In case of emergency
Freshman reprises goalie understudy role for injured star
Comfort zones and college freshmen. Could there be a more polarizing pair?
Adjusting to the college life is rarely easy. No parents and hundreds of miles from home. Dealing with problems on their own, navigating muddy social waters all while trying to excel in what is most likely the most intense academic setting they have faced in their life.
Some wilt under the pressure, but most endure and come out stronger on the other side.
Freshman Becca Jones had her comfort zone ransacked and burned to the ground on April 8. A reserve attacker for the Big Red's women's lacrosse team, Jones found herself cheering on her teammates from the sideline during a key North Coast Athletic Conference game against Wooster.
With 3:33 remaining in the first half and the Big Red trailing 8-4, Denison junior goalie Laura Van Horn collided with a pair of Wooster attackers and went down in a heap. Van Horn was slow to get up and a familiar feeling shot through her left knee.
It was familiar only because in October, Van Horn had torn her right ACL during fall practice. She had made the decision with her coaches and training staff to continue playing through the spring with plans for surgery over the summer. Playing with a torn ACL is not much of an option for an attacker or midfielder, but if she could grit through the pain, playing goalie seemed plausible.
What was not plausible is playing goalie on two torn ACL's. On that collision with the Wooster attackers, Van Horn had torn her second ACL.
Ever the warrior, she stood and cleared the ball to her teammates. As the ball made its way down the field, Van Horn made her way to the sideline to reassure her coaches that she wanted to remain in the game. By the time she reached the sideline, Wooster had regained possession and was crossing midfield.
Now, forced to run, Van Horn's knee buckled and she fell to the turf. The only support that had remained in her left knee was gone.
In that moment all eyes on the Denison sideline shifted toward Jones, who responded with a glassy-eyed stare as her two coaches approached her.
In the fall, after Van Horn's first injury, Denison head coach Amanda Daniels and assistant coach Maddie Coleman met with the seniors to discuss the goalie situation. Van Horn was the only goalie on the roster. As far as they knew, she was the only player on the team with any experience between the pipes.
They knew that replacing Van Horn, a player who had saved 101 shots a season ago and had helped lead Denison to the NCAA Tournament, would be a tall order.
There were no takers at first, but Daniels did recall a conversation during the recruiting process with Jones' high school coach Melissa Lawlor. She remembered Lawlor explaining the lengths that Jones would go to in order to help the team win. Her path to goalie had started so innocently.
"In high school, during our alumni games, they were kind of a joke and people would just switch positions," Jones said. "My senior year, a month before our season ended, our goalie tore her ACL. Because I had jokingly played goalie in the alumni games, I finished the year in goal, playing four games."
In some cosmic twist of fate, Jones had landed on another team (Denison) with just one goalie who happened to have a torn ACL. Plans were made in the fall for Jones to begin practicing in goal with Coleman, who was an All-American goalie at Gettysburg.
Through the first nine games it became clear that adversity would be a reoccurring theme for the 2015 Big Red.
On the opening draw of the season, all-region defender Rachel Pregel suffered a season-ending injury. Then Denison would go on to face a tough non-conference schedule, falling to regionally ranked powers Connecticut College, William Smith, Mount Union and Augustana.
After an overtime loss to conference rival Wittenberg on March 28, the Big Red found themselves with a 3-5 record and the season hanging in the balance.
As the Denison team watched their goalie struggle to stand at Wooster, it was only natural for negative thoughts to creep in. The season that seemed doomed from the beginning appeared to be coming to fruition.
"I've probably never seen a player quite as nervous as Becca was at that moment," Daniels said. "The last thing we thought was going happen was what had just happened."
"The whole thing was just so unexpected," Coleman said. "Becca just putting on that helmet and going in showed tremendous courage."
What went from a moment of extreme isolation, where Jones felt like all eyes were on her, shifted rapidly to a feeling of comfort and support.
"My hands were shaking," Jones recalled. "But everyone on the team was really supportive. The fact that I was just doing this, everyone was telling me not to worry."
After she had taken her new position b etween the pipes she got one last word of encouragement from a teammate and classmate that made all of the difference.
"Halle [Walsh] came up to me and just said, 'Becca, I'm going to play the game of my life for you.' I think that just kind of sums up this whole experience. We have been playing for each other and for Von and Pregel who are hurt."
In the second half against Wooster, the Fighting Scots attempted only six shots, allowing Denison to mount a rally, only to fall 13-12. After the game, Jones approached Daniels and Coleman on the bus. The coaches feared Jones was going to ask to return to her position on attack. Instead she asked if she could have a private practice the next day because she needed to prepare for Allegheny.
If there was ever a loss that can truly be pointed to as a turning point, it was that one.
Need more proof? Denison hasn't lost since.
Over the past seven games with Jones in goal and the Denison offense and defense clicking at an elite level, the team has gone 7-0, highlighted by another NCAC Tournament Championship.
"Becca's just a prime example of resilience," co-captain Whitney Powel said. "She was thrown into an emotionally charged situation and she stepped up."
Just 21 days after the Van Horn injury, Denison went back to Wooster for the conference tournament semifinals. Thoughts of the previous loss swirled through the heads of the Big Red in the days leading up to the conference semifinals.
"I told the team that we are playing for Von," said Daniels, who was referring to Van Horn's nickname within the team. "She has been there from the moment she got hurt, helping and supporting everyone. She's been an inspiration to the whole team."
Daniels also recalls a conversation she had with Van Horn, asking the junior if she had any regrets about choosing to play on a torn ACL.
"She told us that she wouldn't change a thing. Even if she knew that she was only going to get a half of a season in before blowing out her only good knee, she said she would have still done it," Daniels said. "Everyone on this team has stepped up in such a huge way. This team has risen to the occasion and that is why I believe that can continue to carry us through the NCAA Tournament."
"We miss Von and her presence on the field but she has helped the transition and that's what a team player does," Powel said.
Next stop for the Big Red is an NCAA Tournament second round matchup at Fredonia (N.Y.) on Sunday. This is Denison's 17th NCAA Division III Tournament appearance in women's lacrosse.