When the Naval Academy's women's soccer season ended last fall, senior Shelly Moeller didn't want to leave the field, so she found a way to extend her playing career.
She joined the lacrosse team.
Even though the Cincinnati native had dabbled in lacrosse for only one season at prep school four years ago, she said yes when Navy coach Cindy Timchal came calling.
"Once you get off the field and realize it's actually over, you want it back more than anything," Moeller said, "and to have the opportunity only a week [after soccer ended] was kind of unimaginable."
A three-sport athlete in high school and a two-time Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year in soccer, Moeller had the athleticism and game sense that Timchal values over polished stick skills.
With a lot to learn, Moeller started slowly, but after teammate Kierstin King suffered a season-ending knee injury in mid-April, Moeller became a key starter on defense. In last Saturday's NCAA play-in game, she held Sacred Heart's Carissa Hauser, the Northeast Conference Player of the Year, to one goal in a 12-2 win that sent the Midshipmen into the NCAA tournament for the first time.
When No. 18 Navy takes the field at No. 3 North Carolina today, Moeller will become the first Midshipman — male or female — to play in the NCAA tournament in two different sports, having also made it to the first round in soccer as a sophomore.
Moeller said she's been a little too busy to absorb what that means.
"It was cool to find out," she said, "but all my life I've been on team sports and don't really pay attention to the individual accolades. I guess by other people's reactions, it's kind of a bigger deal than I thought it was."
While no one ever takes it easy at the Naval Academy, Moeller could have cruised a bit this spring had she concluded her playing career when the soccer team lost its Patriot League tournament semifinal in early November. That would have given the academic All-American and oceanography major more time to concentrate on a heavy academic load that included classes in oceanic and atmospheric mass modeling and underwater acoustics sonar.
But one week off was enough.
"I almost didn't know what to do with myself," she said. "I was a three-sport athlete in high school, and even with that I was still doing club soccer. I really don't know anything else. Everybody talks about how once you finish your senior year [of soccer], you get the spring off and it's amazing, but just having the chance to get to know another group of people at the Naval Academy and fitting into the team atmosphere, I couldn't pass it up."
That didn't surprise her high school soccer coach, Colleen Dehring, who still coaches at Ursuline Academy in Cincinnati.
"Shelly's always been the type of kid who couldn't sit still," Dehring said. "When she was at Ursuline, she played soccer and basketball and then in her junior or senior year she started running track just because she was getting bored. So I guess I was a little surprised she took up lacrosse but not surprised that she wanted to do something, because she's always been ready to go and never wanting to quit."
Timchal was counting on that.
"We knew about Shelly, how great an athlete she was, and we knew she had played a year [of lacrosse] at Peddie School [in New Jersey], so we felt if we could get her to join the team, toward the end of the season she could help us out," Timchal said.
"The fact that she was probably one of the best defensive players in the Patriot League and, according to [Navy soccer coach] Carin Gabarra, one of the real top athletic kids she has coached, with Carin being an Olympian, I felt like gosh, I would want this kid on my team, too."
One week after soccer season ended, Timchal called. Moeller decided to check out lacrosse practice.
"I showed up to her office to meet her and she handed me a stick and goggles, so it was kind of 'deal closed' at that point," Moeller said.
Moeller's greatest concerns were whether she could improve her game quickly enough to contribute and whether she would be stepping on anyone's toes if she earned playing time. Team captain Erin Rawlick said she needn't have worried. She fit in on and off the field.
"As a huge impact player on the soccer team, she's dealt with that kind of competition and that kind of pressure. She has that competitive edge," Rawlick said. "She steps on the field and she may not know exactly all of the rules of the game, but she's always wanting to win, always wanting to do her best. She has that drive, and I think that's what has carried her through and helped her learn the sport really quickly."
When Moeller's Navy athletic career does finally come to an end, she will prepare to head off to Pearl Harbor, her home port as she becomes a METOC officer, a meteorologist and oceanographer — "a weather person on a ship or in a port," she said.
She likely will never play lacrosse again, but she wouldn't trade this experience.
"It's an awesome way to end it," she said of the Patriot League championship and the NCAA tournament bid. "I don't have the background that any of our defenders have, and just having the coaches put that faith and trust in me to get the job done was an awesome feeling. Being able to prove that I could play with this team and fit in and be a part of it was pretty awesome. It's like seeing things come full circle."