Navy coach Cindy Timchal is too focused on preparing her Mids for their first NCAA women’s lacrosse tournament national semifinal to reflect on the influence she’s had on this weekend’s final four.
Her knowledge and passion for the game are still contagious after 35 years, and they have touched every player on the teams vying for the national championship this weekend at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. — even the ones who have never met her.
She has inspired several dozen of her players to follow in her footsteps, especially during 16 years at Maryland that included eight national championships before she left after the 2006 season to start the Navy program.
Now three of them are joining her in the final four — Maryland’s Cathy Reese, Penn State’s Missy Doherty and Boston College’s Acacia Walker.
If that’s ever happened before in college sports, it’s certainly an extremely rare convergence.
“It is special,” Timchal said. “As a coach ... a sign of maybe doing good things is what your players are doing 10 or 20 years outside of coaching them. In this case, my former players have had wonderful success at Division I programs and they have success in other areas of life and work, so it is extraordinary for them. It takes a lot of courage and commitment to really step it up and really coach it up at the Division I level.”
Timchal’s coaching tree branches deep in Division I. Two of her former players, Reese and Northwestern’s Kelly Amonte Hiller, have won multiple national championships. Some of Amonte Hiller’s players are now coaching, including Lindsey Munday at Southern California.
Reese, Doherty and Walker, who played high school lacrosse in the Baltimore area, played for Timchal at Maryland, where they decided they too wanted to coach college lacrosse.
“She was the main reason why I coach,” Reese said. “I kind of fell into the career. I don’t know that I ever thought it was something to do when I was in college and then that was how I opened it up, when I was her assistant for five years.”
Walker, who played for the Terps while Reese was an assistant, said both inspired her to coach.
“I knew I wanted to be a coach as soon as I met them,” Walker said. “So just [through] their influence on me and all the people around me growing up in Maryland, I just realized that through lacrosse, you can be involved in young girls’ lives and teach them how to be good people and how to work hard and how to be honest. Those are all the things Cindy and Cathy taught me. I feel privileged being a part of their path.”
Reese, who played at Mount Hebron, and Doherty, who played at St. Mary’s, were teammates on three Terps national championship teams from 1996 to 1998. Reese also played on the 1999 title team, part of Maryland’s seven-year run as champions.
To Doherty, Timchal’s approach made many of her players want to stay in the game.
“I think Cindy is sort of an environment creator,” Doherty said. “When we played there, she just created a great environment of people of great character, surrounding yourself with the best and just being ready to create a competitive environment and I bring that with me always.
“The lessons I learned from my teammates and that competitive atmosphere that she created was a great experience and something I think all of us wanted to continue. That’s probably why we got into coaching.”
Always an outside-the-box thinker who stressed a play-for-each-other message, Timchal has been an advocate for her players and an advocate for the sport, something her three proteges admire. It all adds up to more wins than any other college Division I women’s lacrosse coach, 491, and more national championships, eight. Timchal, whose career began at Northwestern, is taking her 13th team to the final four.
In her 10th season in Annapolis, she has guided her unseeded and unranked Mids to one of the most spectacular playoff runs in women’s lacrosse history. They pulled off four straight upsets — including a 16-14 win over defending national champion and No. 2 seed North Carolina in the quarterfinals — to reach the national semifinals.
While Reese, who has taken the Terps to three national championships, has them in the semifinals for a ninth straight time, and Doherty has the Nittany Lions in the final four for the second year in a row, Walker is a newcomer to championship weekend as a coach, although she made it once as a Terps sophomore in 2003.
After No. 1 seed Maryland and No. 4 seed Penn State face each other in Friday's 5 p.m. semifinal, Walker will meet her mentor in a 7:30 p.m. battle of unseeded teams.
Walker, who grew up down the street from the Naval Academy and played at Annapolis High, has already faced Timchal twice and won, including 20-11 on March 4.
She laughs about the thought of seeing Timchal at the other end of the field in a national semifinal.
“It’s so fun,” said Walker, in her fifth season as Eagles head coach. “I’m grateful for the opportunity and I know there will be times when I’ll look down the sidelines and see her and probably laugh, probably smile. I think it’s going to be awesome. It’s a great opportunity and I want to coach against the best coaches. That’s why I love what we do.”
Walker has never been far from Timchal’s ear, making frequent phone calls to her mentor, sometimes several times a week during the lacrosse season.
“We talk all the time,” Walker said. “She’s a great lacrosse mind, so any opportunity I have to pick her brain, I’m going to.”
Doherty, who took Towson to the NCAA tournament four times before moving on to State College after the 2010 season, has guided the Nittany Lions to six straight NCAA tournaments.
Reese has been a Terp almost since the day she set foot on the College Park campus, spending just three years as the Denver coach before returning to take over at Maryland in 2007. In just four years, Reese had the Terps back at the pinnacle with the 2010 national championship.
She credits Timchal with giving her the foundation for that success when she was as a player and a Terps assistant.
“I learned from her,” Reese said. “I was only gone from the University of Maryland for three years before coming back to replace her when she went to the Naval Academy. For me, she’s been such a huge influence and had an impact on me as far as lacrosse goes. She’s the only person I’ve worked for, so that’s been pretty cool for me to have had that opportunity.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect time for Navy's semifinal game. It's 7:30 p.m. Friday.