Tufts lacrosse eyes title with extra incentive

Like many parents unfamiliar with the sport, when Joanne Beranger heard her son Jacob was going to be on the Tufts men's lacrosse team, her initial reaction was nervousness.

"I was a little hesitant at first, because we didn't know too much about lacrosse. Just what the stick looked like," she said with a laugh. "But after that, we said we'll try it out and see how it goes and he's been loving it. ... It was a perfect match for him, because he likes to hit people with sticks.

"And that was even before we found out about lacrosse. He was always running around the house beating his older sister with a weapon or a fake sword or whatever."

Jacob is 7 years old.

Diagnosed with high-risk neuroblastoma at the tender age of 3, the youngest Beranger underwent many painful procedures -- including chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant and a medically-induced coma -- before successfully beating back the cancer.

Now in remission, Jacob still struggles with hearing loss, high blood pressure and a depleted immune system.

He's not letting any of that stop him, though, and since he was drafted by the Jumbos in November, through Team IMPACT, a charity organization dedicated to improving the lives of children facing serious illness by pairing them with athletic teams, he's been along for what might be a national championship ride.

The Jumbos play the Salisbury Sea Gulls in the NCAA Division III final on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Jacob will be on the sideline with his teammates.

"I think winning the title would be unbelievable and to have him be able to experience that with us would just be an unbelievable experience for him," junior midfielder Charlie Rubin said. "Having gone through such hardship early on in his life, I think being part of that experience for him would be a really exciting time. He would really, really cherish that moment."

There have been many moments to cherish along the way. The team went trick-or-treating with Jacob, before his official "draft day." They've gone to the movies, played video games -- "I had no idea what I was doing and he was beating me all day," senior Dan Leventhal said of one recent gaming session -- and horsed around on the lacrosse field.

"It's a scary thing when they first get diagnosed," Joanne Beranger said, "and then they end up hating people -- not liking new people that come near them because they're hurting them or they want to do something [like draw blood or do an X-ray]. This [Team IMPACT] thing is just the opposite. It's fun and it brings the life back into them."

Jacob was shy at first around the Jumbos -- most of whom tower over the 3-foot-10, 55-pound first-grader -- but with time and effort, Rubin and Leventhal said, they've coaxed him out of his shell.

"He's more opened up," his mom said. "He runs up and kicks them, and I'm like freaking out. But they joke around, they play. He did a 180 since he started. He's come a long way with them. He loves them."

"It's been great getting to know this little guy," Leventhal said. "He's one of the toughest guys I ever met and I've learned so much from him. And not only that, I've had a great time being friends with him, too."

Being around someone so young who has already been through a battle with cancer puts things in perspective for the Chappaqua, N.Y., native.

"My biggest takeaway is that I've never really had a bad day, nothing really bad has ever happened to me compared to what Jacob has gone through," Leventhal said. "He's really taught me to be unbelievably tough. Because he's 7 years old and he's gone through more than I'll ever go through in my whole entire life."

When he couldn't make the trip to Tufts' NCAA semifinal game against RIT, Jacob made posters for his teammates instead. The gesture was appreciated.

"He puts on a pretty tough front," Rubin said, "but to see that we mean so much to him, it's really a great feeling for everyone on the team."

When the Jumbos and Gulls face off at 1 p.m. Sunday, it'll be the third time since 2010 the two teams have played for the title. Tufts won in 2010, and Salisbury won in 2011.

"We're very confident in our team and our abilities," Rubin said. "We have a lot of respect for Salisbury. They beat us back in 2011. We definitely have to be sharp in our execution. But again we're very confident in ourselves for our ability and our plan. It's on us, really."

Having Jacob, whom Leventhal calls "a little guy with a big heart," with the team for the final is "absolutely huge."

"He's just another one of the guys, a member of the team," Leventhal said. "So it's huge to have him there. He will provide us with that extra motivation. Because he is gonna be allowed on the sidelines and he's a guy we all want to see there. We want to win that much more, just for Jacob. To get him a ring."

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey