April 11, 2013

Lindenwood Setting Stage for WD2 Contention

by Mark Macyk LaxMagazine.com

Junior Melissa Smith has 29 goals and 19 assists and leads Lindenwood with 12 caused turnovers.
© Don Adams Jr.

The best record in Division II women's lacrosse currently belongs to Lindenwood. The Lions can’t qualify for the NCAA tournament until next year, but it’s not as if they're playing for nothing. Far from it.

Lindenwood (12-0) has plenty to play for, even if its season has to end on May 1 at McKendree.

For starters, the Lions have dedicated their season to Sterling Thomas, a freshman on LU’s football team, who suffered a severe spinal cord injury attempting a tackle during a game this fall. 

“You could hear a pin drop in the stadium,” said sophomore Jamie Miller. “It was bone-chilling.”

The Lions have made it a goal to raise awareness for Thomas’ cause and for spinal cord injuries in general. They even got a chance to visit with Thomas at his rehabilitation center in Atlanta during a road trip earlier this season. Thomas was able to move around in a wheelchair using his arms, something that a few months earlier seemed unlikely.

“He’s recovering very well,” Miler said. “We got to know about his life and see his mom. It was really awesome.”

Lindenwood has made volunteering a special point of emphasis. In addition to raising awareness for Thomas’ cause the Lions have worked with the Special Olympics, Crisis Nursery and the Mathews-Dickey Boy’s & Girl’s Club.

So, yeah, the undefeated record and the potential for another Western Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association Championship is great, but at Lindenwood the journey is as important as the destination.

That’s why last week’s trip through Colorado — four games in five days, 2,315 miles covered and 36 hours on a bus — wasn’t looked at as bad way to spend spring break.

“Honestly it was unbelievable,” said senior Justine Groothuis, who is tied for the team lead with 49 points. “I think Colorado is the prettiest state I’ve ever been to. The trip was long, but you’re gonna have a fun trip when you win four games.”

The Lions went 4-0 playing at high altitudes and no win was bigger than the 15-13 victory that came over burgeoning WILA rival Regis. If Lindenwood can beat Regis again when the Rangers make the return trip to St. Charles, Mo., next week, they’ll wrap up a second straight WILA championship. So there’s another thing the Lions are playing for.

And when they’re finally able to play for something bigger — if all goes according to plan that will be next season — the Lions will be ready. They’re hosting Rollins on Saturday and they’ll head to Adelphi later this month.

“We can still do a lot,” Groothuis said. “We’ve never been nationally-ranked in Division II. That’s what we’re shooting for. We’re playing Rollins and Adelphi, if we can square away those wins that will definitely put Lindenwood on the map.”

Winning even one of those games would do more than put Lindenwood on the map. Adelphi is also undefeated, and is just a year removed from a Division II dynasty. Rollins has lost one game, by one goal, and is one of the fastest-rising programs in the sport.

It’s another success story in a non-traditional lacrosse locale that Lindenwood coach Jack Cribbin hopes his team can emulate.

“I’ve always looked at what Northwestern was able to do,” Cribbin said. “It would be cool to have the Division I and Division II titles right here in the Midwest.”

Lindenwood represents more than just the Midwest. Groothuis is one of five Canadians on the team and players hail from Missouri, Maryland, California, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan, Colorado, Illinois and Utah. For local Lions like Miller, the Pan-American roster sometimes can be a bit of a surprise.

“All the time I ask the question, ‘What made you come to Missouri?’” Miller said. “It’s not the coolest state. The weather is crazy all the time. One day it will be 100 degrees, next it’s 20. But they all love it here. This campus is awesome. The school is beautiful. We make our own fun.” 

And they’re making their own legacy. 

Lindenwood is 27-2 since joining Division II. The Lions haven’t lost since a trip to Dowling last March 11, a span of 23 games. Through April 7 they have Division II’s third-most prolific offense and fifth-stingiest defense. Junior Shelby Polk ranks ninth in Division II with 41 goals and sophomore Lindsey Palmer ranks eighth in Division II with 32 assists.

Not bad for a transitioning program in an area of the country where many people are still learning not just what this team is playing for, but what the sport they’re playing is.

“We’re just trying to go out with a bang, especially for the seniors,” Cribbin said. “We want to keep playing with each other as long as they can and just enjoy these last few weeks, ride the wave as long as we can and just have fun. I tell the girls, ‘Enjoy it. Live in the moment and have fun.’ These four years are short-lived. Most of all, keep in in perspective.”

Cribbin’s message about what everyone's playing for has not been lost on his players.

“He kind of sees the big picture,” Groothuis said. “Lacrosse is super important, but he’s not just coaching girls to be the best lacrosse players. When they leave the program, they’re better people. We have this awesome program, but we also volunteer.”

Of course there are more tangible things to play for.

“He’s also a big advocate of swag," Groothuis said. “And in order to have swag you have to have to be able to back it up.”

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