With just 1:44 remaining in a Feb. 19, top-three matchup against Boston College, graduate transfer goalkeeper Molly Laliberty saved a point-blank free position shot to keep Northwestern’s one-goal lead over the Eagles.
She threw her fists in the air, pumping up the crowd inside Ryan Fieldhouse as the Wildcats successfully cleared the ball after what would be the game-winning save. Laliberty’s clutch play successfully finished off the Northwestern comeback, as the ‘Cats were down four goals at halftime.
MOLLY LALIBERTY WITH THE GAME-WINNING SAVE.— USA Lacrosse Magazine (@USALacrosseMag) February 19, 2023
A legendary moment to give @NULax the 15-14 win over @BCwlax in a CLASSIC. pic.twitter.com/jU7vz5cLFp
While seeing goalie celebrations in women’s lacrosse may seem uncommon, it’s one of the small things that makes Laliberty’s game so special.
“I love celebrating defensive stops, draw controls, all of that. My favorite part of the game is feeling that energy and really just enjoying the game.”
Coming from Division III powerhouse Tufts, Laliberty was more than ready for the DI task. After winning the Division III Goalie of the Year award twice and garnering First-Team All-American honors, she originally thought her time was coming to move on from lacrosse.
But when tragedy struck during her senior season at Tufts, a difficult yet remarkable year with her teammates made her rethink her decision.
Something Northwestern fans may have noticed when they first saw Laliberty between the pipes were the initials ‘MN’ inscribed on the tape around her helmet. This is in memory of Madie Nicpon, who was known as “Scooter” to her teammates at Tufts. She tragically passed away in October 2021.
Jumbo love is a real thing. We miss you, Scooter. https://t.co/oeugnYXd7W— Tufts Lacrosse (@Tufts_Lacrosse) March 19, 2023
“She was just so unabashedly herself,” Laliberty said of Nicpon. “And I think that can be kind of rare in today’s world. I think losing her was the hardest thing that our team could have gone through. But I also am so grateful for everything that she has brought to us even after she died because I do feel that she’s still looking down on us and with us, giving us little signs and gifts every day.”
That season, the Jumbos would post a record of 19-4, win their conference (NESCAC) and advance to their second consecutive NCAA Championship Game.
“I think everybody kind of talks about playing for a greater purpose and playing for something bigger than themselves, and there could be people who look at that as ‘Oh, you have to win the National Championship for Scooter,” Laliberty said. “For us, it was more like, let’s go out there and have fun the way Scooter would. Let’s smile, let’s dance, let’s find something to laugh about.”
When her team fell short to conference foe Middlebury in the national title game, she felt that she was not yet ready to hang up her cleats and stick.
“I think [I had learned] I needed to do the things that make me happy for as long as I’m able to,” Laliberty said. “And I think it would have been a shame to let the extra eligibility go to waste when I still had more to give to the game. I still had more to learn from the game, and it’s brought me here.”
Originally, Laliberty had discussed the possibility of transferring in the fall of her final season at Tufts with her coach, Courtney Shute.
The two remain close even after Laliberty transferred to Northwestern. While she was at Tufts, though, Shute had a one-on-one session with her every week where the two worked on Laliberty’s goalie skills.
It was during one of those sessions, where they often talked about life beyond the field, that Shute first approached the subject of possibly trying to play for a DI team. The NESCAC doesn’t offer scholarships for players in their fifth-year of eligibility, and Laliberty wasn’t particularly interested in any of the graduate degrees Tufts could’ve offered.
Shute believed her star goalie could play at the next level, but Laliberty wanted to be somewhere she could compete for a title — at the time, she wasn’t sure that would be a possibility.
“I knew Molly was capable of playing at any level,” Shute said. “I don’t think that she, at the time that we were having that conversation, realized that any opportunities like Northwestern would come about.”
It wasn’t until after the season ended, after losing in the championship, that Laliberty decided to put her name in the transfer portal. From there, she garnered interest from a few schools, but ultimately decided on Northwestern.
“I wouldn’t want to go somewhere where I wouldn’t be on the field, making an impact,” Laliberty said of her mindset while making her decision. “I [didn’t] know that I could find that. I didn’t know that someone would be willing to take that chance on me.”
Northwestern head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller had seen her play a bit in high school, but once she reached out to potentially recruit her, Laliberty had already committed to Tufts. This time around, she didn’t wait around on Laliberty; she was confident in what she had seen from her at Tufts.
“She’s a really, really special kid; she puts a ton into [the game],” Amonte Hiller said. “At the DIII level, she had a professional-level mentality. I think that her commitment, her gratitude, those are the things that [have made her fit in so well here].”
Coming to Northwestern, it’s no secret that the style and overall pace of play at not just the Division I level, but at the upper echelon of DI, is an adjustment from even the best DIII programs.
Luckily for Laliberty, having the highest-caliber players all across the field at Northwestern helped her adjust to the new standard off the bat in the fall when she came to campus, far before she faced any other DI opponents.
“One of the biggest adjustments for me was just a lot more speed on the shots and shots when you wouldn’t expect them from angles you wouldn’t expect,” she said. “I was lucky enough to play with some really phenomenal players during my time at Tufts, but Izzy Scane, Erin Coykendall, Hailey Rhatigan, all these girls, they shoot like you wouldn’t believe.”
Shute echoed the same sentiment of her time at Tufts, and has not been surprised by the success Laliberty has had, adapting quickly to the DI level.
“I feel like the harder the shots get, the more Molly steps up,” Shute said. “I think the end of the [Boston College game] seems like a really good example. I remember, Kelly [Amonte Hiller] and I exchanged some texts during the season, and I remember after the BC game, just saying something like, ‘I knew Molly was going to make that last save.’”
“Her talent, I just saw it in her eyes and her body language. She just rises to the moment. And that’s what true competitors do.”
Laliberty still receives an outpouring of support from the Tufts program regardless of her choice to leave. The Tufts social media accounts frequently repost her highlights on Twitter and Instagram.
At home and away games, her twin sister Emily, alongside some of her former teammates and friends, form a large cheering section, even painting their faces purple.
“You can see just by [these girls that are here], they flew all the way to Chicago for this game,” Dawn Laliberty, Molly’s mother, said. “None of them live here; they all came here to watch her in this game. They are such a tight unit, and [Scooter’s death] just really brought them all together and helped them understand how to be a team.”
“[The Tufts team was already] close, but it really solidified that,” Emily Laliberty added. “[It just really showed that] you never know when it’s going to be your last time on the field, when it’s going to be your last time with your best friends. So really, just make it all count.”
This mantra is something that Molly carries on every day, even when she isn’t physically honoring Scooter with her helmet.
“I think one really big goal for our team this year is to have fun out there and improve every day,” she said. “It’s not just about the wins and the losses. It’s not just about the scoreboard. It’s about becoming better people and better players. And I think having that belief in yourself and really playing with no fear, you’re gonna get the results you want at the end of the day, if you can tackle that first.”
While she may have not seen it a year ago, Laliberty has been able to make a huge impact on a team that is aiming to win its first national championship in over a decade. In doing so, she has posted a .467 save average with 134 saves, starting every game and leading the team to a 17-1 record — and she knows Scooter is looking down on her while she’s doing it.
Coach Shute is also always in her corner, as she saw the potential for Molly to succeed at a top-caliber program before she may have believed it herself.
“I’m one of her biggest fans. I think outside of lacrosse, I just have so much respect and admiration for the person Molly is,” she said. “She’s incredibly intelligent, just talking to her about anything. And I think that what she adds to a team is sort of immeasurable, and intangible. I’m just really, really proud of her.”