February 26, 2016
Caylee Waters was the IWLCA Goaltender of the Year last season, helping North Carolina reach the NCAA championship game. (Peyton Williams)
Caylee Waters was the IWLCA Goaltender of the Year last season, helping North Carolina reach the NCAA championship game. (Peyton Williams)

Is Caylee Waters the Sport's Next Great Goalie?

by Megan Schneider | LaxMagazine.comTwitter

This article appears in the March edition of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse. Join US Lacrosse to support the positive development of the sport and receive the magazine delivered right to your mailbox as one of the member benefits.

No crying allowed.

Sounds typical for three brothers playing football in the backyard. But the one who truly took it to heart was their sister.

“I couldn’t cry,” she said. “Keep playing or get kicked off the team.”

Waters grew up in Darien, Conn., playing football, first with her brothers Peter, Scotty and Robby, and then as a free safety and wide receiver in flag football. She brought her no-crying mantra to the baseball diamond as a catcher and shortstop. By fourth grade, Waters had advanced to tackle football and had no problem taking a hit. That’s why her seventh-grade lacrosse coach encouraged her to become a goalie. “They didn’t think that I would fear the ball,” she said.

Pressure Position

Nor would Waters fear the spotlight, in which she found herself her junior year of high school. In May 2012, the Stamford Advocate published photos of Darien coach Lisa Lindley grabbing Waters by her helmet, Lindley’s thumbs gripping the facemask during an intense timeout. Waters had allowed four consecutive goals to let Greenwich creep back to within one in the FCIAC championship game.

The images, an unfortunate moment in time, went viral. Lindley, a successful and well-liked coach who was a three-time All-American in both field hockey and lacrosse at UMass, was suspended for the rest of the season — even though her tactics worked.

Just minutes after the timeout, Waters made a diving save to preserve the Blue Wave’s one-goal lead. Darien went on to win 17-14 en route to county and state titles.

Waters, now a junior captain at North Carolina and the reigning IWLCA Goalie of the Year, recalled that encounter recently in an interview with Lacrosse Magazine.

“How do you play in a game when you know you’re not playing your best? How do you overcome that feeling when goals were just scored on you and you felt like you could’ve saved them? It has helped me not get stuck in a bad mentality,” Waters said.

North Carolina’s coaching staff knew Lindley well enough not to be alarmed. Also a U.S. World Cup gold medalist (1989), the former Lisa Griswold (“Griz”) was an assistant coach at Yale before taking over at Darien, where last spring she led the Blue Wave to their 14th state title in 21 years.

“If you only know the photo, you don’t know enough. You’re not seeing the whole picture,” said North Carolina assistant Phil Barnes, who coaches goalies. “She really saw the potential in Caylee, not just as an athlete but as a person.”

Waters doesn’t mind the additional scrutiny that comes with the position — one she’s playing better than anyone in the college game right now.

 “I like to just accept that it is a pressure position,” she said. “If you don’t realize that, you don’t have a full understanding of your role. Pressure situations, you learn to adapt and you learn to enjoy.”

Game Changer

It didn’t take Waters long to find the spotlight again as a freshman at North Carolina. The Tar Heels had just won their first NCAA championship in 2013. Goalie Megan Ward, the incumbent starter, was one of the heroes in North Carolina’s triple-OT triumph over Maryland.

But Waters was the one turning heads in a nationally televised exhibition against the U.S. team in January 2014. She made eight saves and flashed her range outside the cage.

Waters was too good not to play right away. She started nine games as a freshman and then supplanted Ward as the starter in all 22 games as a sophomore. But with Ward battling for time, Waters went the distance in just six of those games.

Ward, a lefty, admits she is more reserved and risk-adverse, while the right-handed Waters plays aggressively outside of the crease — not entirely unlike U.S. World Cup veteran Devon Wills, whom she joined on the senior team last June.

Having two good goalies may have hurt North Carolina in the 2015 NCAA championship game.Waters started, and the Tar Heels were up three at halftime. Ward entered in the second half, and Maryland scored four goals in 13 minutes. The Terps ratcheted up their ride, forcing North Carolina to go just 3-for-8 on clears in the second half, which coach Jenny Levy said was more likely to blame than anything either goalie did in the Tar Heels’ 9-8 loss at PPL Park in Chester, Pa.

But by the time Waters came back into the game, Maryland had it won.

Entering this season, Levy would not say whether Waters and Ward would continue to split time. Both would be full-time starters on most teams. Their 2015 stats — .496 save percentage and 7.84 goals against average for Waters, .477 and 7.77 for Ward — were comparable.

Still, Levy said, “Caylee has earned her stripes.”

North Carolina junior Caylee Waters is one of three athletic goalies currently training with the U.S. women's national team. She will be joined by fellow keepers Devon Wills (Dartmouth '06) and Liz Hogan (Syracuse '11) as Team USA embarks on a foreign tour this summer. (Scott McCall)

Wills in Waiting?

Waters didn’t get this good by accident. She has taken on more shots in practice and training than any goalie Levy ever has coached. She also uses visualization techniques before games.

Wills, a 2006 graduate of Dartmouth and three-time World Cup champion goalie for Team USA, has gotten to know Waters over the past year in the U.S. ranks and credits her willingness to ask questions every chance she gets.

Waters’ fun and laid-back personality — she knows and sings every word to Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” — helps her to be a good goalie. But it’s her willingness to step out of her comfort zone — and out of her crease — that makes her a great goalie.

“It’s that mental piece that really separates athletic goalies from goalies who may be a little more traditional,” Wills said. “It’s that killer instinct, that risk, that competitiveness to just want to go out and make an impact.”

U.S. assistant Jess Wilk, a former Hall of Fame goalie at Maryland, sees similarities in all three goalies Team USA will take on its European tour this summer in preparation for the 2017 FIL Women’s World Cup in Surrey, England. Wills, Waters and former Syracuse standout Liz Hogan all are athletic and can contribute to Team USA’s full-field pressure ride.

“Being around Devon has made [Waters] aware there’s a whole other level of fitness for a goalkeeper,” Wilk said.

Wills has been known to play midfield just for fun at the Vail (Colo.) Lacrosse Shootout and during on-field demonstrations. Levy cites Wills as the first goalie she can remember who played so athletically outside the cage. When North Carolina played Dartmouth in 2004, the Big Green put Wills on the center circle with her goalie stick to try to win the draw.

“Devon’s definitely led the trend,” Wilk said. “Caylee looks up to Devon. She’s got a lot of untapped potential.”

“She’s the future of the U.S. team,” Wills said. “She pushes me every day, so I’ve got to keep my eye on her."

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