February 23, 2010

A Second Chance at a Sophomore Year

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Leigh Mitchell, shown here before her season-ending injury last year, regained her sophomore campaign through the grace of a no-show by game officials. She's hoping to cash in the extra year with a championship run.
© Larry Levanti

When Leigh Mitchell dropped to the turf in practice last March, TCNJ coach Sharon Pfluger turned from her spot nearby and walked at a panicked pace away from the scene.

"Oh, my God. Oh, my God," she repeated under her breath, her head bowed toward the turf.

When you've been coaching women's lacrosse and field hockey for 24 years, you know what a torn ACL injury looks like. The trainers and school doctor had the final word, but Pfluger could have given the diagnosis before the whistle blew.

Pfluger wanted to scream or kick a bench. Or something. But she steeled her resolve and quickly attended to Leigh, a sophomore, who was being consoled by her older sister, then-senior Kelly Mitchell.

"I don't think I'll forget at all the day Leigh went down," said Pfluger. "Kelly was there holding Leigh's hand, sitting on the turf. It was just so emotional that day."

Most of the emotion was caused by a lost opportunity. In the second Leigh crumpled to the ground, the chance that she would have one last season with the older sister who was a mentor, friend and motivator all wrapped up into one, disappeared.

"I would never be able to play with her again," said Leigh. "We have always been close. We played field hockey, basketball and lacrosse since we were little together. It was tough not to be able to finish off with her."

That Leigh, who Pfluger said would have been a first team All-American had she not suffered the injury, was forced to burn a year of eligibility in the sport she loved was also unsettling for player and coach alike.

In need of something to do while the doctors were evaluating their player immediately after the injury, the TCNJ coaching staff counted up the numbers and realized that if they made the NCAA tournament - a mortal lock in women's Division III lacrosse world - then Mitchell would be eligible for a medical redshirt, regaining her sophomore year of eligibility.

It was a small consolation they could provide their player - and themselves - in the gloomy hour. But as they were double-checking their math on the number of games played, Pfluger and her staff all quietly came to the same stunning revelation at nearly the same time.

Rewind to March 24, six days before Mitchell's injury.

TCNJ traveled up to Mount St. Vincent, a small school located just over the Hudson River in New York, about 12 miles from mid-town Manhattan. TCNJ is 20 goals better than the Dolphins on a left-handed day, but MSV was having trouble finding opponents, so Pfluger - who has had difficulty filling out her schedule in the past, albeit for different reasons - extended a courtesy to the fledgling program.

So the Lions made the trip up I-95, hopped off the bus, and waited.

And waited.

Through a communications glitch, the referees never showed up, leaving Pfluger mildly annoyed and TCNJ facing a three-hour round-trip bus ride for nothing. As they stood outside the training room where Mitchell lay with a braced leg, they realized it was a three-hour bus ride that saved their best player a season. Had that game been played, Mitchell would have been over the limit for the redshirt.

"As upset as we were, at the end of the night we said, ‘Thank God those officials never showed up,'" said Pfluger.

It was a brief up-tick for Mitchell, but it did not lessen the pain and rehab she'd endure over the next year. She had to watch the remaining part of the 2009 women's lacrosse season, which ended with a one-goal loss to Gettysburg in the national quarterfinals, with her knee immobilized. And after earning first team All-American honors for the TCNJ field hockey team in '08, she was also a spectator for the entire fall.

"Being out was awful, but it made me appreciate playing way more," said Mitchell. "So now I appreciate each game and each practice. I even enjoy running a little bit more because I couldn't for so long."

Lost in her injury, her rehab and the advent of an extra year is how large a role Mitchell plays for the Lions. A relentless defender and smooth transition player, Mitchell was just starting to come into her own as a scorer. In the game a day before her injury, she netted seven goals and dished out two assists against St. Mary's in an 18-8 victory. There is no question in Pfluger's mind that if Mitchell was healthy, the NCAA quarterfinal game against Gettysburg would have ended with a different result.

The sophomore's potential has Pfluger putting Mitchell in the same breath as Lauren Dougher, one of the most complete players in TCNJ - and NCAA Division III - history.

"I feel like she is in that mold," said Pfluger. "She holds everything together. Ali Jaeger is a great midfielder, but Leigh was really the glue to it all and sometimes you don't see the glue until it's gone. She's a lot like Lauren Dougher - a really humble kid, but just gets the job done."

It was in Dougher's sophomore year when she transformed from the quiet, steady midfielder into the leader who was demanding the ball in tight situations during the final four. As Mitchell enters the second edition of her sophomore campaign, Pfluger won't be surprised if she follows the same path.

"I kept on telling her, ‘There are great things in store for you,'" said Pfluger. "'I hate to say there is a reason for everything, but perhaps the team needs you more in the extra year than they did last year.'"

Not wanting to push her luck - the Mount St. Vincent Miracle was enough - Pfluger is trying to coddle Mitchell as she tries to return to form.

It's something that is easier said than done.

"I have to be very subtle with her because she is a really cool kid," said Pfluger. "I'll ask her if she's okay and she'll just say, ‘Yeah.' I'm checking in with her more than I ever would be because she is so tough and she wants to play so badly, but I definitely have to be careful with her."

Mitchell admits that her knee still gets sore, especially during the cool-down period after practice. In addition, her ankles are creaky from trying to acclimate to her new running gait brought on by a knee brace. After a year on the sidelines, however, she's not going back to the bench willingly any time soon.

"[Pfluger] will ask me how my knee is feeling and she says she doesn't want to push me," said Mitchell. "Usually I just tell her that I'm fine and I keep on playing."

Mitchell's stoicism stems from being the daughter of a football coach and growing up as one of the guys.

"We were very much tomboys growing up," said Mitchell. "We had boy friends in the neighborhood that we always played with and that turned us into tougher players. And then having my sister pushing me through everything had me ready to compete at a higher level."

Having Mitchell back on the field gives Pfluger and the Lions a huge boost of confidence. While the defense will be young, Jaeger and Mitchell will be able to cover a lot of deficiencies until the backline is up to par. The toughness Mitchell brings is also a huge asset for a team trying to earn a crack at national championship number 14.

"You don't like to think that one kid will make that much of a difference, but sometimes it does," said Pfluger.

The coach is only hoping the next time she sees Mitchell fall to the ground, it's part of a celebratory pile.

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