Noelle Lambert (center) celebrates with teammate Kendyl Finelli following her first goal since returning to the field. (Courtesy of UMass Lowell Athletics)
In 2016, redshirt sophomore attack Noelle Lambert of the women’s lacrosse team was in a moped accident in which she lost her left leg. Starting all 17 games her freshman year, Lambert was an integral part of the team, but she was unable to play last season. On Saturday, April 7, she returned to the field in her first match since the accident. Surprising the team and fans alike, she scored a goal in the River Hawks’ victory.
Lambert has been training for the past year and half to make her way back onto the field. In the game against the University of Hartford, Lambert was subbed in and made an immediate impact scoring her first goal of the season.
“It was certainly inspiring. Definitely a ‘putting into perspective’ type of moment, you know, you’re sometimes wrapped up in the X’s and O’s and the wins and losses when you’re in season and you forget the bigger reason why you coach and the bigger reason why you play a collegiate sport,” said head coach Carissa Medeiros. “It’s about the relationships, and the community and fans, and it’s about learning how to be a successful adult in the face of adversity and there’s no better example of an adverse situation than Noelle’s.”
With the lacrosse community rallying around her, Lambert made incredible progress over the last year. After completing a rigorous training schedule over the summer with a trainer who lived near her house, Lambert returned to school in the fall and began participating in workouts with the rest of team. While no one on the team expected her to succeed as fast as she did, Lambert continued to defy expectations.
“Her response to [the situation] over the course of her rehabilitation over the first year or so, and then her tremendous drive to physically push herself to a limit that… none of us really knew what we were going to see,” said Medeiros. “And she, day in, day out, month after month, kept exceeding expectations, [and] certainly exceeded expectations on a faster scale than we anticipated. To see her in a game this season, which to be honest with you, halfway through the season I would have told you, ‘No, she’s not ready, it’s not going to happen,’ and to see her get herself into a spot to really just prove to her teammates that she is ready was pretty remarkable.”
In addition to the usual team exercises, for the past two months Lambert has been putting in extra hours outside of practice with the assistant coaches to gain more confidence in her footwork and stickwork, but also to make sure she had the right mindset if she were to enter a game.
“I really think that was the reason why I stepped back out onto the field,” Lambert said. “If I didn’t do those extra workouts, I definitely wouldn’t have been here. I just needed to put in the work every single day and obviously I still have so much work that I still have to do.”
Medeiros echoed Lambert’s statements saying that she wanted to see Lambert putting in the work just like anyone else on the team. Medeiros wanted to see the results of her training in practice and see her accomplish certain tasks before she considered putting her into a game. Medeiros thought that Saturday’s game might be an ideal one for her to play in because, if all went to plan, nothing too large would be on the line, and Lambert could play with less pressure on her shoulders. Scoring a goal, however, was not anticipated by anyone.
“I put her in in the first half where she could play with all the starters to put her in a position to be the most successful. I was certainly not anticipating a goal,” Medeiros said. “We didn’t draw that up; it wasn’t a special play for her. She went in and adapted to our normal offensive set, our team-oriented offensive set, and she got a goal for us.”
Lambert was not expecting to play on Saturday, but when the opportunity presented itself, Medeiros knew she and the team would be comfortable putting her in. While there were some concerns about letting her play too soon, Medeiros and Lambert communicated openly about where Lambert was at mentally, as that was just as important as being physically prepared.
Having spent last season as a supportive teammate from the bench, Lambert had no problem continuing that role this season, but she also wanted to put in the work to make significant physical progress to ensure that was not her only role. However, emotional support was something the team had lacked in years past, so Medeiros was glad to see Lambert stepped up to fill that spot when she was still unable to take the field.
“Last year, because of her inability to perform physically at that point, her main goal was to provide an energy and a spirit on the sideline,” said Medeiros. “It was tough on us the first couple of years—lots of losses, lots of close games, lots of tears— but she really took it upon herself to start a new team culture on the sideline, one in which kind of energized the team that was playing on the field through the sideline celebrations, and she took that very seriously.”
And while Lambert was there to support her teammates in any way she could, they were right there with her working in the gym and on the field. Lambert said the bonding that occurred among the whole team was crucial to their success on the field.
“They were so selfless the whole entire time,” Lambert said. “Just to see them on the field and if they feel comfortable enough to give me the ball, then that’s half the game right there. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without any single one of them.”
Now that her first game back is behind her, Lambert will continue to train each day and put in the work until she knows she can consistently play and know that she has the full support of her coach and teammates. She said next year she is aiming to have a bigger role on the team but understands that could be on the bench or on the field.
Medeiros reiterated the need for Lambert to keep practicing and to get stronger every day but is fully expecting her to make a large impact as a player on the field. Medeiros fully believes that Lambert has the drive and determination to come back even stronger in the next year. With the encouragement of her teammates and coaching staff, Lambert understands this is not something she has to go through alone.
“I think what was motivating her a lot was to get back on the field, but now what needs to motivate her is not to just get back on the field to make an appearance in a game that we’re up by a lot,” Medeiros said. “I think her goal is to get in a game where she can be impactful when something is on the line a little bit more. Whether that’s this year, or next year, or whenever, we are certainly going to work hard to get her to that point and I know she will, too.”