April 5, 2014

Wills Impresses in MLL Debut at Lizards Training Camp

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | McLaughlin Archive | Twitter

Devon Wills, the two-time World Cup gold medalist with the U.S. women's national team, settled in as the day went on Saturday at training camp with Major League Lacrosse's New York Lizards. (John Mecionis)

SMITHTOWN, N.Y. — Nervous? "Totally," Devon Wills said of the butterflies felt ahead of her first on-field action in goal Saturday with Major League Lacrosse's New York Lizards.

She was a little bit under the weather, too — fighting a cold — and perhaps a bit tired, having caught a 9:30 p.m. local time red-eye flight from California to New York after the USC women's lacrosse team, for which Wills is an assistant coach, beat St. Mary's 18-4 on the road near San Francisco on Friday night.

Four hours later, about 5:30 a.m. Saturday, she was on the East Coast. About four hours after that, she was in the parking lot of Centereach (N.Y.) High School on Long Island, suiting up as the first female to give professional outdoor lacrosse a try in the first of two Lizards' training camp sessions on Saturday.

Wearing a white helmet, jersey No. 13, and a pair of red, white and blue gloves marking her time as the two-time World Cup winning goalie with U.S. women's national team, Wills rotated through drills and, in the afternoon, a full-field scrimmage session alongside incumbent starting goaltender and two-time MLL All-Star Drew Adams, and keepers Sean Brady and Chris Madalon, who are also vying for spots on New York's opening day roster. The season begins April 27 against the Rochester Rattlers.

The consensus on Wills' performance? Impressive.

"She did a great job," Lizards coach Joe Spallina said. "She wasn't flinching, she wasn't pulling off pipe. She stuck right in there. I was happy for her. I think there were a lot of people that probably didn't want her to do as well as she did. She was fearless. She made a lot of great stops. Men's lacrosse and women's lacrosse are two very different sports. I came in with an open mind and I left impressed. She did a heck of a job."

In half-field drills Saturday morning, Wills said she started to settle in, and indeed made several stops on the crease while seeming to struggle early on with more long-distance shots. The first game play she saw was in goal during one-on-one drills. She didn't see a shot on the first three reps, as defenders applied successful checks, but then made three straight saves. Stony Brook product Jeff Tundo scored the first goal against her on the sixth shot on cage from about 10 yards.

MLL veteran Matt Striebel went five-hole on the following set dodging down the left alley and there were a number of 12- to 15-yard goals, but there were also more than a fair share of things heard like "Good save, Devon," or "Nice save, 'keep," across the field as well.

Wills ran in and out off drills often fist-bumping Adams, who is in the running to be Team USA's men's goalie at this summer's Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Championship in Denver.

In a five-on-four drill later in the morning, Wills hugged the pipe and stopped a Tommy Palasek point-blank try on the crease. "Good save," he said to her as they jogged to a midfield huddle. In a six-on-six drill that followed, Wills took a shot off the helmet for her final save of the morning. All the while, she screamed ball location directions to defenders, like "Top right!" or "Top left!"

"I give her a lot of credit," Adams said. "She hopped right in. She seemed confident. I'm sure she was nervous, but I think I would be if I was trying to make a spot on the team. She did a good job. She didn't really need any help. She didn't ask for anything. She was like another one of the guys. She played well."

"She was on top of things inside [close to the crease]," Adams said. "Outside, there were a few but that could be said about any goalie. It's the first weekend of the year we've seen a lot of shots."

The afternoon session for Wills began with New York assistant coach Keith Cromwell peppering her with warm-up shots and running through man-down defense with new coordinator Steve Duffy (formerly head coach of Boston).

"It was a lot of fun to be a part of it," Devon Wills said after two training sessions with the Lizards on Saturday. "I feel grateful to be a part of it." (John Mecionis)

For the second half of the Lizards' two-hour afternoon session, it was time for a full-field scrimmage. Wills, rotating in on a side with Adams, unofficially made two saves and allowed two goals. Adams made three saves and allowed two, Brady made three and allowed five and Madalon allowed three.

"It was hard not knowing what to expect coming in," Wills said. "I think I was going to be nervous no matter what. But I finally settled in a little bit. I think nervous is good. It gives you a little gut-check."

Wills had been taking shots out in California regularly with former Syracuse midfielder Brendan Loftus, who also works at USC, and anyone else she could find, she said.

Spallina said nothing could have prepared Wills for live drills and action, but she held her own. He said he would consider at least keeping Wills on the Lizards' practice squad this season.

"I would have no problem keeping her on, even if it's practice squad," Spallina said. "It's an adjustment. The league is so competitive, there's only so many spots. But I know a couple things: she fits in, she has learned to win, she's fearless and a great teammate. Those are components that we need. She's adjusting to the speed of the game."

Watching from the stands at Smithtown West (N.Y.) High in the afternoon was the Stony Brook women's lacrosse team, also coached by Spallina. They arrived after practice and then immediately boarded a bus after the Lizards wrapped up for a road game in Binghamton on Sunday. But before they left Seawolves goalie Frankie Caridi shared her thoughts on what could go down as historic day for the entire sport of lacrosse.

Wills, who played at Dartmouth from 2003-06, would be the first female to make an MLL roster, and only one has played at the pro level. Ginny Capicchioni, the former Sacred Heart goalie, in 2003 became the first woman to play in the National Lacrosse League.

"I saw her make some pretty nice saves. I think she's good enough to do it," said Caridi, who said it was the first time she saw Wills play other than via brief Team USA highlights. "What she's doing is really great for the women's game. As a female athlete and a goalie, I think it's awesome. If she can do it, it says 'Why not anyone else?' If you feel you can do it, try it."

What may have started as marketing ploy — as the Lizards' ownership group first hatched the idea after buzz and debate about the possibility of former Baylor women's basketball player Brittney Griner trying out of the NBA in April 2013 — could develop into something very real. Nevertheless, Wills did attract an above average number of media to an MLL training camp weekend, including local Long Island television and other camera crews, which aimed to track her every move.

Was that part tough?

"A little bit," she said. "For me, it's about making a team. For these guys, I don't want to take away from what they've done and how hard they've worked to get there. It adds a little bit of a distraction to them. But I think it's good for the sport. But it is kind of hard to focus on everything on the field and turn around and have cameras behind you. ... The guys were joking about accidentally hitting them."

The whirlwind of day — when did she actually sleep? — was to continue into Sunday. Wills was headed back to California on an 8:30 flight Saturday night. USC has a game Sunday at 1 p.m. local time against Cal and she told the team before she left that she would be back Sunday morning. The players sent her off with a care package featuring a makeshift headdress featuring Lizards' green. Wills also played the entire day with black and lime green shooting strings, the franchise's colors.

Because of USC's game schedule in April, Wills will not be at any of the Lizards' four remaining training days before the season-opener, but she may wear the colors again.

"That's up to the coaching staff and the organization to make that decision. I haven't really thought much past this date," she said. "It's opportunity to play and it's a different side of the game. I was listening to the defensive coaches and the 'D' guys, it's a whole other perspective. I was thinking, 'Why do we do that [at USC]? My coaching side clicked in a little bit.

"The guys play the game in such a fun way. They're so competitive and they bring their personalities out, which is fun to get to know them. They're doing some of the best stuff I've ever seen. It was a lot of fun to be a part of it. I feel grateful to be a part of it."


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