Fans watching the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, women’s lacrosse squad warm up for its final game of the season last spring saw players swallow up smiling, giggling 8-year-old Lexie Williams in the team huddle.
What they didn’t see was inside the hedge of laced arms and clenched fists, Williams, outfitted with her own Minutewomen jersey and stick, asking when it would be her turn to take the field. Around her, Williams’ newly acquired big sisters just smiled.
Williams, diagnosed with a brain tumor at the age of 4, couldn’t play, of course, but Massachusetts players were touched that she had the strength, energy and desire to do so. That moment wasn’t just a bonding experience among the players and a little girl, it also was part of much larger effort by the Minutewomen to raise awareness, money and hope in the battle against pediatric brain tumors.
Well before members of the Massachusetts women’s lacrosse squad knew of Williams, they were introduced to the sobering realities of brain tumors in children through head coach Alexis Venechanos, who took over the program in 2006 after serving as an assistant at Northwestern University. At Northwestern, Venechanos and her team developed a relationship with then 11-year-old Jaclyn Murphy, who was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in 2004 and continues to fight for her health. Northwestern became heavily involved in the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation established by Jaclyn’s father, Dennis, to increase awareness about the cause.
Venechanos’ move to Massachusetts led to the inaugural Friends of Jaclyn Brain Tumor Awareness College Lax Challenge on March 23. The game, which featured defending national champion Northwestern against Massachusetts, drew more than 3,000 fans and set a record for the largest crowd to attend a regular-season women’s lacrosse game in NCAA history. Perhaps more importantly, the $38,500 raised went directly to the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation to support charities with programs in pediatric patient care, research and education.
“When I took the job at UMass, the idea of playing a game and having the proceeds go to the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation came up. We didn’t know what to expect and we were pleased that a lot of people came out in support,” said Venechanos. “We went into it thinking that if it raised a small or a large amount of money, it was going to bring attention to the sport and to the cause.”
The event did that and more. It also brought Williams to Massachusetts’ attention. During the pregame banquet, the foundation showed a video about Williams and announced it was donating a computer to her.
The Minutewomen reached out to Williams and joined Friends of Jaclyn in presenting the gift to the Lakeville, Massachusetts, native at the season finale against La Salle University a month later. When the Minutewomen and Williams met face to face for the first time that weekend in April, the connection was instant.
Since then, Williams has been ushered into the huddle at Massachusetts. In addition to awarding Williams her own jersey — No. 38 — and stick, a steady stream of communication flows between the two camps through Williams’ Web site and instant messaging.
Even as the Minutewomen look forward to a lasting friendship with Williams, the team hopes more squads and schools will follow their lead and appeal to other children facing circumstances similar to Williams. “We’re hoping it snowballs into something huge, and I think it will,” said Venechanos.
To that end, Venechanos hopes the matchup between Massachusetts and Northwestern will become an annual event. Meanwhile, the Minutewomen will continue to inspire and be inspired by Williams.
“Watching Lexie, you know how much the little things matter,” said Venechanos. “It just puts everything in perspective.”
Samantha Sepulveda, who graduated in May with a degree in business management, said the opportunity to include Williams as a part of the team was special.
“You look at her and wonder how she can smile and do these things. Every single day, she fights her own battles and it makes me think twice,” said Sepulveda. “When I’m on the field I should be working a lot harder. Lexie is fighting for her life and all I have to do is be the best I can on the field.”