No matter how long they coach and how successful they are, college coaches always have a few days of reckoning.
Ginny Martino experienced just such a day last month after her West Chester University women’s lacrosse team ended its season with a loss to Mercyhurst, marking the end of Dina Cifelli’s career.
“Dina is one of those players that doesn’t come along very often,” said Martino, who just completed her 20th season and is NCAA Division II’s all-time winningest coach. “When they do, you fear for the day they eventually graduate and leave your program. Today is that day for us. I can’t say enough about Dina and her love of the game, which carried us for four years. She will be impossible to replace.”
The Robbinsville resident and Notre Dame High product wasted little time showing the Golden Rams what she was all about, earning the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year award. It just kept getting better from there.
‘Looking back, it is kind of cool to see the impact I made that I really didn’t see when I was playing.’
Cifelli graduates as WCU’s all-time assist leader with 222, to go along with 83 goals. She is third in NCAA Division II career assists and her 305 points puts her fifth all-time in West Chester annals. Cifelli was named first-team All-PSAC this year—her fourth All-Conference honor—after collecting 21 goals and 57 assists.
No one is surprised by her place in the history books more than the player herself.
“Coming into this year, I really did not know breaking records was even a thing,” Cifelli said. “Looking back, it is kind of cool to see the impact I made that I really didn’t see when I was playing. All I wanted to do was the best I could for the team to win. I don’t like attention, never did. So I never really thought of the impact or how these awards were actually important. I guess now looking at them, they are a big accomplishment to have, but the experience I had over the years was definitely more important to me.”
Cifelli may not like the attention. But she’s gotten it throughout her career from defenders and admiring fans—such as teammates, opponents and coaches.
Cifelli’s first love was softball and soccer, but her dad encouraged her to try the sport in fourth grade, since her older brother also played it. Cifelli fought her dad for a while but finally relented, saying, “I fell in love with it and was so happy my dad made me make the switch.”
Bryan Fisher became a major influence on young Dina. As the West Windsor-Plainsboro South coach at the time, Fisher coached Cifelli at a clinic and asked her to play a tournament with the club team he ran.
“I’ve been lucky to be part of her journey through lacrosse ever since,” Fisher said.
“Bryan Fisher got me going with travel and getting me more involved with the sport, making me realize that I could go much further with this sport,” Cifelli said. “I thought I was going to go to college for soccer until he talked to me, saying that I had the potential to do great things with lacrosse.”
Cifelli went from Robbinsville Lacrosse Association to Fisher’s Garden State Elite team for a year, and then spent three seasons with South Jersey Select. As luck would have it, Fisher became her high school coach during her senior year at ND, where she finished with 140 goals and 90 assists.
“Dina has always been a respectful and motivated athlete,” Fisher said. “As a young girl, she was more athletic than the other girls and used that to her advantage. I asked her to do a lot offensively that senior year including being a feeder. She embraced the role and had 50 assists that season. She has always been a leader and a great teammate. She realized at a young age that there is more to being a great lacrosse player than scoring goals.”
When it came time to choosing a college, Cifelli visited a whopping 21 schools and narrowed her choices to St. Joe’s and West Chester. WCU had the teaching and exercise programs Cifelli was looking for, not to mention she was extremely impressed with Martino, her staff and their commitment to win championships.
Her trend of setting up teammates continued throughout college, as Cifelli had 59, 48, 58 and 53 assists in her four seasons. It turned out, her ability to pass came from a reluctance to shoot.
“I was thrown in at low attack behind the crease, and things just clicked,” Cifelli said. “My coaches always told me to shoot more because they liked my shot. But as a freshman, I was nervous to mess up and finding the open plays was easier for me, and it was working for me so I just went with it.”
In setting up her teammates, Cifelli compares herself to a football quarterback, which was part of her upbringing since her father and brother both played. She scans the field, looking for an open “receiver” who just might be in position to score a goal.
“That’s how I felt when I was behind the cage,” she said. “And throughout the years at practice, I just learned what people like to do and know when and how they like to cut and I use that when it comes to games. Scoring used to be my thing, but I honestly get more enjoyment out of seeing other people happy when they score.”
That’s no surprise to Martino, who could not find enough superlatives to describe Cifelli. The renowned coach praised her desire, motivation, commitment and unselfishness. She marveled at her desire to excel, which “drove her to work harder than anyone.”
“She was a leader both on and off the field with her work ethic,” the coach added. “She was the one to show up early and stay late. Working harder when no one was watching, and that desire cannot be coached. That motivation has to come from within.”
When understanding what the sport means to Cifelli, it’s easy to see how she is so self-motivated. When the Golden Rams fell to Mercyhurst by one goal in the PSAC Tournament semifinals on May 6, it all ended so suddenly. When the whistle blew, she fell to her knees and cried. Not just for the loss of a game, but of a career.
‘She is a student of the game and has a great lacrosse mind. She will be a fantastic coach one day.’
“The fact that I knew it was over destroyed me knowing that I will never be able to put on that West Chester uniform again,” Cifelli said.
Then again, the completion of one chapter means the beginning of the other.
“I know it is not the end of it in my life,” Cifelli said. “Along with playing, I have been coaching for the past four or five years and as much as playing brought me happiness, coaching does just as much. I love being able to give back and help kids.”
Cifelli feels she has been blessed by having amazing coaches throughout her career, and feels it is now time to give back. Having graduated with a degree in exercise science with a concentration of physical therapy and a minor in nutrition, she is applying in the fall for graduate school with hopes of getting a graduate-assistant coaching job. During her year off, she will look for a high school or college coaching position.
“Dina has coached with my Garden State Elite club program the past four summers,” Fisher said. “She has continued to grow as a player and a coach and is a great role model for the next generation of girls lacrosse players.”
Martino, whose hope is that her underclassmen paid enough attention to Cifelli’s work habits that they will rub off, feels Cifelli is a natural to lead her own team.
“She is a student of the game and has a great lacrosse mind,” Martino said. “She will be a fantastic coach one day. She already is, but it changes, in a sense, when you no longer play the game yourself.”
And while she is no longer playing lacrosse, it still runs through Cifelli’s blood.
“It has meant the world to me,” said Cifelli, whose dream job is to run her own college program. “I very much hope to stay involved in the years to come. It’s been in my life so long and I have dedicated so much time working and learning into this sport that I could never see my life without it.”
With all that she has accomplished, it is pretty hard to see lacrosse without Cifelli as well.