May 4, 2006
by Kyle Adams
Northwestern Media Services
It wouldn't have been a good time to start laughing. Luckily, Lynda McCandlish caught herself during one of her first team meetings as a member of the Northwestern lacrosse team.
It was a team meeting early in her freshman year. The Wildcats were coming off their first year as a varsity program after a decade long hiatus. Her coach, Kelly Amonte Hiller, had just told them that they were going to win a national championship-and if anyone didn't believe that they could leave the room.
"At the moment I caught myself wanting to laugh a little bit, but then three years later we win one," she said. "From that moment on, everybody believed we were going to win a national championship."
Her classmate Jenny Bush has similar memories, smiling pointedly not at the memory of an almost disastrous chuckle, but at what must have seemed like absurdity for so many people in that room.
Without the hesitance of a revisionist though, she insists she believed her coach. More than two must have for Northwestern to hoist the trophy last season.
"Everyone fell through with the team vision Kelly created," Bush said.
It was a vision that started when Hiller was hired in 2000 to rebuild a program that had been defunct for almost a decade. In 2004, the Wildcats went 15-3, setting themselves up for their 21-0 national championship season a year later. It was the school's first team national title since 1941.
It's tough to sum up what makes a champion. Looking at Lindsey Munday, though, you get the sense that you might understand a little bit better.
Munday, the team leader with 83 points and 43 assists and a contender for the Tewaaraton Trophy, radiates intensity. As a statistical standout, it would be easy for her to acknowledge personal accolades and smile with the false modesty of most egotistical professional athletes. She's anything but. She's the kind of girl who treats accolades as an affront to her real accomplishments with the team.
"I'm proud just being a member of a program that went from a club lacrosse team to a contender, to a national champion, to one of the bigger lacrosse schools. Being a part of that, I couldn't ask for anything more," she said.
The seniors - Sarah Albrecht, Jenny Bush, Laura Glassanos, Lynda McCandlish and Lindsey Munday - have the unique experience on the team of being able to see the process that built today's lacrosse powerhouse.
"I think that the relationship between this bunch of seniors is unique because we were able to help build this program up from the bottom," Albrecht said. "We've gone through a lot together on and off the field that helped us grow as people and lacrosse players."
The 2002 season marked Northwestern lacrosse's first varsity spring season in a decade and few expected more than scattered successes. But when Northwestern won the title last year, Hiller had done more than silence hordes of skeptics and build a champion from scratch. She had challenged the Eastern bastions of lacrosse power.
Some may have tried to write it off as a one-year fluke, claiming that the Marylands and Virginias of the world-conventional lacrosse schools-would reclaim the trophy from the midwestern invaders.
As a Maryland graduate, she was in fact part of one that power base. In 2006 though, as she prepares to lead her top-ranked squad toward another national championship, she has proved that Northwestern is ready to change the landscape of a sport that was once only considered legitimate in northeastern prep schools and colleges.
Confronting the Skeptics
For a team that has lost one game in the last two years, one would expect any lingering skepticism to be replaced by respect from analysts and fans and unadulterated fear from opponents.
While the latter most certainly exists, the seniors who have endured the process of building a champion still have an edginess that betrays the number-one ranking. It's an edginess directed at critics, one that most certainly shields against any sense of complacency that would normally pester a top-ranked squad.
"We're still out to prove ourselves," McCandlish said. "There are always skeptics. No matter what we do, people aren't willing to say that we deserve it. We're still out to prove ourselves everyday."
It's that same perceived slight that fuels Laura Glassanos' quest for a second-straight title.
"No one believed in us," she said. "I was recruited by just a few schools and now I'm playing on the No. 1 team in the country. I love playing the teams who said I'd never get playing time if I went there and showing those coaches that we did it."
Don't mistake it for bitterness. It's a sense of accomplishment that derives from a deeper place. Beyond the accolades and even the trophy, it's about redemption. Not just for all the slights - real and perceived - any athlete endures throughout a career, but for the pervasive hostility a Midwest team confronts as they successfully continue to broaden the world of lacrosse.
A Different Year
The seniors though, aren't focused on the state of the sport as much as they are on their quest to repeat as national champions.
"At this point of the season it's getting down to the wire and we have to be playing at the highest level possible," Munday said.
It's a focus that helps them put off the requisite good-byes that effect any college senior, but are more sentimental on a team that has fought through a world of athletic challenges on the field and numerous intangible internal trials as they sought to make a place for themselves on the national map.
"We're realizing that there's a real life right around the corner," Bush said.
But it's a real life that won't be without the friendships that defined four years of their lives.
"Anybody else that I know in college has their core group of friends but I have literally 30 to 40 girls I'll know after I graduate," McCandlish said. "We're all going to be friends forever. You just have a bond with your team that you can't get anywhere else."
And while for all of them it's surely bittersweet, Munday's intense gaze betrayed any sense of closure they may be feeling.
For Northwestern, there's still a national championship to be won. The rest of the team can always revert to the potential of `next year.' For these five girls, though, any game could be there last, and while surely one national championship is a mark of success in any collegiate sport, this group that has seen the program rise from obscurity to national prominence, refuses to settle for last year's success.
"The thought of another national title keeps us hungry," Albrecht said. "I don't think that people are just going to settle for being the best only for a year. We are naturally competitive so we just want to play the best lacrosse that we can and hopefully that will bring us another national title."
It's a confidence that's mirrored in Munday's determination, Bush's optimism, Glassanos' competitiveness, and McCandlish's perspective.
"If we play to our potential, the national championship will come," McCandlish said. "If we have fun everyday and appreciate everyday that we're out there and able to play lacrosse, the national championship will come."
After the dominance of the past two seasons, they may be becoming a rare breed, but there still have to be some critics out there to prove wrong in Boston.