By Ed Brennen
With 7:49 to go in the first half against visiting Hartford, UMass Lowell women’s lacrosse coach Carissa Medeiros turned to the River Hawks sideline and said the words that Noelle Lambert had wondered at times if she’d ever hear again.
“Noelle, go in.”
Lambert had worked for this moment for more than a year and a half – ever since losing her left leg in a moped accident on Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 2016 – but now that it was happening, it felt surreal.
“When she said my name, I was just like, ‘What? What are we talking about?” said Lambert, who had received NCAA approval to play with a prosthesis several weeks earlier, but didn’t know for sure if Saturday, April 7 would be the day Medeiros put her back on the field.
With her name called, Lambert doffed her grey warmup jacket, took a deep breath and jogged out onto the Wicked Blue Turf to take her attack position. Teammates and spectators welcomed her back with a roar of cheers.
“I tried not to think about the fans or anything. I just wanted to be there for my team,” said Lambert, a junior from Londonderry, N.H., who had 30 family members and friends rooting her on in the stands. “It was a really special moment.”
And it was just the beginning.
Seven minutes later, with the River Hawks holding a commanding 10-0 lead, Lambert used a nice pick set by teammate Taylor Sokol to break free in front of the net, where she took a perfect pass from Kendyl Finelli. As she’s done countless times before, including a team-leading 15 times her freshman season, Lambert zipped a shot past the goalie and into the net.
Lambert dropped her stick and screamed with joy. She turned toward midfield, bounding on the prosthetic blade that now serves as her left leg on the lacrosse field, and into the arms of her teammates – including fellow junior Kelly Moran, who was on the back of the moped that day on the Vineyard and also suffered serious leg injuries in the crash. Two hundred and ninety-nine fans in the Cushing Field Complex stands went wild as the entire UML bench streamed onto the field for an impromptu celebration.
“My head was down,” Lambert said, “and I looked up and everybody was on the field. I thought, ‘Did we call timeout? I don’t really know what’s going on.’”
As the enormity of the moment hit her, tears began to well behind Lambert’s protective eye-mask. Teammates and coaches began wiping tears from their eyes, as did many of those in the crowd.
Medeiros, one of the first people to visit Lambert after the accident – while the anesthesia still was wearing off from her first surgery at Boston Medical Center – gave the player “a little bit of a hug” and a pat on the back after the goal. The coach was overwhelmed with emotion, too, but there was still more than 30 minutes of lacrosse to play.
“I just tried to make sure that I kept it together so that I could continue to coach the team,” Medeiros said after the River Hawks’ 16-1 victory, their first America East win of the season. “But for today, it was really like a closure, in the sense of, ‘OK, the tragedy of it is over.’ And I’m overwhelmingly proud of her.”
A standout three-sport athlete in high school, Lambert thought she had lost a major piece of her identity in the accident.
“After the accident, she said, ‘My lacrosse career is over,’” her mother, Judy, recalled following the game. “And I said, ‘That’s all right, you can do other great things.’ But I started to talk to people at prosthetic places and realized that it may not be the end of her lacrosse career.”
Lambert got a running prosthesis last April and began re-learning how to do all the things that always came so naturally to her on the playing field. The criminal justice major returned to practice last September, passing the team’s running test – which had given her trouble with two legs her freshman year.
“I couldn’t have done it without my family and friends and all those that helped me along the way,” Lambert said. “I just want to thank my coaches and teammates for putting in all the extra work with me and making me feel confident and comfortable on the field. It’s really special to have people actually want to come out and help you, to be so selfless to make my goal come true.”
Medeiros had always hoped that Lambert would be able to play again. The coach just never dreamt that it would happen only 20 months – 616 days – after the accident.
“I was more prepared for thinking about that her senior year,” Medeiros said. “But she made my job increasingly more difficult with her hard work over the course of the fall and the spring. She’s put in countless hours with our assistant coach, Carly O’Connell, who I have to credit with getting Noelle in and making it a reality. She has pushed Noelle to a limit where I don’t think Noelle even believed she could get to.”
O’Connell worked with Lambert on her footwork, stickwork and physical conditioning, as well as on her mental strength. “After countless hours of hard work and tears, everything suddenly clicked,” O’Connell said. “I knew she was ready.”
“I honestly wouldn’t be here without her,” Lambert said of O’Connell. “I had my moments where I was like, ‘I don’t think this is going to happen.’ But I try not to think about the future. I try to take it day by day, one workout at a time, one step at a time. I think that mentality really helped me get to this point.”
Moran, a midfielder from Newfields, N.H., also missed the 2017 season as she recovered from her injuries sustained in the accident, which happened when Lambert lost control of their moped and veered into the side of an oncoming dump truck. After surviving the harrowing experience together, Moran was as happy as anyone to see her teammate and friend back on the field.
“We were up in the clouds there when she scored, but I think it was needed,” Moran said. “It’s really exciting for everyone because Noelle’s been working so hard, on and off the field. She even said from the beginning, ‘I don’t want to be put in until I’m completely ready.’ She didn’t want to just be put in to make an appearance. She really had her heart set on being an impact player.”
Indeed, while Lambert has cleared some major hurdles by getting back on the field and scoring a goal, she is far from satisfied.
“I think this game was a great stepping-stone for me, just to see where I’m at in this whole process,” said Lambert, who logged nearly 20 minutes of playing time Saturday, finishing with three shots on goal. “I know I’m nowhere close to where I want to be, and I have to keep putting in that work.”
After switching from her running to walking prosthesis and stopping for a postgame interview scrum, Lambert was the last player to head off the field Saturday. As she approached the Cushing Field stands, a crowd of nearly 100 well-wishers began chanting her name. A group of local youth girls’ lacrosse players asked Lambert to pose for a picture with them. One of them said Lambert was her hero.
As she made her way into the swarm of family members, which included her parents, Geoffrey and Judy, as well as aunts, uncles and cousins, Lambert flashed the blunt sense of humor that has helped her get through the ordeal (last Halloween, she dressed up as an “IHOP” restaurant sign). Spotting a relative who was attending his first game, Lambert said, “I had to lose a leg to get you to come to a game!” Everyone laughed.
Moments later, as music played in the team’s parking lot tailgate tent and players and their families filled plates with food, Judy Lambert reflected on her daughter’s accomplishment.
“She sent me a video the other night of her first time running on the treadmill, harnessed in. That was one year ago on Wednesday,” Judy said. “In one year, to be able to come this far and get back on the field … she just amazes me.”