Winning a national championship: through the eyes of lacrosse players, coaches

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Several women’s lacrosse players celebrate with the trophy after their national championship win (14-12) over Queens University on May 23 in Salem, Virginia. Photo provided by Ryan Hunt

Dominic Hoscher, Sports Editor

No women’s lacrosse team to the west of the Mississippi River had won a national championship at any collegiate level entering 2021.

No Lindenwood team had won a national championship at the Division II level entering 2021. 

On Sunday, May 23, in Salem, Virginia, Lindenwood women’s lacrosse players wrote their names in the history books with a 14-12 win over Queens University (North Carolina) to win the program’s first-ever national championship. 

“These kids are legends on our campus forever,” head coach Jack Cribbin said. “As the years go by, this’ll mean more and more to everyone and you’ll truly see how significant and historic it was as this sport continues to grow.”

Lindenwood, who entered the game as the No. 2 team in the nation, got off to the stronger start in the final, out-scoring No. 5 Queens 12-5 in the first half. 

“Halftime came along and we’re all looking at each other, kind of knowing what’s going on,” sophomore Carly Tobias said. “We don’t want to talk about it, we don’t want to acknowledge like we’re 30 minutes away from winning a national championship.”

The second half opened up with two Lindenwood goals, giving the Lions a 14-5 lead. Queens went on a 7-0 run after this, but the Lions held them off to secure the title. 

The title win was the first since lacrosse came to Lindenwood in 2003. Over the course of the next 18 years, many teams had gotten close, but none could reach the top. Some had gotten as far as the NCAA semifinals, as was the case with the 2014 women’s team that also competed in Salem, Virginia.

But they ultimately fell short. Seven years later, at the same site, a program that had done it all except win a national title, had a taste of gold.

Most of the players on the team will get the chance to celebrate this feat with fellow students come the fall. But veterans such as Carly Fedorowski, who was a graduate student last year, graduated in the spring and won’t be able to share the celebration with other Lions.

“I really wish I could go back another year and just be on campus and be around the athletes and people after we won just to carry that whole legends thing with me,” Fedorowski said. 

Making an immediate impact

Experiencing the ultimate triumph isn’t something many athletes can say they’ve done. Even fewer can say they were able to in their very first year with a program. 

Not only did attacker Lindsey Smith accomplish this in her freshman year, but she did so while playing a key role on a championship-winning team. 

“We’re playing in the final four as a freshman,” Smith said. “How many people on the face of this earth get to experience that? Probably one percent. Just even being there was a great experience.”

To be this involved on a team as talented and successful as this one so early in her career is something that Smith didn’t take for granted.

“Overall, I’m just thankful for the opportunity to even be given to me,” Smith said. “I think that comes with my teammates too being there to give me tips on things and to make me a better player, like going tough on me in practice.”

While it wasn’t her first year like it was Smith’s, it was sophomore Carly Tobias’ first full season at Lindenwood. 

The 2020 campaign lasted just 10 games, with the final game taking place on March 12. A little over a month of lacrosse was played before the season was cut short due to the pandemic. A far cry from the one that followed, which didn’t end until May 23, about three months after the first game was played.

The following season was Tobias’ first real go as a college athlete. And it ended with a national championship win, which felt all the sweeter after what had transpired the year prior.

“I remember getting sent home in the spring of my freshman year, crying the whole way home on the plane,” Tobias said. “This time, I’m flying home on a plane, still crying, but for a completely different reason.”

Jubilation, after heartbreak. The difference of feelings that Tobias and her fellow returners experienced after the whistle was blown at the end of this season compared to last year’s.

When that whistle blew at the end of the championship game on that Sunday evening in May, most players are able to remember the exact emotions they felt and everything that happened in that moment. 

For Tobias, at first it was running over the cameraman. But after that, she recalled sharing the special moment with the rest of her team.

“I remember that dog pile and sitting there, and I remember the second everybody stood up and there was that moment between everybody who just looked at each other and I just remember taking a deep breath,” Tobias said. “You could visibly see all of us just relaxed. We did it.”

Smith will also never forget the scenes when the game officially came to an end against Queens.

“When the final whistle blew at the end of the Queens game, everyone just sprinted out on the field and it was just smiles, laughter, screaming,” Smith said. “It’s just a memory that will replay in the back of my head for the rest of my life.”

While they all shared the same end goal, different perspectives were held by younger players on the team compared to some of the veterans. The latter had gone through playoff shortcomings with Lindenwood before. Freshmen and sophomores hadn’t. 

Tobias had conversations with experienced players such as Fedorowoski, who brought up stories of times where the team had fallen short, giving her a glimpse into previous seasons with the program. 

Lindenwood’s women’s lacrosse team poses together after beating Queens University on May 23 in Salem, Virginia. (Photo provided by Ryan Hunt)

The sophomore kept these stories in mind as she and her team pursued a title. 

“As much as I wanted to win for myself, I kind of stepped back and looked at the bigger picture and I’m like, you know what? I have two, three more years to do this. This is her last chance,” Tobias said. 

“I’m not going to sit here and try and do this for me, I’m going to sit here and do it for her. And I’m going to do this for Emma Wildhart, and Alex Hammonds. The people who really won’t get that chance again, as I hope the underclassmen will do for me when I’m a senior.”

It’s difficult to top winning a championship in year one. What comes next, after accomplishing something as big as this as a freshman?

Smith said that next up for Lindenwood is an attempt to do it all again next year, and win it all for a second consecutive season.

“Our goal is to win another national championship,” Smith said. “Instead of one, to have two.”

Going out on top

She arrived at Lindenwood in 2016, coming from Stillwater, Minnesota. During her five-year career as a Lion, she was awarded numerous accolades, from first team all-conference to All American, among others. 

There was just one thing missing for Carly Fedorowski: a national title. 

But in her 85th game with Lindenwood, a game that saw the veteran score twice, Fedorowski was able to accomplish this and become a national champion. 

“Winning it, and just thinking back to how our seasons have ended the past four years and then COVID canceling it and not even getting to play that final game, it definitely made it bittersweet,” Fedorowski said. “It was a feeling I can’t even describe. It still hasn’t really hit me that we won it all. I don’t even know if it ever will.”

Erin McGuire was one of the five other graduate students on the team besides Fedorowski. While she wasn’t with Lindenwood for as long as the latter, McGuire has been in the college game ever since 2016.

Prior to coming to St. Charles, McGuire attended Jacksonville University in Florida. She was there from 2016-19, playing in 59 games across three seasons (did not play in 2017). In that span, McGuire tallied 117 points and set a Jacksonville program record in assists with 35 in 2018.

McGuire continued her individual success at Lindenwood when she joined in 2019-20, finishing the shortened 2020 season with 49 points, the third most in the country. A year later, McGuire put up 95 points (45 goals, 50 assists), once again the third most at the Division II level.

McGuire said that her age was one of the main contributors to her success on the field.

“I’ve had a lot of experience and I’ve learned from a lot of different people,” McGuire said. “Taking all of that experience and kind of getting to put it to use was what helped me to get the things done that I was able to get done.”

It was another big showing for the graduate student in Salem, starting with a four-goal, two-assist display in the semifinals vs. Roberts Wesleyan (New York). In the final, McGuire netted three goals and one assist. 

Knowing what was on the line, McGuire was able to elevate her game to another level in the postseason.

“Just knowing that these were the two last times that I would get to play at this level with these people really drove me and fired me up,” McGuire said, “because I wanted them to be two of the best games that we had as a team, and I had individually.”

Also stepping up in the spotlight was Fedorowski, who scored twice in the championship victory. 

As with Tobias, Fedorowski recalled the very moments after the game had concluded. The song that played? “All I Do Is Win” by DJ Khaled. While this played in the background, she recalled seeing associate head coach Brian Smith on the phone with his family right after the win.

Then it was a chance to look around and reflect on what she had just accomplished in the final game of her career.

“Grabbing the trophy and seeing all of the fans and the alumni and all of the family in the stands cheering us on, I can still picture it like it was just yesterday,” Fedorowski said. “Honestly, I couldn’t even cry. I was so in shock and it didn’t really hit me, but it was so crazy to be holding that trophy on the field and jumping up and down with my teammates.”

Fedorowski and McGuire weren’t the only two veterans jumping up and down on that Sunday afternoon. Manager Mia Tebbe, who was a senior at the time, had been with the program for each of her four years at Lindenwood.

Tebbe said that the feelings are “indescribable” after ending her time with the team on top. 

“To set a goal freshman year and achieve it senior year, it gives me chills to even think about,” Tebbe said. “Everything we did, I did, all the extra time and effort and attention to details, and long nights, sacrifices were worth it to win.”

“Winning it all as a senior made me feel like I could leave the team without feeling like we didn’t accomplish what we came to accomplish.”

Now Tebbe, Fedorowski, and McGuire all leave Lindenwood as champions together. To McGuire, being able to do this carries heavy meaning, as it wasn’t just won as teammates. Or classmates. But as a family. 

“It means so much to me because this was my second family, they took a chance to have me,” McGuire said. “I was old, washed up so to be able to help in any way achieve this, it’s like my way of giving back to this program that, even though I was only there for two years, gave me so much.”

Coaching to glory

For as long as lacrosse has been at Lindenwood (18 years), Jack Cribbin has been, too. As a player, as a coach. 

But through all of those years, not many of the days can compare to May 23, 2021.

“It was one of the most incredible experiences of my entire life,” Cribbin said. “Winning the championship was one of the best days of my life. It was many, many years of hard work and sacrifice but it was really special.”

This past season was unlike many that had come before it for Cribbin, and for the program as a whole. Like so many other teams in all of sports, the Lions faced numerous hurdles throughout the year, a lot of them involving COVID-19.

Usually in the fall, the women’s lacrosse players would do many different things together as a team. They’d travel together, do community service, have team dinners. As a result of the pandemic, however, restrictions prevented most of this from happening. 

They had to deal with COVID tests, knowing that one positive test could take a player out for multiple weeks. If it had occurred in the postseason, it could have ended their season. Cribbin knew that his team had to make sacrifices in order to overcome these hurdles.

“We told our kids what it took, we told them it was going to be about behavior with this COVID, and if we could follow through and sacrifice for one another, it was for the good,” Cribbin said. “And we needed to do it, and if we did, we’d have the chance to be playing in late-May. Without them buying into that, this never happens.”

Cribbin won alongside his longtime friend in Brian Smith. The duo were a part of the first-ever men’s lacrosse team at Lindenwood in 2003, and played together from then until 2005 where they graduated as captains.

In December of 2009, Cribbin brought Smith onto his coaching staff with the women’s team. They’ve coached side-by-side ever since then, developing a friendship that goes well beyond lacrosse. Smith said the two rarely go 48 hours without talking. Cribbin is even the godfather of Smith’s oldest son, Danny.

Both got the chance to take time to embrace one another after the championship win.

“It meant the world,” Smith said. “Jack, being Jack, he got the trophy, he grabbed me, we went over to I think it was a dorm we were standing in front of, and we just had a moment like, ‘oh crap, we finally did it, look around and take this in.’ It was the smallest thing, but it’ll be a moment I’ll always remember.”

Prior to this, Smith made a FaceTime call to his wife back in St. Louis right after the game had finished. Also on the call were his sons Danny and Conner. Danny is 3, and Conner at the time was 1 year old, but turned 2 at the end of June.

Smith had told Danny that if they won the big game, they get a trophy. Throughout the postseason, when Smith would call back home, Danny would ask him if he had won the big trophy yet. The answer had been no, as the team still had more games to go.

But after the final whistle sounded on May 23, there were no more games left to be won. When Smith made the call, the family was “hooting and hollering and screaming” in the kitchen and, with the trophy in his hands, he let them know that they won the big trophy.

Women’s lacrosse players hold up the trophy together in Salem, Virginia after winning the national championship. (Photo provided by Ryan Hunt)

“If we would’ve won in ‘14, ‘15, that would’ve been for me,” Smith said. “I think there would’ve been, personally, a little bit more of a central, selfish kind of focus. As opposed to doing it now and being able to share that with your kids, is crazy.”

Smith was able to share these moments with his actual family, and the one he helped build at Lindenwood. Cribbin emphasized this, and how there’s no one he’d prefer to experience this with than Smith.

“Together, we’ve built this,” Cribbin said. “I’ve talked to him more than anybody. This was always our dream, was to bring a national championship home to our alma mater. Credit goes to Coach Smith, for all his hard work, his sacrifice over the years. His loyalty to the Lions. He’s poured his heart into this program, and it shows.”

“This was a family effort. There’s nobody in the country I’d rather bring home a national championship to the school with than Brian Smith.”

Lindenwood’s win was historic for the school and the sport of lacrosse. In a sport that is primarily dominated by East Coast schools, the Lions became the first NCAA women’s lacrosse team west of the Mississippi River to win a national championship. 

There are 106 schools who compete in women’s lacrosse at the Division II level. Of those programs, schools such as Adelphi University (New York) and West Chester University (Pennsylvania) had dominated Division II for years before 2021. Adelphi, since 2001, are winners of nine national championships, West Chester has won two. Previous Division II winners can be viewed here.

But now, it was time for the trophy to head west or as Smith would like to call it, for it to head “home.”

“Being able to bring it home was huge,” Smith said. “This place means the world to me. It’s just a special thing to be able to do that, to be the first to do it.”

The team flew back on a private plane after the championship, and returned to Lindenwood to a crowd of staff and students who cheered them on as they and the trophy arrived at Hunter Stadium. 

While most players went their separate ways soon after, there is still more celebrating to be done. In September, the championship-winning team will reunite for the ring ceremony at the Foundry Art Centre, giving the group another chance to all be together once again and continue the celebration. 

But like with the returning players, the focus has now shifted to what lies ahead. For Cribbin, that is to not stop at just one ring. Instead, he likes the sound of two better.

“If you’re going to dream, you might as well dream big,” Cribbin said. “If your dreams don’t scare you a little bit, they’re not big enough.”

Watch the full championship game here.

Videos provided by Mia Tebbe