Their program started as a club team just 10 years ago, and until this season it had never beaten a ranked opponent or gotten to the NCAA tournament quarterfinals, so on Saturday, they came from all over to watch.
Alumni of the Navy women’s lacrosse team poured into Chapel Hill, N.C., on flights and in cars, coming not just from the Washington area but from Naval installations in Virginia, Texas, California and Hawaii. They fought jet lag and watched gas money dwindle. But it was worth it to see their Mids make history.
“We’ve been knocking at the door,” Navy Coach Cindy Timchal said, “but this was our little breakthrough.”
Navy beat No. 2 seed North Carolina, 16-14, to reach its first women’s lacrosse Final Four, an unseeded team sending a message that resonated not just with the alumni who helped build the program from scratch but to the entire lacrosse world. The Mids unseated the defending champion Tar Heels on their home field behind a high-octane offense and with an intense style of play that has come to define Timchal’s teams in Annapolis.
The surprising NCAA tournament run comes at the end of a watershed season. In their conference tournament, the Midshipmen won their fifth Patriot League championship by snapping fearsome Loyola’s 41-game winning streak against conference opponents. Navy then defeated No. 7 seed Penn in the opening round of the NCAA tournament to notch its first win over a ranked opponent in program history.
They now roll into Foxborough, Mass., for championship weekend, the first national semifinals of Timchal’s storied career since she led Maryland there for a 12th time in 2003. They will face Boston College at what is sure to be a hostile Gillette Stadium.
On the field, Navy has the ninth-ranked scoring offense in the country. The Mids boast offensive leaders in junior Jenna Collins (River Hill High), who is tied for the second-most points in the nation with 111 and has the eighth-most goals with 71, and freshman Kelly Larkin, the 2016 All-Met Player of the Year from Bishop Ireton, who is seventh in the nation with 102 points.
And on the sidelines, ready to hop barricades and storm the field should Navy keep this streak alive, they have the alumni.
“I got a text from Cindy just this morning,” alumna Dominique Wright said in a phone interview Monday. “She said, ‘We need a good group, and we need you guys to be loud.’ I was like, ‘All right, I’m on it.’ ”
Wright, a 2012 graduate, has helped coordinate dozens of alumni to fill the stands at every game this season. The Final Four berth is a shared success among Timchal — who coached at Northwestern and won eight national championships at Maryland before coming to Navy in 2006 — the team on the field, the alumni and the academy as a whole.
The student body in Annapolis is approximately 25 percent female, and 44 percent of those women are varsity athletes. At a university where women are roundly outnumbered, Wright has seen a broad range of students and alumni come together over this women’s lacrosse team. Navy has won just five NCAA team championships in school history, all for men’s teams.
“It’s funny, because for the most part we’re in operational units,” Wright said of the alumni presence. “Most of these girls are preparing to, at some point, deploy. And they’re asking their bosses to let them off for that Friday a little early for a game or whatnot, and I’ve got to say, across the board, from what I gather, everyone’s command says, ‘Go!’
“It’s a unique sisterhood and it’s hard to explain, but the support is true.”
The team’s history-making run is also meaningful in part because of where Navy started. Although a successful men’s program has been up and running since 1908, funding wasn’t available for a women’s program until 2007. Timchal ran Navy as a club team for one season so she could have a year to recruit and schedule before making the leap to Division I.
“I think early on when we started the program, there could be a sense of, ‘Can you really win at the Naval Academy, with athletes who have to serve their country and things like that?’ ” Timchal said. “Well, yes, we can. And that is really special to our alumni.”
That celebratory sentiment is something Wright has seen first-hand.
“On social media — and this is just me, and I’m five years out — I’ve gotten so many messages saying, ‘Congrats to your girls,’ ” Wright said. “I think everyone is thinking, ‘What a statement. What an awesome statement to make.’ These girls, they’re young, they’re fierce, they’re passionate, they’re future heroes, and they’re out here going toe to toe with literally the best athletes in the world.”
Wright plans to watch every minute.