May 21—NEWBURYPORT — Molly Laliberty’s freshman year at Tufts was like something out of a dream. The former Newburyport girls lacrosse goalie earned immediate playing time with her new team, splitting time in the cage on a loaded 2019 Tufts squad primed for its best season in program history.
That spring the Jumbos finished 19-3 and reached the program’s first-ever Final Four. Though Laliberty did not get the start in the national semifinal against Division 3 powerhouse Salisbury, she did come in after Tufts fell behind early in the second half and got a taste of the big stage.
“Things didn’t pan out on the field, so I got in for like the last 17 minutes of the game, and unfortunately we weren’t able to turn it around,” Laliberty said. “But it was a really cool experience to get some playing time in such a big game and have that under my belt.”
It’s been a long, painful and chaotic two years since then, and even heading into the spring it wasn’t clear if the pandemic would allow Tufts the opportunity to compete. But once back on the field Tufts picked up right where it left off, and now this weekend Laliberty and her teammates will return to the Final Four looking to capture the first national championship in program history.
A long awaited breakout
Laliberty is on the short list of the greatest lacrosse players to ever come out of Greater Newburyport. She was a four-year starter at Newburyport High, a three-time Daily News All-Star and led the Clippers to back-to-back undefeated regular seasons and Division 2 state semifinal appearances between 2017-18.
Upon her arrival at Tufts, Laliberty made a strong early impression as a freshman, leading the NESCAC with a 61.1 save percentage while ranking second with 7.49 goals against in 38% of the team’s minutes. The following year as a sophomore Laliberty took over as the full-time starter and immediately established herself as one of the nation’s top goalies, earning NESCAC Player of the Week honors after leading Tufts to a 3-0 start with a 5.6 goals against average.
Then pandemic hit, and just like that it was all over.
“That was honestly brutal. I truly felt like my team and myself, we were just hitting our stride,” Laliberty said. “We’d just got a huge win over Amherst, and days later we were all at the men’s lacrosse game, it was halftime, and the school sent out an email to everyone saying pack up your bags, school is canceled.”
The following year was filled with uncertainty. When school resumed this past fall the team was limited in what kind of work it could do, so practice consisted mostly of conditioning and footwork. As COVID-19 cases spiked around Boston over the winter the team started to doubt if they would get to play, and during the height of that uncertainty Laliberty was named a Division 3 Women’s Preseason All-American, an incredible honor that felt like a tease.
“It was almost a punch in the gut because we probably weren’t going to get the chance,” Laliberty said. “But then things started getting better and in March we were like ‘oh my god, we’re going to have a season!'”
A historic run
When the season began in April, Tufts quickly picked up where it left off and dominated everyone on its abbreviated 2021 schedule. The Jumbos only played five regular season games but won them all handily to clinch the NESCAC East title. Laliberty held opposing offenses to five goals or fewer in four of those five games, and when Tufts hosted Wesleyan in the NESCAC Championship Game, she stopped 13 of the 16 shots she faced in a 14-3 win to give Tufts its first-ever NESCAC title.
“It’s been so phenomenal to play, after last year and the fall, if we’re getting to play that’s what matters,” said Laliberty, whose .644 save percentage is best in the nation. “There are definitely things missing, we have to travel on separate buses, wear masks when we play, we can’t have a locker room, all these things that seemed to be staples of the teams still aren’t there, but it’s nice to have it all stripped down to why we’re all here, which is to play lacrosse, so it’s made us that much more grateful.”
After the regular season Laliberty was honored as NESCAC Player of the Year and as a IWLCA All-Region selection, and since the NCAA Tournament began she and the Jumbos have continued to roll. Tufts beat Cabrini 23-7 in its first game and Roger Williams 15-6 in the Sweet 16 to set up a date with TCNJ in the Elite Eight. That game wound up being an 11-10 thriller, with Laliberty making 12 saves as the Jumbos came from behind with three unanswered goals down the stretch to clinch a return trip to the Final Four.
Tufts, now ranked No. 3 in the country, will next face No. 9 St. John Fisher in the national semifinal down in Salem, Virginia, on Saturday at 2 p.m. The winner of that game will go on to play the winner of No. 4 Salisbury and No. 8 Denison in the Division 3 national championship game on Sunday at 5 p.m.
Great as it would be to bring the first national title in program history back to Tufts, Laliberty understands the importance of getting the job done on Saturday. She noted that she’s lost in the semifinals three times before — twice at Newburyport and once at Tufts — so breaking through to the final would be incredibly satisfying.
“It’s so funny because that’s been in the back of my mind ever since we lost in 2019,” Laliberty said. “That would be a phenomenal feeling, even winning on Saturday, getting to play in a national championship game, that would be a huge milestone for me and for the program. So all eyes are on Saturday and if we’re lucky enough to play in the national championship game then that’s where our focus will be.”