Field Hockey

Lies Lagerweij came to Syracuse to score goals — and she has. But she didn’t know she’d be leading the defense along the way

Courtesy of Syracuse Athletics

Lagerweij, a senior, rests at the core of an SU defense that has not yet allowed a goal this season.

Last season, Lies Lagerweij was one of the best backs in the nation. Yet before coming to Syracuse, she had never even played the position.

Lagerweij, a senior from the Netherlands, transitioned to center back after she tore her right posterior cruciate ligament during a practice her freshman season. Neither Lagerweij nor SU head coach Ange Bradley saw the shift coming, because Bradley had recruited her as a center-forward scorer. Lagerweij still did that, last year leading the Orange in goals (13) and earning first-team All-American status. But Lagerweij’s development gives No. 5 Syracuse (5-0) perhaps its most surprising weapon on a defense that this season has yet to allow a goal in 350 minutes.

“I’m just being flexible,” Lagerweij said. “… I told her you can put me anywhere where you need me and I’ll just play.”

Three years ago, on Sept. 4, 2014, she tore her right PCL during practice. In the four games prior, her parents remembered, Lagerweij’s minutes had increased. But now, two days away from her SU home debut, she would be unable to play. Doctors told her she would be out for the season. The toughest moment, she said, was telling her entire team.

“I came here to play field hockey,” Lagerweij said. “I couldn’t do that. I really struggled in that time.”

Lagerweij had focused on this sport for her entire life. She started playing at 5 years old for her local club in Delft, Netherlands. At 12, she joined a new club system a half-hour from home. Training became six days per week and Léandre Lagerweij, her father, and Hanneke van Zoelen, her mother, still laugh at all the driving involved for games and practices. Her mother said she used the extra time in the car on Rosetta Stone to learn Chinese.

A few years later, on vacation in San Francisco, the family visited California-Berkley’s field hockey facilities and met the coach. Lagerweij left impressed with United States field hockey, and it sparked an interest in returning to play collegiately.

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Jordan Phelps | Staff Photographer

Her family compared lists of top American colleges with the NCAA field hockey rankings. Once cross-checked, they produced highlight videos and emailed them to about 50 coaches. About 20 replied and Lagerweij officially visited five schools, including Duke and Michigan.

“If I want to go for something, I have a dream,” Lagerweij said. “I know that (my parents) will support me, push me to get that.”

The only visit Lagerweij’s parents didn’t accompany her on was the last, to Syracuse. They were traveling from Michigan and Lagerweij had a boarding ticket, but her parents flew standby. There were no seats available on three or four flights. Her parents flew back to the Netherlands while Bradley took Lagerweij to lunch and told her how she planned to use the then-forward. Schools mostly had pitched her with facility tours, Lagerweij said, and this was different.

Four games into her time at Syracuse, Lagerweij suddenly found her way to complete those plans obstructed. To rehab her injury, she was introduced to Brad Pike, Syracuse’s assistant athletics director for sports medicine.

A torn PCL causes swelling and decreases range of motion. Muscles stop firing, Pike said. He focused on decreasing swelling and regaining motion by experimenting with different leg exercises until they found ones that worked for Lagerweij. These exercises rebuilt the strength and stability in her right knee, but it did not repair the ligament itself.

“Typically, you don’t (repair) a PCL,” Pike said. “… I would say 75 to 80 percent of the time, you don’t repair that ligament. So, there’s always that chance (re-injuring the PCL).”

After weeks of rehabbing with Pike, Lagerweij returned from a diagnosed “season-ending” injury in less than two months.

The game before Lagerweij was cleared to return, Annalena Ulbrich, one of SU’s starting backs, sustained a season-ending injury herself. Syracuse had nine forwards on the roster that season, compared with four backs. Bradley needed to make an adjustment.

“Coach, she called me,” Lagerweij said, “And she was like, ‘Lies, how do you feel about playing center back?’ And I was kind of like, ‘Oh god, I’ve never done that before.’ I was kind of insecure about it.”

Thirty-five seconds into her first game at back, against Duke, Syracuse allowed a goal. A few minutes before, Lagerweij remembered Bradley had told her, “I love you, you’re going to do great.” Her parents and Sanne, her younger sister, were in the stands at J.S. Coyne Field. Sanne, a back in the Netherlands, had expressed disbelief that her sister could make the switch. But Lagerweij learned by doing, though the Duke goal did nothing to improve her confidence.

But Syracuse’s defense never allowed another goal and beat the Blue Devils, 2-1. The next day, SU shut out Bucknell and Lagerweij scored twice. Still adjusting to defense, she started cramming film study with now-associate head coach Allan Law.

“He (taught) me everything possible about defense in about two weeks,” said Lagerweij. “It was a very, very learning-full time.”

Nearly four weeks later, in the national semifinals against North Carolina, Lagerweij made a play that Jess Jecko, Syracuse’s goalkeeper, said she will never forget.

In overtime, Lagerweij faced a two-on-one breakaway, with one player running at her and another running behind. She’s all that stood between UNC and Jecko. As the Tar Heels tried to pass, the 6-foot-1 Lagerweij extended an arm to nick the ball away as her teammates rushed back on defense.

“Huge, game-changing moment,” Jecko said.

The next year, with Lagerweij established at back, she and Jecko directed two freshmen at the other back spots. Syracuse finished fourth in the country in goals against average, allowing just under one per game.

“I know I could always rely on Lies and Roos (Weers) and whoever my other back was,” Jecko said, “that they were doing everything they could to stop the ball and not let the ball in the circle.”

In Syracuse’s first women’s national championship ever, Lagerweij clamped down on defense and had an assist in a 4-2 win over North Carolina.

Though she plays center back now, she still leans on her roots as a forward for calm. Whenever she feels pressure, Lagerweij visualizes a different play she made in the 2014 national semifinal against North Carolina.

The two teams went to a penalty shootout after two overtimes. The Orange sent out Lagerweij. As she approached on her attempt, she faked an initial shot.

“Ange had a little heart attack,” Lagerweij said, laughing.

Lagerweij took it around the keeper and scored in the eventual win. The Orange lost in the national championship to Connecticut, but that score symbolized much to a player who used skills at back to put her in a position to do what she had once done best.

“I once asked her, ‘Which moment of your life are you really happy?’” her father said. “She said, ‘The most-happy moment of my life is just before the start of a game, while we’re preparing for the game in the sunshine.’”

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