Start drawing the lines that tangle Cindy Timchal with just about every women’s lacrosse program in the nation, and she’ll attempt to humor you. Sure, she knows the story. Timchal’s Navy team is heading to its first Final Four this weekend in Foxborough, Mass., along with three other programs that share a common root. There’s Maryland, coached by a former Timchal player and assistant; Penn State, coached by a former Timchal player; and Friday’s semifinal opponent, Boston College, coached by a former Timchal player who still talks to her mentor two or three times a week. So yes, Timchal will acknowledge this link.
“Kind of maybe that Kevin Bacon six-degrees-of-separation thing,” she will say, before trying to change the subject back to her surprising Navy team.
And so her coaching tree is no big deal then? Just sort of a parlor game? One little bullet point in the game notes?
“I mean, it’s the first thing that I thought of when I saw the scores after [last] weekend,” said Randall Goldsborough, the head coach at Bucknell and another Timchal disciple. “I was like, oh my God, Cindy and three of her top contributors are going to the Final Four. When is that ever going to happen? That never happens, in any sport. I don’t even know if she understands the magnitude of this.”
“There’s a unique bond between a lot of us who played for Cindy,” said Kerstin Kimel, the head coach at Duke and — you guessed it! — yet another former Timchal player. “I would be willing to bet that every single one of us would tell you that at different points in our coaching, you hear Cindy’s voice in the back of your head.”
“We’re all here because of her. There should be stadiums, statues, airports named after her,” said Alexis Venechanos, the head coach at Ohio State and — get this — a former Timchal player. “She’s our Pat Summitt. She’s the one.”
Timchal’s legacy could be written in wins and losses, and it would read plenty convincing. She has been a head coach since 1982, the first year the NCAA awarded a national title in women’s lacrosse. She’s the all-time leader in Division I women’s lacrosse victories. She has eight national titles, the eighth most by any women’s coach in NCAA history. She won seven straight national titles during her legendary tenure at Maryland then took the Navy job in 2006 to elevate the program from club team to Division I. This is her 13th Final Four trip in the past 26 years.
But you could also write her legacy just by diagraming her coaching tree, and that version might be even more impressive.
Navy’s first loss this season was to Kimel’s Duke team. Its second loss came against Boston College, whose coach — Acacia Walker — referred to Timchal this week as “my hero.” Its third loss came to Loyola, coached by Jen Adams, a former Timchal player.
“Playing against her will be hard, because she did teach me everything,” Walker said, when asked about Friday’s rematch.
Timchal coached Sonia LaMonica, the head coach at Towson, and Jennifer Ulehla, the just-removed head coach at Michigan, and Courtney Martinez Connor, the head coach for Arizona State’s new program. Timchal coached Kelly Amonte Hiller, who won seven national titles at Northwestern and is now sprouting her own coaching tree. Before she arrived at Maryland in the early ’90s — back when she was coaching both lacrosse and field hockey at Northwestern — Timchal coached Jen Averill, who went on to win three national field hockey titles as Wake Forest’s head coach.
Timchal’s former players, in fact, were either head or assistant coaches at 12 percent of the Division I women’s lacrosse programs this year, and they’re scattered around lower divisions as well.
“Every time I see [that list], I realize Cindy gave us all a gift, and something we maybe didn’t always understand at the time,” said Karen MacCrate Henning, a former Timchal player who has led Division III Colby to eight NCAA tournament appearances in the last 10 years. “It’s because she allowed us to love the game, you know? We had a passion for the game, can honestly say that most of us left there still loving lacrosse.”
So why did these decorated players pour out of College Park and into coaching openings during Timchal’s tenure there? She suggested that the winning had a lot to do with it, that “when you’re that successful, you’re usually highly sought-after.” Top players streamed to play for her at Maryland, and then they won and won and won there — “we used to joke that we majored in national championships,” as Goldsborough put it. They also worked Timchal’s summer camps, giving them a taste of coaching and a vision of how they could stay in the sport.
But it was more than just that, her pupils said. It was her obsession with innovation, from hiring Gary Gait — a superstar player in the sport — as an assistant coach to bringing in sports psychologist Jerry Lynch before such things were common, encouraging her players to meditate about “the man in the hut.”
“A little hippie, a little outside the box,” said Venechanos, who now finds herself telling her Ohio State players about this same man in the hut. “Just like kids start talking like their parents, you start sounding like your coach. I heard that 15 years ago, and now I’m still talking about it.”
Then there was the way Timchal stressed constant collaboration with her players, turning them into fledgling coaches when they were still college kids. Teammates used to call Cathy Nelson Reese — Timchal’s successor at Maryland — “a Cindy mini-me,” as Goldsborough put it. (“She was the main reason why I coach,” Reese said this week.)
MacCrate Henning once brought Timchal a problem that was dividing the Terps. The coach responded: “Okay, I’ll be 15 minutes late for practice, figure it out.”
“She didn’t provide the answers; she gave us the time for us to find a solution,” MacCrate Henning said, and that Maryland team finished undefeated and won a national championship.
But mostly, players said, it was the way Timchal made their sport feel both fun and important, something every bit as important as football or basketball, a joyful pursuit that they couldn’t imagine leaving. These future coaches didn’t burn out. Instead, they didn’t want it to end.
“You didn’t want to miss a second of it,” Goldsborough said. “You wanted to be at every practice, you wanted to be at every meeting, you wanted to be at every game, every bus ride, everything. You just wanted to be a part of it, and we just wanted to stay a part of.”
“And quite frankly she was very inspiring,” Kimel said. “That culture that she created at Maryland really has a lot to do with why there’s so many of us who are coaching today.”
“I had the best four years of my life in that environment,” said Venechanos, “and you want to pay it forward.”
“I think Cindy is sort of an environment creator,” agreed Missy Doherty, who has Penn State in its second straight Final Four. “The lessons I learned from my teammates and that competitive atmosphere that she created was a great experience. And it’s something that I think all of us wanted to continue, which is probably why we got into coaching.”
So they streamed into this profession, using Cindyisms like “lollygaggers” and “running in reverse” and “relaxed intensity” and “some I can’t repeat,” as Kimel joked. Some of these coaches, despite their continuing fondness for their mentor, talk to Timchal only occasionally. Some, like Ohio State’s Venechanos, speak to her almost daily. Maryland’s Reese has an undefeated powerhouse, and yet every other question during her Final Four teleconference this week was about Timchal. “That’s okay,” Reese said. “I love her, so that’s fine.”
Timchal said this all makes her proud and happy, but she describes her network of former players with a sort of inevitability, saying people “kind of fall into your bliss. You follow what brings you joy, and you share that with your team.” Her former players are a tad less dismissive.
“We’re able to be full-time coaches, to support our families, because of what Cindy Timchal’s done in the past,” said Venechanos, the Ohio State coach. “I laugh when people say coaching tree. She has a coaching forest, to be honest.”