By Vicki L. Friedman | May 25, 2017
Special to espnW
After a grueling day at the Naval Academy, it’s not unusual for a Midshipman to find encouragement in these words from a classmate.
“Make it to the next meal.”
The Navy women’s lacrosse team has made it to the next meal and the table is set for this weekend in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
A 16-14 upset of defending national champion North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Saturday sent the Midshipmen to Friday’s final four, where they’ll play Boston College at Gillette Stadium. The winner will meet either Maryland or Penn State in the national championship game Sunday.
That stunner sent Navy to its first final four. No women’s team from any service academy has ever won a Division I national championship. The coed Army rifle team won an NCAA title in 2005. Air Force notched consecutive Division II titles in women’s swimming and diving in the ’90s. The Navy men’s teams have won a handful of national titles, most recently the NCAA men’s soccer championship in 1964.
“We’re one of the schools that has a Heisman Trophy winner (Roger Staubach and Joe Bellino) and a president of the United States in Jimmy Carter,” said Navy’s Cindy Timchal, the sport’s all-time winningest coach, who compiled eight NCAA titles at Maryland. “You know that you come here to do something that is far greater than yourself. Admirals come here, presidents, Nobel Prize winners …”
But lacrosse national champions?
Kelly Larkin admits that competing in a final four wasn’t foremost in her mind upon being one of the 1,177 plebes inducted into the Naval Academy in 2016.
“I came here first to serve,” she said, a sentiment shared across the 338 acres that comprise the charming campus that is the hub of Maryland’s capital city.
But Larkin knew about the foundation Timchal laid at Navy as its first lacrosse coach in 2006. During the Mids’ inaugural Division I season in 2008, they set an NCAA record for wins by a first-year program. Two years later, they reached the NCAA tournament, and 2013 marked their fourth consecutive trip there.
It doesn’t serve the world if we’re going to have an OK women’s lacrosse program.
But Navy hadn’t sniffed a final four.
A few weeks ago, assistant coach Aly Messinger sat down the Mids’ offensive unit after a film session. “How many more weeks does this team have left together?” she asked.
“Two,” was the Mids’ response with an eye to the Patriot League tournament.
“Are you kidding me?” exclaimed Messinger, Most Outstanding Player of last year’s championship where her North Carolina team dominated heavily favored Maryland. “You don’t have two weeks. You have six weeks!”
Gut check, Larkin thought. “From that moment on, it was a mentality switch,” she said. “It wasn’t about two weeks. We determine the way we finish. From that moment on, we had a fighter mentality. We weren’t ready for our lacrosse season to end.”
Navy responded by stopping Loyola’s 41-game conference win streak in the Patriot League championship game. They followed that up with a first-round victory over seventh-ranked Penn — their first win over a ranked opponent.
“We were one fluid group in that game,” said attacker Jenna Collins, whose 111 points rank second nationally. “After that, it was like, ‘Wow! We just beat the No. 7 team. Why not go all the way?”
The run continued with a 23-11 win over UMass. But a road match against the second-seeded Tar Heels looked daunting. A tight game seemed to tilt North Carolina’s way after a spurt of five straight goals put the Tar Heels ahead 13-10. Then Navy answered with six of the final seven goals to pull off one of the biggest upsets in tournament history, win No. 491 for Timchal.
“It was a surreal moment for me just because they were the national champions,” Larkin said. “They have some of the best lacrosse players in the entire country, girls up for the Tewaaraton. We weren’t ready to be beat.”
Achieving milestones is a given in Annapolis, where the acceptance rate for applicants is 9 percent. Collins’ 18-credit class load includes The Modern Middle East, Advanced Navigation and a bear of a thermodynamics course, Principles of Propulsion.
“Lots of equations,” Collins grumbled good-naturedly. “I’m an econ major, so I’ll probably never have to use it. But it helps when you go out to the fleet and you’re on a ship to know about the ship’s propulsion system.”
Academics aside, there’s the physical components, including Plebe Summer, during which forfeiting a cell phone is the least of a first-year student’s worries. For 44 days, plebes rise at 5:30 a.m., make their racks and grind through a series of mental and physical challenges that would seem insufferable to most of their peers.
Like the obstacle course that culminates in a rope climb or an endurance test through the woods or the infamous 14-hour Sea Trials.
“You know eventually you’ll get through it,” Collins said. “You just keep saying, ‘Make it to the next meal.’ “
Now it’s dinnertime for the Mids, ready to dig in on a giant stage where Tom Brady feasts on many an opponent, 66,829-seat Gillette Stadium.
Navy’s semifinal against Boston College (16-6), also making its first appearance in a lacrosse final four, is a rematch of a March 4 contest won by the Eagles 20-11. Navy (18-4) brings a nine-game win streak but will be without its co-captain, defender Meghan Hubley, who suffered a knee injury against the Tar Heels.
And yet …
“The philosophy of our athletic department is expecting to win,” Timchal said. “It doesn’t serve the world if we’re going to have an OK women’s lacrosse program. We’re aspiring to do wonderful things both on and off the field. In some ways, this 2017 team is a tribute of what you can do if you aspire for greatness.”
This is a time in Annapolis when accomplishments stack up. Earlier this week, the watered-down plebes completed the exhilarating tradition of climbing greased Herndon Monument, a 21-foot granite structure that faces the Naval Academy Chapel. Replacing the plebe’s hat with a midshipman’s hat on top signifies the end of the first year.
“It took 2 ½ hours,” Larkin said. “But I’m no longer a plebe.”
On Friday, Navy’s seniors will graduate and be commissioned. Team co-captain Morgan Young, who will serve a minimum of five years as a surface warfare officer, is among them. But she’ll be in Foxborough.
“One thing Cindy loves to say is, ‘Behind mountains are more mountains,’ ” Larkin said. “You can get to one level but there’s always more. You think you’re at your potential, but you’re not.”