Long, hard journey brings Mitchell to scoring record

Senior midfielder Leigh Mitchell has always been a facilitator, whether on a basketball court or a lacrosse field, and that’s exactly what she was when she reached the Mount Everest of pinnacles in Division III lacrosse.

Mitchell came back better than ever after ACL surgery derailed her ’09 season. (Courtesy of the Sports Information Desk)

Mitchell found her comfort zone behind the net against Rowan University on April 3 and let the potential plays run through her imagination before sending a pinpoint pass to junior attacker Alex Spark, who finished the job. The goal was another notch on the belt for the budding Spark, but the assist was Mitchell’s 365th career point — a mark that put her ahead of former teammate Ali Jaeger as the school’s all-time leading scorer.

“(Mitchell) is the type of player that sees the field extremely well and really wants to work for her teammates,” Spark said. “She has very good connections with players on the field allowing for her to make those passes. It also has to do with the trust she has in the players on the field and how well we can all work together.”

Mitchell has long since shattered the College’s career assist mark, she’s the first Lion to ever record 200, but Jaeger’s record was something that’s been on the horizon all season long. Jaeger’s record stood for less than a year, but she’s okay with that if it means seeing her name below a player as special as Mitchell.

“(Mitchell) is one of the most dedicated, hard-working and selfless people I know,” Jaeger confessed. “I couldn’t be happier to see her name at the very top of the points leaders list.”

There are many adjectives that describe Mitchell. Just ask around and you’ll start to get déjà vu hearing the same words over and over again: selfless, dedicated, quiet, tremendous, humble, subtle. Each one paints the picture better than the last until you’ve got the masterpiece that has been Mitchell’s career with one of Division III’s most prolific programs.

“She deserves every credit and every honor that she receives,” professed Mitchell’s teammate and best friend, senior midfielder Kathleen Notos. “I am so thankful to have her as a teammate and get the chance to watch her excel every day in lacrosse. (Mitchell) doesn’t like to brag or even acknowledge that she is an amazing lacrosse player and has broken so many records, so I like to take on the role of telling everyone about her and bragging about how good she is.”

It’s been a lengthy and memorable five-year run for Mitchell, who first suited up for the Lions lacrosse team back in 2008 alongside her older sister, Kelly Mitchell, now an assistant for the Lions.

“We have always had a special connection on and off the field, and having her to guide me and our team was a great learning experience,” said the younger Mitchell. “She was such a powerful player and leader, words can’t describe the impact she has made on me as a player and person.”

Leigh was impressive from the moment she stepped onto campus, according to head coach Sharon Pfluger. Her coach could see that Mitchell was comfortable with the program having watched her sister play two years at the same school, so she wasn’t surprised to see Mitchell end the year with 25 goals and 10 assists.

“We knew that she was going to be a critical part of our game, but what we didn’t know was that she was going to be breaking school records,” Pfluger said.

The next Spring Mitchell was back on track to have a successful season, scoring 22 goals and dishing out 10 assists in six games, until she ran into the most unfortunate of setbacks.

During a practice, Pfluger saw Mitchell go to the ground, something that had happened before, but she knew something was wrong when the sophomore did not bounce right back up.

“I will never forget that day because it wasn’t like she was running a 100 miles per hour and she buckled out,” Pfluger shared. “As soon as she went down I knew she was hurt because she never goes down and, if she does, she gets right back up.”

The diagnosis was one that none wanted to hear — a torn ACL. The injury meant that Mitchell would be sidelined for the rest of the season, missing out on her sister’s senior campaign. Pfluger knew how serious an injury this was, but tried to comfort Mitchell with words of hope.

“I remember when her ACL was torn I told her, ‘We don’t know what the reason is, but somehow another team just might need you more later on (here) and somehow this is going to work out,’” Pfluger said. “You’ve got to hang on to something in that situation because you’re very confused.”

Mitchell gained a lot of insight on the game she thought she knew so well as she watched from the sidelines during her rehabilitation process.

“Rehab was very difficult and at times seemed hopeless, but the want to get back to the field outweighed any pain in the preparation to get there,” Mitchell said. “Watching from the sidelines and not being able to make an impact on the field was very frustrating, but I think being out was a learning experience, I needed to get stronger and become a better player and teammate.”

One of the fears that Mitchell had as she worked her way back was that she would lose some of her speed. However, Notos explained that the opposite may have occurred.

“She was always working hard and pushing through the pain to get back to where she was and I feel like when she came back onto that field, she was even better and faster than before,” Notos said.

One of the benefits that came from the time of Mitchell’s injury was that she was able to redshirt in 2009, making 2010 a repeat assignment as she got a year older, but remained a sophomore in eligibility.

Mitchell came back better than ever that year, doing the things she did back at Lenape High School that made Notos and Jaeger excited to join her as a Lion, as she registered 56 goals and 50 assists — a school record for helpers at that point.

“No one can see the field like Leigh,” Jaeger said. “She has an incredible ability to sort through the chaos in front of the net, find an open teammate and thread in a pass right to their stick.”

Mitchell was far from done though. With 2011 came another year of maturity, another year for greatness.

Although they were knocked out in the semifinals of the national tournament — finishing the year at an ultimately disappointing 20-1 — the Lions’ offense set school records for points, goals, assists and wins in a season where Mitchell was the crown jewel. The midfielder reset her own assist record by tallying 68, but that was the underside of a year in which she scored 123 points — a feat that no Lion had ever reached.

“The caliber of players to come through here at TCNJ is so incredible I think it is impossible to consider myself one of the best,” Mitchell confided, a statement that just cements her status as the Mona Lisa of Lions. “I just am glad that I got to play for the program that produced some of the best in Division III.”

This all occurred while Jaeger was busy setting records of her own, topping alumna Lauren Dougher on the all-time points list. It’s a realization that makes Notos drop her jaw in awe.

“We never really got a chance to take it all in as a team because we were just so focused on winning one game at a time,” Notos said. “But as I sit here and think about it, it is just amazing to have played alongside with TCNJ legends,”

All that led up to this season, a season in which Mitchell never would have gotten to experience had she torn her ACL a game later in 2009.

Besides rewriting the lacrosse record books — Mitchell set game-high records for points and assists against Ramapo College this year — she also won her first national title as a member of the field hockey team.

“I could not be more grateful that my injury happened when it did and I had the opportunity at another year and a second chance,” Mitchell said. “Looking back at it now it was the greatest blessing in disguise because without that injury I would have never been part of the field hockey team this year that went on to win the 2011 National Championship. I guess some things really do happen for a reason.”

Mitchell’s career is far from over, she’ll have another month or so of play if the Lions reach the National Championship. It’s a month or so that may be full of records as Mitchell already has 64 assists this year and is only five points behind her record-setting pace from last season, but Mitchell’s only focus is a national title in lacrosse — the last mountain peak she has yet to climb.

“I think the want and will to win a National Championship in lacrosse this year is what fuels Leigh’s fire and drive,” Notos said. “Leigh doesn’t settle for anything less than winning it all, and ending a season and a career on a win is the greatest victory.”