April 2, 2009
By Amy DixonNotre Dame Sports Information
Jillian Byers certainly knows what success feels like although she is often reluctant to admit it. Throughout her lacrosse career, especially since joining the Notre Dame lacrosse program three seasons ago, the senior attacker has experienced significant success on both personal and team levels. Seemingly, the only thing the Northport, N.Y., native has not experienced is competing at the collegiate level while at full strength.
Her accomplishments are numerous, and have brought her significant respect at the national level. Byers is equally deserving of that same level of respect for her perseverance and quiet, humble demeanor that she brings to the game. Given her dominance the past three seasons, it is hard to believe that Byers has yet to play a collegiate season completely healthy and at full strength.
As a player coveted by many colleges, Byers received numerous lacrosse scholarships from elite programs across the nation. Despite her future on the lacrosse field, Byers, also a talented basketball player, dedicated herself to that team for her senior season at Northport High School. Byers displayed her true character and competitive nature through her desire to contribute to the team during her final season. She would go on to be an all-state basketball selection, an honor she also received twice in her storied high school lacrosse career. While the award is an honor in and of itself, it is an even more remarkable accomplishment considering she experienced a serious knee injury in her quest “not to let the team down” for her final basketball season.
Byers sustained a fractured kneecap, an injury that led to a series of knee surgeries. Byers finished out the basketball season, then battled the injury for the duration of her final season of high school lacrosse before having surgery prior to her arrival at Notre Dame. She has since required two additional surgeries during her Irish career.
After playing through the pain throughout much of her freshman season, Byers was operated on and faced the same situation again between the fall and spring seasons of her sophomore year. As a result of her weakened right knee, Byers then overcompensated for the injury and faced a strained calf muscle that plagued her throughout much of her junior season. Despite the adversity and frustration, Byers refused to slow down; instead relying on determination and a strong will that had always been part of her character.
“They always say that after your first surgery, you are never as good as you could be. I was so mad! I was determined to be that person that had the knee surgery and come back better than I was,” Byers explained.
Despite her struggles to stay healthy, Byers has become one of the greatest women’s lacrosse players to ever wear gold and blue. She would often be relegated to watching practices from the sideline, and was forced to outwork and outsmart defenders in games in order to compensate for her decreased mobility. A true student of the game, Byers was extremely successful at outmaneuvering her opponents as she consistently created havoc for opposing defenses.
Despite the injuries that have plagued her throughout her career, Byers entered this season as a three-time All-American and a three-time all-BIG EAST selection. She was named to this year’s Watch List for NCAA lacrosse’s most prestigious award, the Tewaaraton Trophy, awarded to the nation’s top male and female lacrosse players. For the extremely modest and soft-spoken Byers, the fact that she finally entered the season healthy is most important. While she acknowledges that it is an honor to receive national recognition, she sees finally playing at 100 percent as a way to accomplish the goal that influenced her decision to attend Notre Dame.
“I came to Notre Dame because I wanted to be at a school that hadn’t really established a program yet. A school that wasn’t in the top 10 or top five national tournament contenders. I was also looking at North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland, which are all schools that won a championship before. I wanted to come here and make a difference. It is great to be able to say that I won that award or I am an All-American, but when it comes down to it, it is all about winning the BIG EAST and a national championship.”
Already this season, Byers has left her mark in Irish lacrosse history, surpassing the 200th career goal and 250th career point marks in the team’s victory over Hofstra earlier this month. These milestones have placed Byers as Notre Dame all-time leader in points and goals scored. When reflecting upon her previous honors and accomplishments, there is one in particular that stands out for Byers. Her team-first philosophy was rewarded this season as her teammates voted her one of the team co-captains.
“It is a great honor. To be able to represent and be an ambassador of the University of Notre Dame and say that I am actually a captain is really something. I am impressed that my teammates look up to me in that way,” Byers acknowledged.
As her Notre Dame career comes to a close, not only has she established herself as a leader on the lacrosse field, but she has also provided a shining example through her determination and strong will. As a result of her on-field dominance, Byers has prominently placed herself in the national spotlight. However, it is the development of the Irish lacrosse program during her career of which she is most proud. Currently ranked 10th in the country, the Irish are now considered among the nations’ best teams. However, Byers is not satisfied by simply getting to this level, but also raising the standards and eventually surpassing them.
“Obviously our goal is a BIG EAST Championship and a national championship. Just being able to come to Notre Dame is an incredible experience, and I know there is unfinished business. But, at the same time I am happy that I could come to a program that has really soared and become a top-10 team.”
For the Irish women’s lacrosse program, this feeling is certainly mutual. Byers has brought the toughness, leadership and talent that characterizes every good program. For the first time, Byers can finally compete at full strength which is certainly a good feeling for her. Her mission of making her mark upon the Notre Dame’s women’s lacrosse team has been accomplished. She graduates this year knowing that her spirit has helped solidify the Irish as one of the nation’s best programs.