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PROFILE: Stanga, women's lacrosse pioneer, paved the way for future generations (6 photos)

'We just wanted young girls to have opportunities we never had,' says Joanne Stanga, who will be inducted as builder into Orillia Sports Hall of Fame May 28

Editor's Note: OrilliaMatters is profiling the quartet to be inducted into the Orillia Sports Hall of Fame on May 28. We started the series with a profile of Bill Smith. Last Monday, we turned the spotlight on inductee Mark Shivers.

If you drive by the West Orillia Sports Complex on a Monday night or any summer weekend, you’ll see dozens of local girls on the various pitches, playing field lacrosse and chasing their athletic dreams.

But in 1967, when Joanne Stanga was six and the family moved to Orillia, such a sight could not have been imagined.

While her brothers played box lacrosse at the old Community Centre, girls were not welcome nor encouraged to play.

Despite that, young Joanne often had a lacrosse stick in her hand, contributed many dents to the family’s garage door and regularly accompanied her siblings to games near and far.

All these years later, Stanga said she doesn’t remember feeling frustrated at being unable to play.

However, she can still recall that she was “super excited” when she finally got to play - at 17 - when a group of outstanding local male coaches got together and created a local girls team that would play in the fledgling Golden Horseshoe League for several seasons. 

“There was only one girl on the team who had played before,” said Stanga. “But it was an awesome experience.”

After moving to Toronto, Stanga continued to play and continued to pine for more opportunities for girls and women to play the game she loved.

That feeling was stoked when, in 1985, she played with Team Ontario and travelled to Saskatchewan to compete in the Nationals. It would mark the first of three straight annual trips to the national championship.

However, in 1985, she was one of the final cuts on the team selected to compete at the World Cup.

“That experience pushed me to try to develop things in Ontario, so that others would not have to have the feeling,” she said.

In fact, that moment, essentially, led to the birth of a provincial field lacrosse program in Ontario - one that Stanga led and fueled with her passion for the game.

She joined forces with Barb Boyes, an excellent player who was also a teacher in the Oshawa area. The dynamic duo, and many others, created from a blank slate the high-school program and rep program that now are the envy of other provinces.

“We both had a lot of passion for lacrosse and we didn’t want to see something we love die,” said Stanga who will be officially inducted into the Orillia Sports Hall of Fame, in the builders’ category, May 28.

While Stanga does not seek the spotlight, she’s no stranger to it. Not only is she a Life Member of Orillia Minor Lacrosse, she also won the Canadian Lacrosse Association’s Lester B. Pearson award and, in 2020, she was inducted into the Ontario Lacrosse Hall of Fame for her pioneering efforts.

Those efforts are legendary and include all levels of the game - locally, provincially, nationally and internationally. She played key organizational roles and performed vital administrative duties from 1988 through 2017.

Along the way, she convened the first women’s field lacrosse competition at the Ontario Summer Games, she convened the U20 Ontario women’s field lacrosse league, then the U15 league, was director of the women’s national team program and, among many other roles,  served as women’s commissioner for the Ontario Lacrosse Association.

In fact, the award presented to the provincial U20 champions is called the Joanne Stanga Award.

She calls presenting that award in 2015-16 to a team from Orillia as “the pinnacle” of her career.

She says she is so proud of the development of the sport in Orillia, which boasts the second largest program in the province. Orillia high schools have also been perennial powerhouses in the Ontario high school championships. 

But she is quick to say many others deserve credit. She said people like John Mayo and John Pritchard and many others have worked tirelessly to grow the game locally.

That growth is something she has witnessed personally.

In 2000, Orillia Minor Lacrosse began handing out the Joanne Stanga Award to the female who displays “true playmaking skills and demonstrates a genuine love for the game.” Each year, she looks forward to presenting that award and says the girls’ lacrosse banquet “always feels like a warm hug.”

Stanga not only served administration roles, she was also a very successful, albeit “reluctant,” coach. She was the head coach or assistant coach of the senior women and U19 women’s field lacrosse national teams for a 10-year period going back to 1993. That U19 team won bronze medals at world championships in 1999 and 2003.

That 1999 moment in Perth, Australia was a special one, says Stanga, who still marvels at the growth of that team.

“I can still see us on the podium - those smiling, triumphant faces,” she recalls. “That memory still resonates.”

She also coached the Ontario senior and junior teams beginning in 1990 through 2005 and coached locally in Orillia. The Ontario junior women’s team she coached won four Canadian titles.

Stanga also shared her knowledge of the game as a master course conductor until 2016.

She did all that while working full-time at Magna. And while that meant sacrifices and challenges, the 60-year-old says she would do it again in a heartbeat.

“There were so few of us involved so we were really driven,” said Stanga. “We just wanted young girls to have opportunities we never had.”

Mission accomplished.

She said being inducted into the Orillia Sports Hall of Fame is “above” her induction into the Ontario Lacrosse Hall of Fame, such is her deep connection to the Sunshine City.

“Orillia is a very special place to me. I only lived there from when I was six until I was 19, but I always felt a connection to the city, so being recognized is really special and so unexpected.”

Stanga will be inducted at a gala at Hawk Ridge on May 28. She will enter the shrine alongside athlete Mark Shivers and fellow builders Bill Smith and Nels Dunlop.

They will be joined by Dave Town, Wayne Dowswell and Bill Watters, who will also be officially inducted that night as last year’s ceremony was cancelled due to COVID.

Tickets for the gala are $100. For more information, visit sportorillia.ca. For information about tickets, email: Michael_ladouceur@hotmail.com