Mount St. Mary's University, but left before her first season when Haden and Hollywood came calling.

Did Mount St. Mary's understand and take the move well?

"No comment," Munday says, smiling.

Most of her recruits are from the East. Only seven of 26 are from California, and three of the seven from Southern California.

"I spend lots of time in airports and hotels," she says.

The schedule has 19 games leading to the conference tournament in early May. The Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) and its members are Stanford, Cal, Oregon, Denver, UC Davis, St. Mary's, Fresno State and now USC. Colorado will join next season.

The winner of the MPSF tournament in Oregon makes the 26-team NCAA field. The NCAA final four will be played May 24-26. That's played in Radnor Township, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb with a population about half the capacity of the Coliseum and home to Villanova University.

Munday doesn't expect her team to be there this year. She also doesn't expect to stay away a long time. She was in Northwestern's second recruiting class of its new program in 2002. In its fourth year, Munday's junior season of '05, the Wildcats won their first NCAA title.

So she can dream and Haden can hope and maybe, some day soon, they will need to order 2,000 T-shirts.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

CHICAGO

More