Eight seconds left. Tufts up by one against the best team in the nation with a final free position opportunity for Middlebury’s Hope Shue versus senior Molly Laliberty in goal. The whistle blows, and the ball is blocked out of bounds by the Jumbos’ defense. Game over — Jumbos win the NESCAC Championship.
The last time the Brown and Blue faced Middlebury, they got humiliated by a team that looked superior. By the time the NESCAC Championship rolled around, the Panthers were unbeaten for 42 games in a row and ranked No. 1 in the country. The Jumbos had an up and down season after losing some players who graduated in spring 2021. The Class of 2022, who led the program into a new age of national recognition, defeated Middlebury in an epic match and are now on their way to the NCAA playoffs as the hottest team in the country. Since losing to Amherst and Middlebury in early April, the Jumbos have rattled off eight straight wins including the 9–8 NESCAC Championship rematch game against their conference rivals.
The game came down to a final showdown between Laliberty and Middlebury’s attacker Hope Shue, a first-year who had already scored two goals in this game. The defense reached Shue before the Panthers could get to Laliberty, and the ball rolled out of bounds until the clock ran out. The Jumbos threw their sticks into the air and the celebrations began for a team that has been through so much over the past year; all their hard work finally paid off. But it’s not just about what this team has accomplished, it’s the environment that the team has built for the players that truly defines the Tufts women’s lacrosse program.
“It’s pushed me athletically, it’s pushed me mentally, … but I think overall, the team and the group of women that come together on the field is something that also is going to stay with me probably more so than the lacrosse itself,” Clarke said.
Lehan spoke about the culture of the team for new players coming to Tufts by comparing it to what it was like when she first arrived.
“[Newer players] already see what an established culture looks like of being great, so I think that’s the main difference. We come into every season now with the expectation that we will be number one, and anything less than that is not a failure, but it’s not what we want and not what we expected,” Lehan said.
The senior class who led this team to the back-to-back NESCAC titles and the finals of the NCAA Championship — a class that arrived before Tufts was just beginning to get recognition as a women’s lacrosse powerhouse — includes: Ananda Kao, Madison Lehan, Kathryn Delaney, Mae Briody, Anna Clarke, Colette Smith and Molly Laliberty. Clarke spoke about how the team has gradually gained recognition and support over the course of her time at Tufts.
“Whether it is to the lacrosse community, or to parents, students, [increasing social media presence and recognition] is another step forward that this program has taken. And I think it’s gonna also result in pretty positive things for this team,” Clarke said.
In 2018, Tufts women’s lacrosse had a solid year. The team finished 13–5 but got knocked out of both the NESCAC and NCAA playoffs. When the Class of 2022 came in as first years, the team made a major jump, losing in the NESCAC Championship to Middlebury and making it all the way to the final four of the NCAA Championship before losing to Salisbury.
“In 2019, we were freshmen, so we kind of came in just super blank slate, not really knowing anything. But I think pretty much everyone in the current senior class had opportunities to contribute in really significant ways throughout the season,” Laliberty said.
After coming close to silverware, the Jumbos were ready for another successful season under the helm of coach Courtney Schute. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic cut the 2020 season short, and the Jumbos lost a shot at going all the way. Lehan talked about the lost opportunity.
“[When] we came into that year, our team was super talented, our seniors [were] super talented [and] our team was really honed. I think we were ready to win a national championship. I think we would have done it that year, and to lose that season was so disappointing,” Lehan said.
Despite the loss, Laliberty reflected on how far the team has come since 2020.
“I definitely think that we’ve grown in ways we couldn’t have imagined from having that season taken away from us,” Laliberty said.
After a long hiatus from competitive lacrosse, Tufts returned to Bello Field in 2021. The team won all of its five regular season games and went on to take the NESCAC Championship over Wesleyan in a 14–3 blowout.
The Jumbos cruised to the NCAA Championship, where they played Salisbury in a tight game that they lost by one goal. They fell short again. They also never had to play Middlebury, a team that ran the NESCAC years prior but didn’t compete in 2021 because of the pandemic.
“Just losing by one goal. We know now what it takes to make it there, and I think for our grade, we know that we have everything we need to get there because we’ve done it before,” Lehan said.
2022 offered a return to a normal season for the Jumbos, who lost key attackers like Emily Games. Without a clear idea of who would lead the offense, the Jumbos turned to their younger players to step up, and first-year Margie Carden answered the call. She has scored 51 goals and has a total of 60 points on the season so far. Carden was also awarded NESCAC All-Conference honors. The three other players given this award are seniors Clarke, Laliberty and Lehan.
Defensive Player of the Year Molly Laliberty has led this team’s defense through a great year. Kao and Lehan also make up the core of this unit that has held opposing teams to around eight goals per game, while scoring about 13. They also bring a great deal of energy to their team by stopping opposing teams from playing fluidly. They are leaders in the locker room, steadying the younger players and helping the team work through the ebbs and flows of the season to keep the end goal in mind: winning a national championship.
“Most programs aren’t able to talk about winning a national championship and have it really been a feasible thing. I would say that’s probably one of the biggest changes I’ve seen. But the core of the team and the heart of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it have remained pretty much the same,” Clarke said.