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The story of Courtney Murphy, the women’s lacrosse goal queen

A look at how a B-level club player who won three games in high school has etched her name into the NCAA record book

Jim Harrison / Image Habitat, Inc. / Stony Brook Athletics

Courtney Murphy wasn’t supposed to be a Division I record-holder. Heck, Courtney Murphy wasn’t even supposed to play lacrosse for a top-level college team.

Murphy was always on the B squad, the “gold” team, for the Long Island Yellow Jackets, the local girls’ lax club. She went to high school at William Floyd, which won two state titles in football while she was there, but certainly was no bastion for lacrosse. Her sophomore year at Floyd, the Colonials were decent, but then the other stars graduated. The star defender, Octavia Williams, went to Johns Hopkins. The goalie, Chelsey Sidaris, went to Fairfield.

When they left, Murphy had to do it all. Her teammates had never played club. There was no youth program in town. For most of the William Floyd team, high school was the first time they strung up a stick.

“It was so frustrating. I literally hated lacrosse,” she said. “I dreaded going to practice.”

In high school, she played every position. If she lost the draw, she dropped back and played defense to force a turnover. On offense, teams face-guarded her. Her senior year, William Floyd went 3-10. They lost to Northport by 20 goals.

When Stony Brook head coach Joe Spallina first contacted Murphy about playing for the Seawolves, she wasn’t remotely interested. Spallina had built early success at Stony Brook, after bringing stars Claire Peterson and Demmianne Cook over from Adelphi, his previous job. Despite this, Stony Brook still wasn’t seen by most as a top-tier program and Murphy waited for something bigger.

But the traditional “power conference” schools weren’t interested.

Many coaches didn’t see her play, being a B squad club player on a bad high school team. Others were skeptical. They said she was just a “catch-and-shoot” player. They didn’t like her big personality. They doubted her athleticism.

She was interested in Notre Dame, where her older brother Steve played midfield, but when she visited, the coaches wouldn’t grant her a scholarship.

“They were like, ‘Well, you can walk on if you want’,” Murphy laughed.

But Spallina saw something in her. He recruits heavily from the Yellow Jackets, the club that almost all his star players have come from, so he had watched her closely. While her attitude turned off some coaches, it drew him in. On the field, he saw Murphy’s goal-scoring instincts. She knew when to cut, she knew when to dodge. She had a Canadian-type ability to catch anything thrown inside to her. He knew she could fit a specific role in the offense, so Spallina went ahead and made a large offer.

Among schools offering her money, options were thin, and Murphy ultimately chose Stony Brook over Quinnipiac and Fairfield.

“I wasn’t disappointed to go to Stony Brook, but it was hard not getting recruited when my brother went to such a big-name school,” she recalled. “It was kind of just like, ‘oh… I’m going to Stony Brook.’”

Little did she know, agreeing to play for the Seawolves would become the best decision of her life.

When Gail Cummings was scoring goals for Temple University in the 1980’s, women’s lacrosse looked a lot different than it does today. Players didn’t wear protective goggles, but they did wear collared shirts. There were no restraining lines, no sidelines and certainly no shot clock. Conference championships didn’t exist yet, and the NCAA Tournament only had six teams.

On the field in Philadelphia, Cummings was prolific at rolling the crease, where she estimates she scored more than half her goals. She racked up huge numbers: 88 goals in 1987, then 94 in 1988. In her career, she scored 289 times, which set the NCAA record. The mark stood the test of time, lasting three decades, much longer than the points or assists records from the day.

Today, Cummings doesn’t remember the specifics of her record-breaking goal, any game-winner, or any particularly flashy score. There was never any video footage of most of her career. But she does remember missed opportunities from her sophomore and junior years in the Final Four. In each case, Temple was playing Penn State, their state rivals.

In 1986, Cummings and the Owls fell to the Nittany Lions, 8 to 7. In 1987, they lost 7 to 6.

“It was a lot of me thinking, if I had only done this, or if I had only done that,” Cummings said.

Her senior season, Temple reached the mountaintop, with two dominant wins -- a five-goal victory over Harvard in the semifinals and an eight-goal victory over Penn State in the title game -- en route to the Owls’ only undefeated season in school history.

For Cummings, now the athletic director at Division-III Skidmore College, she remembers the championship more than any individual achievement.

“I didn’t even know I still had the record,” she said last week, before busting out the appropriate cliche. “But records are meant to be broken.”

Jim Harrison / Image Habitat, In / Stony Brook Athletics

It was a chilly, windy April afternoon when the goal finally came. The game was decided before it even began; Stony Brook was on the road against Hartford, whose women’s lacrosse program is in its first year of existence. The Seawolves are first in the country in goal differential; the Hawks are 112th out of 114.

The only question was whether Murphy would break the record. She entered the game with 287 career goals, needing two to tie and three to pass Cummings’ mark.

For weeks, the record had weighed on her and the team. The media asked about it. Spallina and Kim Hillier, the associate head coach, tried to manage it after each game: “How many does Murph have? How far away is she now?”

The same goes for Kylie Ohlmiller’s record pursuits. The Seawolves attacker is on track to pass Jen Adams in career points later this month. The statistics are incredible, but detracted at least a bit from the real focus: bringing a national championship to Long Island

“It definitely wasn’t a burden,” Murphy said. “But it was something I definitely wanted to get over with and move on with the rest of the season.”

Stony Brook led Hartford 6-0 about eight minutes into the first half, and goal number 289 came in the most apropos of ways. Murphy threw a pass out wide to Ohlmiller. With a fake and a hesitation, Ohlmiller froze the young Hawks defense and fed a pass back inside, where Murphy was cutting across the offense left-to-right.

From there, it was the same as it’s ever been. Catch, shoot, finish and celebrate. She fired the shot into the bottom-left corner of the net, and then ran to Ohlmiller, whose arms were already extended for a hug. Of course the goal was “Murphy from Ohlmiller.” Why wouldn’t it be? They were Stony Brook’s Batman and Robin. Hall and Oates. Bossy and Trottier.

Spallina called timeout so the team could celebrate around her and reflect. The NCAA all-time leading goal-scorer played for Stony Brook, a state school, an America East school.

The numbers are unbelievable. Murphy has scored a hat trick in 56 of 78 career games. She’s the only player, male or female, to score 100 goals in a single season.

In 27 career America East conference games, Murphy has 124 goals. In those games, the opposing teams have 123 goals.

But as Spallina says, “It wasn’t always sunshine and roses.” Murphy’s freshman year had highs (her 7-goal debut against Bucknell) and lows (the occasional screaming match on the practice field). The schematic fit was there, and Murphy molded well in the offense, but the drive wasn’t there yet.

Today, Stony Brook has the roster depth to ease its freshmen into the demands of the college game. That 2014 team was young on offense and didn’t have that luxury. For Murphy and fellow freshman Dorrien Van Dyke, it was trial by fire. They were the focal point of the offense right away.

“We threw them right out there,” Spallina said. “Sink or swim. Figure it out.”

Stony Brook was great on paper, winning 17 games, but the team wasn’t yet elite. In a 14-1 loss at home versus Florida, Murphy committed three turnovers and only put one shot on goal. At Vermont, the Seawolves surrendered a 6-3 lead and lost in overtime, a shocking upset. It’s still the last time Stony Brook has lost a conference game.

Murphy realized her potential in the last game of her season against Kayla Treanor’s Syracuse squad, ranked second in the nation, in the NCAA Tournament. From the start, it was an absolute drubbing. Syracuse took a 10-2 lead at halftime and a 12-2 lead shortly thereafter. The Seawolves sideline had a dead energy. The game was over, and for some of the players, their career was over too.

“The goals just added up so quick,” Murphy said. “Most of our team just accepted that it was going to be our last game. But that’s when it came onto my shoulders. I realized then, ‘Wow, I really can carry a team.’ “

Murphy scored four goals in the second half to cut the final margin to 13-6, but more than that, she became hungry. Something sparked in her that day. Spallina saw it. Murphy felt it. She was going to be a superstar.

“If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends. Make it last forever. Friendship never ends.”

The Spice Girls pop anthem played 56 times at Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium in a three-month span in 2016. It was Murphy’s goal song that year, and it seemed to be on loop from the Stony Brook press box.

During that memorable year, Murphy became the only player ever to score 100 goals in a lacrosse season, for either gender. She and Ohlmiller became superstars.

Stony Brook began having autograph sessions after every game, the best attended in the nation. Little girls across Long Island wanted to wear No. 18 and No. 17 to be like Murph or Kylie.

The offense steamrolled opponents. The Seawolves went up 10 goals on UMBC in just eight minutes one game. In another, they beat Stanford, the No. 8 team in the country, 17 to 7. In the month of April, Murphy scored 49 goals, more than some attackers net in their career.

“It was like a storybook,” Spallina said. “She was unguardable.”

But again, the storybook didn’t have a happy ending. Stony Brook came up one goal short in the NCAA Tournament second round, losing again to Syracuse, 7 to 6. The Orange dominated possession, winning 11 of 15 draw controls, and it was too much for the Seawolves offense to overcome.

Murphy was more determined than ever to respond in 2017, but life threw another curveball.

The date was March 5, 2017 and Murphy felt a pop in her knee, as she collapsed to the LaValle Stadium turf. The crowd deafened, as she screamed. Was it pain? No, it was agony.

She lied on the turf as her leg was evaluated. She knew the ACL was torn, and her mind raced in a million directions. Her senior season was over. Was her lacrosse career over? She had a job lined up on Wall Street upon her graduation.

Spallina left his team on the field during halftime and talked to Murphy. “They’ll grant a redshirt,” he said. “You can come back from this. You’ve beaten the odds before.”

Murphy wasn’t sure. She wanted to start her career; she didn’t want to rehab for a year. But at the same time, the hunger was still there. She needed to try to win a national championship. Spallina obviously wanted her to stay, but he knew it was her decision to make, and it was a hard one with a lot of things to weigh.

A few days passed. The team went up to Yale and won a game without her, then she decided to travel down to Florida to support the team in a big game against the Gators.

Stony Brook didn’t play well at all. The defense was a mess, the team was out of sorts. The Gators went on a 9-0 run in the the first half to open up a 15-5 lead. Murphy grabbed Spallina by the arm in the middle of a play.

“I’m fucking coming back.”

It’s after practice on a beautiful spring day at LaValle Stadium, one of the first warm days of the year. Kylie Ohlmiller is sitting on a metal bench on the field in her practice jersey, a little bit sweaty still from practice.

She’s looking out to the empty seats in the stadium, which has a capacity of 12,300 after the latest renovations at the north end. Then she imagines a full crowd. In a month and a half, the NCAA Women’s Lacrosse Final Four is going to be there, and Stony Brook plans to play in it, as the host.

“It’s been in the back of our heads a lot this season,” Ohlmiller says.

She points to a spot on the bleachers on the south end. That where she watched Northwestern and Syracuse play for the national championship in 2012.

The Orange lost, 8 to 6, but Kylie remembers watching Michelle Tumolo, one of the players that she “fangirled” about being right out there on the field, eye-black drawn down her cheek, leading the Syracuse offense.

“There’s certain memories that stick out,” Ohlmiller says. “I remember some of her plays, clear as day, from when I watched from the stands. It’s so crazy to know that those roles are reversed now, and they’re looking up to us.”

Murphy was at LaValle for the national championship that year as well (Stony Brook also hosted in 2011). Now it’s up to her and Kylie to make it a reality.

“I would trade any award, any record to hold up a national championship trophy on Stony Brook’s field with Coach Spallina and my teammates,” she said in an autobiographical story she penned herself for the Stony Brook website last November.

It’s her fifth year on the team, and she has nothing to lose. She’s close to graduating with an Master’s in finance. In her down-time she loves playing Fortnite with her boyfriend, a football star. And she’s the most prolific goal scorer in lacrosse history. Life is good for Courtney Murphy.

But it sure would be better if she could bring a national championship to Stony Brook.