Northwestern's and Massachusetts' women's lacrosse teams will take the field Friday. The defending champions will be heavy favorites over a rebuilding UMass team that picked up its first national ranking since 1999 last week.
But even though the game is still days away, we already know who the winner will be: Jaclyn Murphy, a 12-year-old who was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a childhood brain cancer, at the age of 10.
Jaclyn, a native of Yorktown, N.Y., is an unlikely hero of a women's lacrosse team based outside of Chicago. When Jaclyn's parents informed her lacrosse coach, Matt Cameron, of her condition, he reached out to another Yorktown Heights local -- Maryland standout and then-assistant coach at Northwestern, Alexis Venechanos. Within days, Jaclyn received an autographed media guide and other Wildcats paraphernalia.
That's where the story could have ended.
Instead, that package was just the beginning of what has become a deep, rewarding -- and extremely successful -- bond between a little girl fighting for her life and team fighting for national championships.
Months after the initial package arrived in 2005, Jaclyn got to meet the team in person, traveling to Maryland to watch the Wildcats challenge perennial power Johns Hopkins. Northwestern, a team revived in 2000, wasn't expected to pose a threat to the East Coast teams that had ruled women's lacrosse. But the Blue Jays didn't know who they were up against.
Jaclyn met with Northwestern coaches and players during the team's dinner and shared her story for the first time without a parent guiding her through it.
"When she introduced herself, her courage and maturity were obvious," said Venechanos. "She talked to the team effortlessly. It was incredible that she felt so comfortable. She gave off this incredible energy that the girls just fed off of."
"Everyone was overwhelmed with how much she's been through," said Wildcats senior Lindsay Finocchiaro, who met Jaclyn her sophomore year. "From that point on, we tried to support her as she was supporting us. Now she leaves us text messages and calls before and after games.
"The relationship has really taken off, personally and with the team. Each year, the [incoming] freshmen learn Jaclyn's story. It's been really special getting to know the whole Murphy family."
Jaclyn's influence on the team cannot be overstated. Northwestern rallied around her, calling and e-mailing messages of support, sending CDs she could listen to while getting treatment at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, wearing armbands with the letter "J" on them. NU coach Kelly Amonte Hiller made Jaclyn an honorary member, complete with her own jersey.
But the relationship is hardly one-sided. The year Northwestern adopted Jaclyn, the Wildcats went 21-0 and won their first national championship. Jaclyn was in attendance at the final and during a halftime interview with CSTV, she accurately predicted the final score -- 13-10 NU over a favored Virginia squad.
"When we met her, we went 21-0 and won our championship. Virginia had more talent at that point, but we had heart and motivation," Finocchiaro said. "Jaclyn was a very big part of winning the game. Guessing the right score at halftime -- that has to mean something."
It's clear what Jaclyn has meant to Finocchiaro: The second-team All-American immediately presented Jaclyn with the watch given to her after the team won its national championship.
"You can't do more than that," said Jaclyn's father, Denis Murphy, who added that Finocchiaro also made Jaclyn's Christmas when she called early that morning. "There wasn't anything we could have given her that would have made her happy. But that phone call did."
After the championship, the team made headlines for their choice of footwear when they visited the White House. Many national media outlets questioned some of the players' decision to wear flip-flops. The team was even interviewed on the "Today Show," where they spun the negative attention into a positive, announcing plans to auction the flip-flops to raise money for Jaclyn. Others were inspired by the story, and now Jaclyn has her own flip-flop on Walkingonroses.com.
"I look at this [relationship] and Disney couldn't make this up. Couldn't come close to making this up," said Denis, who has dedicated his life to helping others who have been diagnosed with brain tumors.
The relationship between former players and coaches and Jaclyn is one that has surprised even her father. It was also the inspiration for Friday's lacrosse game, the 1st Annual Brain Tumor Awareness College Lax Challenge, which will take place at Yorktown High School. In the spring of 2006, after the Wildcats claimed their second consecutive national championship, Venechanos left Northwestern to become the head coach at UMass. Immediately, she set up a game against her former team in Jaclyn's hometown to benefit The Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, which aims to improve the lives of those with pediatric brain tumors and raise money for research.
"We started planning this in the fall," explained Venechanos. "It's something that is bigger than the game itself, and it's something that is important for the players on both teams to be a part of."
Besides being a reunion for the Wildcats and their former coach, the game will serve to raise money and awareness for brain tumor research. Northwestern players will take a guided tour of Sloan Kettering with Jaclyn. They also will attend a banquet and spend time talking to students at Hackley School, in Tarrytown, N.Y.
"We can't wait for this game. We've been looking forward to seeing Alexis and Sarah Albrecht and Angela McMahon [former Northwestern players who are now UMass assistant coaches] and play against their team," said Finocchiaro. "We're so excited to see Jaclyn -- she's been talking about this for months. She's come and visited us and now we're visiting her. Yeah we have a game, but this is really for her. It's a chance for her to show us about her life."
Jaclyn is improving. Last week, the Murphys received good news; Jaclyn had a good MRI. After being diagnosed, Jaclyn underwent surgery, radiation and chemo. Her parents stopped the protocol in March 2005 because of the adverse effects of the chemotherapy, and she continues to vomit every day. She also has developed celiac disease and lost her high-frequency hearing.
But the Murphys are well aware of how lucky they are. Many children diagnosed with medulloblastoma don't respond as well to treatment. Each year, the Murphys attend Camp Sunshine, a weekly camp for children with brain tumors. In the past year, the family has lost six children they met through the camp.
"When I put it into perspective, I'm blessed," said Denis. "Other kids aren't walking, or worse -- when you mess with the brain, it can throw off anything. The side effects of chemo are brutal; you can see on all the other kids [at Sloan Kettering] what they do.
"The girls have been a total inspiration. They don't know the impact they've had on the family. And they don't forget Taryne, Jaclyn's sister," said Denis. "They're mature beyond their years. Other kids in Northwestern's program have learned from seeing the upperclassmen and other girls associated with her and the strength that they give her. I think they've learned more than you can in a textbook."
"Probably the biggest thing Jaclyn has taught us is something she says -- 'Celebrate life,' said Finocchiaro. "Everyone has bad days. When I have one, I think about Jaclyn. There's nothing worse than having something threaten your life like that. That's the most she's given me: Live life to the fullest."
Townsend Lathrop, father of sophomore goalie Morgan, agrees. "I knew I was sending Morgan to a good school and a good program. But I'm most proud that she'll leave Northwestern socially aware," he said.
"So many times we forget about the bigger things in life -- about relationships, and helping other people," said Venechanos. "Meeting Jaclyn reinforced that. I'm proud that our team has had the chance to be a part of this. Our student-athletes are learning about being role models. And Jaclyn, even though she's so young, she knows she's an ambassador for something big."
"Jaclyn's story has really touched a lot of people. I think we've benefited more from that. We're so grateful for everything," said Denis. "All of this for a little girl. That doesn't happen without the Wildcats. This has been such a bad thing, but sometimes good comes out of bad, and in this case, it has."
Lauren Reynolds is the editor of ESPNU.com. She can be reached at Lauren.K.Reynolds@espn3.com.