Coaching is a lot about adapting to adverse situations. Sometimes desperate times require desperate measures.
So as 38-year veteran lacrosse coach Cindy Timchal took her team out of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium and into the locker room after what would be the Mids’ final practice of 2020, the call went out to local restaurant Vin 909. Navy needed flatbread pizza stat!
“We needed comfort food,” Timchal said of the impromptu March 11 lunch.
In truth, there wasn’t much comfort to be had. Not for the Navy women’s lacrosse team. Any college athletes, or really anyone anywhere. The realities of the coronavirus pandemic were revealing themselves rapidly by early March.
“We have some players that wear the Apple Watch for cardio, and near the end of practice some texts were coming through,” Timchal said. “The reality for us at that point was that we thought we were going to end our season up at Bucknell [March 14] because the word was out [Navy’s Patriot League play] would be suspended March 16.”
But the virus and accompanying precautions were moving faster. Timchal had an inkling before her practice. Navy men’s coach Joe Amplo was taking his team off the field after a light workout in advance of a March 14 meeting with Johns Hopkins when Timchal learned the Blue Jays weren’t coming for the game.
“They’re right down the street and they’re not coming so that means we’re not going,” she thought. “Then it just snowballed with all the cancellations.”
At Maryland, it was the Patriot League’s announcement of spring cancellation that tipped Cathy Reese that the defending national champion Terrapins wouldn’t get to defend their crown beyond a roller-coaster 3-3 start against a tough schedule.
“In the morning on Thursday when you saw the Patriot League had cancelled and it wasn’t just the Ivy [League], then you saw the ACC suspending play, all these leagues, so you knew it was inevitable,” Reese said.
The Terrapins ditched plans for a full-scale practice and just engaged in fun drills and competition to take players’ minds off the growingly dire situation. Reese’s main goal was to not let the team complete practice until she had information to relay about what would happen to the season.
“We stayed around and talked, and I was texting some of my colleagues and our administration,” Reese remembered. “We had a conference call with the administration and then I was able to update the team. I was able to tell them myself, and then it just kind of took an emotional turn.
“You sit there and watch this happening across the country, but you don’t realize how significant it is until you’re sitting there staring at your own athletes, knowing that for some of them this is the end.”
And that’s what touched Timchal, too.
“Lacrosse is such a passion for these players and to have it taken away in a blink is just a new reality for them. I talked to every one of our team members personally on the phone because now they’re remote all over the country getting ready for online classes. They did a team thing on Skype or FaceTime, but it’s hard.”
Timchal’s voice filled with emotion and she hesitated.
“I just feel very bad for the young women,” Timchal said. “We committed back in August to be ready for the 2020 season, and the stories of this particular season with us beating Duke, and Richmond beating Virginia, and Syracuse playing just outrageous lacrosse and [North] Carolina looking like the most brilliant team on Earth, Brown beating Virginia Tech, there are just so many stories in women’s lacrosse. Maryland losing but now coming back, just so many stories and now they’re just gone.”
One of the best local stories had been Loyola, off to a 5-0 start and ranked No. 3 in the IWLCA Division I Coaches’ Poll. Four of the Greyhounds’ wins had come against nationally-ranked opponents, including a 17-6 victory against No. 4 Florida and a 19-15 victory against No. 9 Penn. Loyola finished 2020 with its highest ranking in 18 years.
Coach Jen Adams has a 37-10 record the past three seasons and won last year’s Patriot League championship, the Greyhounds’ fourth conference crown in the last six seasons. With so much on hold in college sports, Adams returned to her home in South Australia to be with her family during the health crisis.
Recruiting remains a priority. Coaches are working the phone lines, social media, and keeping their teams on track for online classes and in the loop as to what school administrations and the NCAA are considering moving forward. Athletes are working out on their own, but there’s no blueprint for this situation.
Adams, with just three seniors and one grad student on the 2020 roster, doesn’t have as many potential questions as most spring sport coaches face. Since the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to athletes, all kinds of issues arise across the lacrosse landscape.
Maryland men’s lacrosse coach John Tillman spent the majority of his 30-minute postseason teleconference agonizing over tough decisions that await, from simple logistics like roster size and who’s paying for the extra scholarships to what happens to committed freshmen coming in to compete with sixth-year seniors and even how locker rooms can accommodate so many players.
Then there’s the more personal part.
“[The season] came to a halt really abruptly and you wonder what’s next,” Reese said. “It ends for your seniors and you don’t know if their life path will allow them to return or if they’re ready to tackle the next phase of their lives.”
Those questions are likely moot at the U.S. Naval Academy, where student-athletes don’t redshirt.
“We had six seniors and they all played,” Timchal said. “It just breaks my heart.”
The most decorated of those veterans, senior Tewaaraton Award candidate Kelly Larkin already owns or shares 12 Navy records, including career marks for points (376) and assists (177), and she was likely to finish with many more. Only six games into her senior season, Larkin was already the Patriot League’s all-time scorer and assists leader. Her preseason bio already took 21 lines just to list her honors.
The amazing attacker had added 14 goals and 16 assists before the season was shut down.
“They’re all very, very precious and special players,” Timchal said. “My senior class, what they’re going through emotionally, I just want them to stay grounded and stay close to their friends. The good thing is they’re with their family for the most part. It’s good they’re doing their classes now and they’ll focus on getting the classes and graduating. It’s hard. All across the country.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland and Loyola Athletics and Phil Hoffmann/Navy Athletics