January 6, 2012

LM NCAA Division III Women's Preseason Player of the Year: Leigh Mitchell

TCNJ's Playmaker Back from Knee Injury

by Mark Macyk | LaxMagazine.com

Leigh Mitchell, a pass-first midfielder, had the perfect compliment last season in Ali Jaeger, TCNJ's all-time leading scorer. Jaeger is gone, but TCNJ has plenty of scoring options for Mitchell to feed.
© Lee Weissman

Leigh Mitchell plays lacrosse like a point guard plays basketball. She's a pass-first, ask-questions-later midfielder who shattered her TCNJ's assists record, yet she considers herself a defender first. She also destroyed her right knee — twice.

In August, Mitchell underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus. She was forced to consider skipping her final field hockey season. It was the same knee in which a torn ACL forced her to redshirt lacrosse and field hockey in 2009.

Would sitting out the fall to heal put her lacrosse team in a better position to win an NCAA championship in the spring?

"It was the first time I ever saw her go 'Hmm, what should I do?'" said Sharon Pfluger, who coaches both sports at TCNJ. "She's so committed to the team. She said, 'I can't miss lacrosse, Coach.'"

Mitchell won't miss the lacrosse season. She didn't miss much of the field hockey season, either. She worked back slowly, sitting out the first seven games. Pfluger watched anxiously to make sure Mitchell was not more hurt than she let on. To read her, Pfluger turned to Mitchell's older sister and former teammate Katie, a TCNJ assistant.

"I say, 'I need to know if she's okay, because she's not going to tell me,'" Pfluger said. "She's so used to this mentality. 'I'm gonna play hard and I'm gonna play through anything.' That's just a part of who she is and her upbringing."

Mitchell ended the fall in good health, scoring a hat trick in the victory that sent TCNJ to its first-ever NJAC field hockey final. Now she switches sticks, a change she welcomes.

Field hockey is chaotic. It has a round ball and a flat stick. Lacrosse lets Mitchell innovate and concentrate on what she does best, which typically involves bringing out the best in those around her.

"It's like a breath of fresh air," Mitchell said. "It's a nice transition. Lacrosse is a faster-paced game. When the ball is in your stick, you have complete control."

Mitchell controls a game more than most. The reigning IWLCA Division III Midfielder of the Year set TCNJ single-season records for assists (68) and points (123) last year. Her 138 career assists already top TCNJ's career list.

Mitchell also led her field hockey team in assists in 2010, but she credits her prolific passing to her past on the basketball court.

"I've always liked to be more of a playmaker than a scorer," said Mitchell, who played point guard at Lenape High School in New Jersey. "It's more fun to pass and create really cool plays than to run down and score. A lot of that comes from basketball. Your mentality is the same as you look to create plays."

Last season, Mitchell had the perfect complement in Ali Jaeger, who graduated as TCNJ's all-time leading scorer. Jaeger is gone, but Mitchell said she doesn't expect to change roles. TCNJ has plenty of scoring options.

The 2011 Lions went undefeated in the regular season, set program records for wins, goals, assists and points and featured a defense that allowed the fewest goals in Division III. But Bowdoin upset TCNJ in the NCAA semifinals, denying the Lions a shot at their 13th NCAA championship.

"It gives us more motivation to not take it for granted," Mitchell said. "The athletes are coming here because they want to win. The tradition and the legacy Coach has created, kids are here because they want to win a national championship." LM

LaxMagazine.com WD3 PPOY Fan Vote

Lily Nguyen, Middlebury

Hannah Church, Gettysburg

Leigh Mitchell, TCNJ

Lindsay Abbott, Cortland

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