Northwestern's biggest fan gets a big victory too

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TOWSON, Md. -- As the seconds ticked down toward Northwestern's fourth straight national title, lacrosse sticks went flying. And as the Wildcats ran over to the sidelines to celebrate with their fans, something else went flying too. The team lifted Jaclyn Murphy, a 13-year-old brain tumor survivor, from her front row seats and into the celebration.

"She's awesome, she's just a shining star ..." said tournament MVP Hilary Bowen. "We'll get little text messages from her and it just brightens our day."

Those text messages are updates on her day, her latest checkup or what her dad, Denis, calls "pump up messages". It's a tradition that started more than four years ago when former Northwestern assistant Alexis Venechanos (now the head coach at UMass) heard about Jaclyn's bout with a brain tumor from the little girl's lacrosse coach. What started as sending something small to cheer Murphy up sparked a team-wide support network for her family. The team began to send pictures, text messages and emails to Jaclyn as well as game tapes to watch while she went in for treatment at the hospital.

"They inspire her every single day to return to lacrosse," said her mother, Lynda. "It's been just an amazing journey for us and they are just her big sisters."

At Northwestern's first championship run, the Murphy family was given a box at the stadium with Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller's family so Jaclyn could stay warm. They've returned to the championship game each season, with Jaclyn a little stronger each year. It's become a tradition for the team to get her on the field each time they win, this year in front of a Northwestern crowd sporting 'Friends of Jaclyn' t-shirts along with their Northwestern purple.

"In 2006 she came out on the field and she could hardly walk," remembers midfielder Hannah Nielsen. "To see her improvement is just mind-blowing."

The Murphy family gives much of that credit to the team, so they started a foundation called Friends of Jaclyn to pair up other children with different teams. So far they've matched 11 other children with teams, including Temple women's lacrosse and Amherst's men's soccer.

Venechanos and Northwestern also organized a benefit game between Northwestern and Massachusetts and has been turned into an annual event, the Pediatric Brain Tumor Awareness College Lax Challenge. This year's faceoff against Georgetown helped Northwestern earn $30,000 for the foundation.

To keep the program spreading, Ashley Gersuk, the team's goalie from 2002 to 2005, has made a prototype of the best way to run the program, making it easy to spread the type of relationship the Wildcats have with the Murphy family from school to school -- a relationship the team said has helped it win the title each year.

"When you're diagnosed you just have to have this belief that you're going to win," said Lynda. "She has that same belief for the team."

While onlookers watched Murphy running back to the sidelines, purple beads strewn around her neck on Sunday, it was clear that while Northwestern may have won another national title, Murphy may be winning the biggest victory of them all.

"You're in the midst of everyone on your team and you see this little girl running at you and she's so excited to be there," said Bowen. "It's just the best feeling ever."