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Boston College women's lacrosse coach Acacia Walker-Weinstein

Cover Story: Working on a Dream

May 8, 2024
Beth Ann Mayer
John Strohsacker

Acacia trees thrive in Africa's arid savanna climate. When fully grown, their branches curl into a fernlike shape. Get close enough, and you’ll see small, stunning yellow flowers and thorns.

Acacia Walker-Weinstein is named after this tree. Her parents studied in Africa. It was a prophetic choice for someone who would set down deep roots in women’s lacrosse. A woman who helped end the Boston College athletic department’s 16-year ACC tournament championship drought two years after leading the school to its first NCAA championship in a women’s sport.

But it’s more than winning. Known for her vibrant demeanor, Walker-Weinstein also has a fiercely competitive side. She’s unafraid to show tough love to players and hold them accountable.

Flowers and thorns.

“It's really hard to be tough on your players, but having that love and respect shows that she trusts me,” said Sam Apuzzo, Boston College’s first Tewaaraton Award winner and current assistant coach. “I know she's pushing hard on me because she loves me and knows my potential. You can't have one without the other. To compete at a high level, you need both.”

Walker-Weinstein, 40, can succeed in an uncomfortable environment. If that doesn’t sound like the personification of the Acacia tree, what does? It also sounds like a mother, which Walker-Weinstein is to three. She shares them with Morgan Walker, the boyfriend-turned-husband who inspired Walker-Weinstein to set down roots in New England.

“Acacia is a phenomenal coach, but she's also a mother and a wife,” said Charlotte North, who starred at Boston College for two years and helped lead the Eagles to their first national championship in 2021. Walker-Weinstein’s daughter, Wesley, is famously one of North’s biggest fans. “She has three kids who run around like crazy — and they're the best — but she gives everything she has to the program and her players, developing them as people and leaders.”

Acacia Walker-Weinstein during her playing days at Maryland
Acacia Walker-Weinstein played for Cindy Timchal at Maryland, graduating in 2005.
John Strohsacker

Lacrosse was not Walker-Weinstein’s first choice. “I just wanted to play baseball with the boys,” she said. “Two of my good friends asked me to come try it. I was so over it. I said, ‘Dad, I don’t want to do it.’ My friend dragged me to practice [in fourth grade], and I loved it. It was so exciting and fast.”

Walker-Weinstein’s rise in the sport was also fast, including leading Annapolis High School to consecutive Maryland state titles when she was a freshman and sophomore. At 15, she was the youngest member of the USA U19 team that won gold in Australia in 1999.

“Everyone was telling me I was crazy to try out,” Walker-Weinstein said. “They were like, ‘You know, you’re probably not going to make it. It’s U19, and you’re 14.’ I just decided that I was going to do it.”

Walker-Weinstein went for it anyway. She said the experience “shifted her whole life.”

“I was not supposed to make it, and I did anyway,” she said. “It created this mindset — you can do it. Dream big.”

"Dream big" is a mantra at Boston College, one Walker-Weinstein needed to turn a team no one thought of as a lacrosse school into a national power. But first, dreaming big meant signing on to play for a national power in Maryland. A hard-to-catch two-way midfielder, Walker-Weinstein knew she wanted the Terps. The feeling from legendary coach Cindy Timchal was mutual.

“Annapolis is very strong in youth boys’ and girls’ lacrosse, and Acacia stood out right away,” Timchal said. “She wanted to get better and have fun. Whether you're coaching or playing, you've got to be a little curious about how other players play and how other teams are successful. She’s driven by curiosity.”

That curiosity has stayed with Walker-Weinstein, prompting another Boston College mantra of “More.”

Walker-Weinstein didn’t win a title at Maryland, playing there from 2002-05, a period sandwiched between the Maryland and Northwestern dynasties. Did she want more lacrosse in her life?

Acacia Walker-Weinstein competing for the U.S. Women's National Team in the 2009 world championship in the Czech Republic.
Walker-Weinstein spent more than a decade with the U.S. Women's National Team, culminating in a world championship in 2009.

Coaching wasn’t Walker-Weinstein’s dream job when she arrived in College Park, but Timchal has a way with things. In fact, calling the Timchal coaching tree a tree is unfair — it’s more of a forest that includes Maryland’s Cathy Reese and Northwestern’s Kelly Amonte Hiller.

“Cindy Timchal, she's such an influencer,” Walker-Weinstein said. “I love how she coaches the whole human — mind, body and spirit. I knew that I wanted to do what she did. I wanted to coach. I wanted to win, and I wanted to influence other people and build teams.”

Speaking of Amonte Hiller, Walker-Weinstein joined her at Northwestern in 2005. She was on the Wildcats’ staff for the first three of five straight NCAA championships, part of the Wildcats’ historic run of seven titles in eight years.

Amonte Hiller restarted the Northwestern team  in 2002 after a 10-year hiatus. Timchal coached there in the 1980s.

“With Kelly, I learned the business side,” Walker-Weinstein said. “How you can still win with no resources if you have the right mindset and people.”

In 2008, Walker-Weinstein knew it was time to move on, partly because Morgan was living in New England. When the offensive coordinator position opened at UMass, helmed by former Maryland (of course) goalie Alexis Venechanos, she applied and got the job.

Two years later, a spot on the Boston College staff under Bowen Holden allowed Walker-Weinstein to return to the ACC — something she wanted badly. To this day, she said, she remains grateful to Holden for hiring her.

Walker-Weinstein also moved in with Morgan. The Eagles went 20-17 in her first two seasons. Following the 2012 season, she was pursuing her first head coaching position — at Bryant University — when then-BC athletic director Gene DeFilippo threw her for a loop with a different opportunity.

“He was like, ‘Can you not accept that job? I want to talk to you about BC,’” Walker-Weinstein recalled. “It was probably one of the greatest days of my life when they hired me because I could marry Morgan, and we could stay in Boston. I could be the head coach of an ACC program. I knew that with Jen [Kent] and getting the right people, BC could win a national championship. I knew it then.”

But it wasn’t going to happen overnight. Walker-Weinstein needed resources, and that meant rallying an alumni base full of women who hadn’t experienced regular trips to NCAA tournaments, let alone national championships. Days on the phone trying to fundraise turned into years. They were able to redo the locker room. She and Kent, a BC assistant since 2008, also had to sell a dream to recruits.

Apuzzo, a high school All-American from Long Island’s West Babylon, didn’t even have Boston College on her radar.

“I'm from Long Island, and the lacrosse schools were not Boston College,” Apuzzo said. “I didn't know much about the school in general.”

Boston College knew all about her.

“They kept blowing up my email with flyers about camps and clinics,” Apuzzo said.

Apuzzo’s mentor, Shannon Smith, played for Walker-Weinstein at Northwestern. She urged her not to “delete” BC from consideration.

“I trust Acacia with my life,” Apuzzo recalled Smith saying.

Upon meeting Walker-Weinstein, Apuzzo got it instantly. VIP tickets on the 50-yard line to a BC-Clemson football team sealed the deal. Apuzzo did not remember who won the game. She just knew she wanted to go to BC.

“The way she spoke about her plans to push the program, how she saw me fitting in and how much belief she had made me want to be a part of it and not just another player at a top school,” Apuzzo said.

Days later, it was Walker-Weinstein cheering — or more accurately, jumping up and down — on her couch. Apuzzo committed. Kenzie Kent and Demspey Arsenault did, too. The trio would become known as the “Big Three,” and they’d have a significant hand in making Boston College a lacrosse school.

In 2017, then-No. 14 Boston College quietly entered the NCAA tournament as an at-large selection. The Eagles not-so-quietly beat No. 9 Syracuse 21-10 to advance to the quarterfinals and upended No. 7 USC to advance to the final four. There, Walker-Weinstein would face a Navy team helmed by Timchal.

BC beat Navy but fell to Maryland in the final.

“The leadership was off the charts that year,” Walker-Weinstein said. “They were disciplined. They trusted the coaches, and they trusted each other. It was a wild journey.”

It wasn’t so wild when Boston College returned to the NCAA championship games in 2018 and 2019 but fell short twice more to James Madison and Maryland, respectively. Each time, a teary-eyed Walker-Weinstein took accountability in the post-game press conference.

“Those first few national championships, we were playing with house money, and I just knew we were young,” Walker-Weinstein said. “When I look back, I didn't get the team into the operation that it needed to be. We were just coaching X's and O's and building special relationships with our kids. But when you get to that level, you have to have a well-oiled machine from top to bottom administratively.”

Walker-Weinstein needed help. That meant keeping Kent on staff. Kent was a volunteer assistant at first. But Walker-Weinstein advocated for raises and promotions for Kent, now an associate head coach.

“Jen was in it with me, making hard decisions every day and sacrificing her life to build this program because when we said we were going to win, we meant it,” Walker-Weinstein said. “When we started making it to these championships, I felt passionate about financially supporting her and making sure that BC stepped up to get her what she deserved because she's working her butt off.”

Walker-Weinstein also secured a grad assistant position, which Apuzzo pioneered after turning her tassel in 2019. “Boston College is where I'm happiest,” she said.

The most powerful thing you can give an athlete is belief in themselves. This comes from Acacia.

Charlotte North

Portrait of Boston College and U.S. Women's National Team head coach Acacia Walker-Weinstein
A portrait of Boston College and U.S. Women's National Team head coach Acacia Walker-Weinstein.
Kelly Coughlan

But Apuzzo wasn’t the only call Walker-Weinstein made that spring. With Arsenault and Kent also gone, the offense had significant holes. Budding Duke star North entered the portal. She had long been a fan of Walker-Weinstein from afar.

“There was this belief,” North said. “The most powerful thing that you can give an athlete is belief in themselves and belief in the team, and this comes from Acacia, the way she treats you as a person.”

That belief paid off in 2021. Fueled in part by North’s NCAA record-setting season (102 goals) and discipline amid a slew of COVID-19 restrictions (BC lived in a hotel for two weeks in May to avoid any positives), the fourth time proved to be the charm for the Eagles. They defeated Syracuse 16-10 in the final at Towson. Walker-Weinstein turned around, and the alums were there, one of the first times the Eagles got to play in front of a crowd that season. It was for those women and because of those women as much as it was for North and the players doing confetti angels on the field. Apuzzo was appropriately in the middle of the two groups — a link between past and present — on the sidelines.

“She promised us, and she believed in us,” Apuzzo said. “Yes, the 2021 team won the championship, and it was such a storybook moment for our program, especially doing it during COVID. But there’s a collective understanding we wouldn’t have done it without Michaela Rix and Covie Stanwick, Kenzie Kent and Dempsey Arsenault. It all built to that moment.”

Walker-Weinstein stood alone with her hands on her head in disbelief when the final buzzer sounded — ironic for someone who never stopped believing.

“It’s unprecedented,” Timchal said.

Boston College made its fifth and sixth straight national championship games in 2022 and 2023, falling short each time against North Carolina and Northwestern, respectively. Advancing to six consecutive NCAA finals is a remarkable feat. But in true Walker-Weinstein fashion, she wants more.

“We’ve got to win again,” she said. “I'm very unsettled being 1-for-6. We set out to be a powerhouse. We never said we were just going to win one championship.”

Last month, Walker-Weinstein was selected as the head coach of the 2026 U.S. Women’s National Team. It marks her return to the program after a decade-long national team playing career culminated with a world championship in the Czech Republic in 2009. “It felt right again,” she said. “It feels full circle. There’s no greater honor. I’m still wrapping my head around it. I think it’s going to make my kids proud.”

Her former coach already is.

“Acacia is a big part of this movement of embracing young club and high school athletes and embracing courage, success and championship-level play,” Timchal said. “That’s what Acacia is all about, and whatever path is in front of her is a path she has carved through the love of the game and wanting to make it better for everybody.”