March 1, 2013

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Tumolo Throws Everything but the Kitchen Sink at Opponents

Has she found the recipe to bring an NCAA title to Syracuse?

by Clare Lochary | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Syracuse's Michelle Tumolo leads the Orange into a final four rematch with Florida on Saturday at Sun Life Stadium in Miami, home of the NFL's Miami Dolphins.
© Greg Wall

Long before she committed to Syracuse, long before she set the Carrier Dome ablaze with her electrifying abilities, the talented Michelle Tumolo painted her childhood bedroom in South Jersey bright orange.

"She called me at work and said, 'I'm painting my room.' I came home and it was almost Day-Glo orange," said Carol Tumolo, her mother. "If you close the door, it looks like there's sunshine peeking out by the floor."

Tumolo's impromptu decorating job sums her up pretty well: impulsive, creative, colorful and hard to miss. The Syracuse senior has taken a bucket of bright orange paint to the attack position and splashed it all over the place. After carrying the Orange within two goals of its first national championship, Tumolo is a big reason why Syracuse came into this season ranked No. 2 nationally by Lacrosse Magazine, and is currently ranked fourth by the coaches.

"It's going to be a fun year," Orange coach Gary Gait said. "It's going to be very exciting for the fans to watch."

As a junior, Tumolo was named a Tewaaraton Award finalist and a first-team All-American. She won IWLCA Attacker of the Year honors and strapped Syracuse to her back in comeback wins over North Carolina and Florida en route to the NCAA championship game. The Orange play the Gators in a rematch of the national semifinal at 5 p.m. Saturday at Sun Life Stadium in Miami.

"She's one of the most exciting players in the women's game right now," said Katrina Dowd, the former Syracuse assistant and Tumolo's former sparring partner on the U.S. training team.

As a senior, Tumolo said, she doesn't care anymore about stats and individual awards. She just wants an NCAA championship the way a starving person wants food.

"On the field, I just want to be the best player I can be for my coaches, for my family, for my teammates, for my fans," she said. "Because it is my last year."

***

Clearview Regional is not Moorestown or Shawnee, the well-established high school girls' lacrosse powerhouses of New Jersey. The Pioneers played their first season in 2005. That summer, Tumolo was a rising high school freshman and one of a few dozen girls at a Clearview camp, trying lacrosse for the very first time. Coach Megan Conklin, a former All-American and national champion in both lacrosse and field hockey at TCNJ, knew she had a special kid on her hands.

"The first thing we did was partner passing. And she picked up the stick and started passing like she's been playing for years. I looked at [assistant] Kevin Pedrick and said, 'This girl is going to be amazing,'" Conklin said. "The second she walked onto the field, I knew."

Tumolo was a dedicated soccer player before she wandered into Conklin's orbit; the coach encouraged her to try out for elite lacrosse clubs and tournaments. Tumolo played for the All-American Showcase team after her sophomore season, wearing a pair of highlighter-yellow cleats that she bought just for the tournament.

After the event, Conklin's phone lit up with calls about the golden girl in the neon shoes.

"You could tell immediately that she's a superstar," Conklin said.

Tumolo is small (5-foot-3) but lightning fast. She is blessed with huge hands that make her slick stick work possible, and cursed with size 9-and-1/2-size feet that she trips over a lot. "I'm more creative with my hands than with my feet," she said.

Tumolo prefers feeding to dodging, but she can go 1-on-1 when necessary, on both sides of the ball. She led Syracuse in caused turnovers (16) in 2012.

In high school, Tumolo and teammate Jess Loizeaux would stay after practice and laugh themselves silly trying to do backbreakers and around-the-world passes. Eventually, Tumolo's crazy moves morphed into a game that was unlike anyone else's.

"She had this amazing vision, where she could dodge and look inside at the same time. She just makes these amazing shots," said Loizeaux, now a sophomore attacker at Virginia. "She can jump around the net, shoot behind the back and rip the corners."

Tumolo's impromptu decorating of her bedroom sums her up well: impulsive, creative, colorful and hard to miss.
© Michael Sahadi

When it came time for college, Tumolo gravitated toward Syracuse for Gait's coaching style, which encouraged experimentation. Twenty-five years ago, Gait was the one setting the Carrier Dome ablaze, becoming the most decorated player in the history of the men's game.

"The style of play she played is the way I like to teach," Gait said of Tumolo.

Gait encouraged Tumolo to try out for the U.S. national team. She made the roster for the first time in 2010. At the time, she had been playing lacrosse for all of five years. She narrowly missed making the 2013 World Cup team.

Aside from her physical ability, Tumolo packs a powerful emotional punch on the field. Syracuse's players are an expressive and passionate bunch, their pre- and post-game speeches often soaked in I-love-you-man tears. The third of five children — younger sister Kim is a freshman attacker at Wagner — Tumolo is a genuine extrovert who loves being a part of a big team.

"Michelle definitely has confidence and swagger and field vision," Dowd said. "She loves lacrosse so much, and she loves Syracuse so much, that she wants to give it her all. That's just the way she's wound."

For a team chasing its first NCAA title, that kind of energy can be invaluable.

"When everything's going well for Syracuse, she is a monster who's unstoppable," Virginia coach Julie Myers said. "If she's feeling good and riding a wave, her team rallies around her."

Tumolo's ability to influence a game was never more apparent than in the 2012 NCAA tournament. When Syracuse trailed North Carolina by two goals late in the quarterfinal, she scored twice, assisted on another goal and forced a crucial turnover in a late-game flurry that sparked a miraculous 17-16 comeback win over the Tar Heels at the Carrier Dome.

Her game-winner came with five seconds left. "It was just pure bliss," she said afterward.

A week later, Tumolo had five points and two caused turnovers in the Orange's double-overtime battle against Florida. Trailing by seven goals in the second half, Syracuse rallied to defeat the tournament's No. 1 seed. It was the second-biggest comeback in NCAA tournament history, the latest chapter in an emerging rivalry.

"It was unspoken. I knew we were going to win that semifinal," she said. "Down by seven, no matter what. Ask anyone on my team. They just knew it."

***

Sometimes, that energy can be dangerous.

Tumolo gets so amped before games, she vomits. She estimated she lost 10 pounds off her tiny frame during championship weekend, between the heat, the games and the stress. Tumolo hates air travel so much that she and Syracuse assistant Regy Thorpe, also a nervous flyer, carpool to short-haul away games.

Tumolo flew off the handle at an official in the NCAA final, receiving a red card for abusive language. Tumolo later was fined and formally reprimanded by the NCAA for the incident.

In that game, Northwestern defender Kerri Harrington's tight coverage kept Tumolo out of the attack, and made her frustrated enough to lash out. The Wildcats won 8-6. Eight days later, Tumolo ripped Northwestern for its stall tactics in an interview with a Syracuse sports website, saying the Wildcats were scared to play the Orange straight up. She also criticized the officiating.

A tough faceguard is the most efficient way to combat Tumolo's strengths, even if it opens up threats like Alyssa Murray and Katie Webster for more looks. Last season, Virginia shut out Tumolo in a 9-7 Cavaliers win.

"We wanted to keep her below goal line, and limit how effective her touches and her angles were. The team did a great job of winning draws and getting ground balls, and that messed with Michelle a little bit too," Myers said. "It was just enough to emotionally knock her off her kilter."

After the red card in the final, Conklin reminded Tumolo that Mullica Hills, N.J., is full of little girls who paint black triangles on their faces and wear their hair in long braids down their backs.

They all want to be like Tumolo, the hometown hero who still turns up at Clearview practices from time to time.

"When everything's going well for Syracuse, she is a monster who's unstoppable."

— Virginia coach Julie Myers

"I was so mad when she got carded. I said, 'Michelle, you're a role model, you're a leader. What are you doing?'" Conklin said. Tumolo's response was calm. "She said, 'That's OK. I'm going to get better,'" Conklin said.

Tumolo likes Syracuse lacrosse because it's fast-paced and exciting. She loves her team like family, and she's allowed to make mistakes in the Orange's system. You can throw a crazy behind-the-head shot, and even if it misses, you don't get scolded or benched.

"If you make a mistake, you learn from it, and that's why I'm the player that I am," Tumolo said. "I will not say anything to a ref, believe me. I'll keep my mouth shut. Mute. I'll keep my mouth shut and play the game. I just want people to know that. I promise, I'm a nice kid."

Tumolo watched from the stands as Syracuse rolled to a 21-8 win at Jacksonville in its opener Jan. 13. Sitting and watching. Those are her least favorite things to do. She couldn't wait to get on the field with veteran teammates like Murray and Kailah Kempney, and new ones like Kayla Treanor, a freshman who scored five goals.

Tumolo couldn't wait to play. To experiment and make mistakes. To learn and create.

"In soccer, I was the girl who would try to dive and do a head ball. And in lacrosse, there are endless ways to be creative," she said. "I'm still learning things. There are still things I don't know."

A version of this article appears in the March issue of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse. Don't get the mag? Join US Lacrosse and its 400,000-plus members today to start your subscription.


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