NORTH ANDOVER — Tim Towler admits, he wasn’t sure this day would come.
The Merrimack graduate student was getting ready for his senior season last spring when he felt something in his knee during a preseason scrimmage. It was best described as a “pop.” He knew something wasn’t right, but didn’t want to admit it.
“I remember coming off the field and thinking to myself that I would be OK, but in the back of my head, I knew it was bad,” he said.
It was bad. Towler had torn his ACL and he would miss his entire senior season. As a senior, it could have meant the end of his college lacrosse career.
(Ed. Note — This story will appear in Friday’s Eagle Tribune)
Merrimack had been on the verge of something great for Towler’s entire career. Last spring, the Warriors were coming off a Final Four berth and were so close, so many times, to winning an NE10 Championship or advancing to the NCAA Championship game. It hadn’t yet happened, and for Towler, his chance at reaching those goals with his teammates might have ended.
It was a tough pill to swallow.
But the injury wasn’t going to be the end of his story at Merrimack. Towler began the rehab process and was relentless in his recovery, according to Merrimack coach Mike Morgan. He didn’t quit, and decided to come back for a graduate season to finish some unfinished business with the rest of his teammates.
Last year, while Towler was sidelined, he watched as Le Moyne ended Merrimack’s season in the Final Four for a second-straight year. The Warriors walked off the field in Syracuse last spring determined that wasn’t going to happen again, and Towler wanted to be a part of it.
“There was never a question I’d come back,” he said. “Tom (McLaughlin) knew he was coming back. We thought we could make a real run at this. Playing with these guys is a blessing. For me to be a part of it is great. This is why we came back.”
Truth is, Towler has been a huge part of it. One year after a knee injury almost ended his career, he’s is a first-team All-American as a midfielder, he’s the NE10 Player of the Year, and most importantly, he could be a national champion when Merrimack plays in the title game against Limestone on Sunday afternoon (2 p.m.) at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro.
“He’s one of those guys who is the heart and soul of this team,” Morgan said. “He’s a tireless worker, and he knew that it would be a long road back. He wasn’t going to let that end his career.”
Towler set career highs in goals (38), assists (15) and points (53) this season. The Masco grad was All-State in 2012 and was also a Boston Globe All-Scholastic.
“I pushed my legs as hard as I could in the offseason,” Towler said. “I knew my body had healed well, so I just pushed it. My success is all on that. It’s all for these guys. I hated being injured. I hated being off the field. That pushed me more.”
He’s not the only Merrimack graduate student to return, either. Tom McLaughlin, a UMass transfer from Billerica, also chose to come back this season even though he could have graduated last spring. For both of them, the reasoning was simple.
“I wouldn’t have come back if I didn’t think we could win a national championship,” said McLaughlin, and that was back in April. “We want to do things this year that this program has never done before.”
Towler said the same, and now, here they are, 60 minutes from a national title.
To do it, they’ll need to knock off a Limestone team that has been to the championship in three straight seasons (winning two) and three of the last four. Earlier this season, the Warriors topped Limestone in a regular-season meeting in Maryland; that loss remains the Saints’ only defeat this season.
Towler’s time away from the field helped him elevate his game and get ready for this season’s run. For the first time in a long time, he watched a lot of lacrosse instead of playing. He said he watched a lot of practices and a lot of film, and knew that his game would change once he returned. Those added elements have made him a more dangerous player, even if his foot speed isn’t where it was two years ago.
“He took time to develop other parts of his game,” Morgan said. “He’s seeing the game as a coach and I think he’s understanding it more. The other thing was, maybe with the injury he lost a quarter of a step, so he developed other areas. He protects the ball better, he’s a better stickhandler and he’s passing better. You can’t help but by happy for a kid who doesn’t know if he’ll have a shot anymore, tears his ACL, and here he is a year later and he’s an All-American, NE10 Player of the Year and has a shot at being a national champion. He represents what we are here.”
And Towler admits, his game is different now. Some would argue, with the results, it’s better.
“In years past I was more of an outside shooter, more an on the run shooter,” he said. “Now I think I’m more of a better off-ball cutter. Now I’m in the crease and not as much outside. I find ways, because I can’t really beat my defender, especially because I’m usually matched up with the other team’s best defender, so I find ways to cut off the ball and get off shots. That’s all from watching so much last year, and watching so much practice and working with these guys and the coaches. Everyone has helped me.”
Leaving Merrimack a national champion would make all the hours of rehab worth it. But Towler has been around the program for five years now. This title game isn’t just about him, and his return. He said this is for all the alumni, especially the ones who were so close the last few years.
“We want to do this for everyone,” he said. “This isn’t just about us, this is about all the guys who have come through here and I’ve been here for five years, so all the guys we played with. I’ve made a bond with all those guys. We have wanted a shot at this for a long time. I’ve gotten hundreds of texts.”
Now, the Warriors finally have their shot.