December 23, 2013

Wills Eager to Prove Herself in Training Camp

by Matt DaSilva | | Twitter

Devon Wills, the two-time gold medal-winning goalie for the U.S. women's team, will attempt to become the first woman to make a Major League Lacrosse roster in April.
(Game Day Photography)

As Devon Wills tried to keep warm on the sideline at a recent New Jersey recruiting event, an official wandered toward her.

"It's a lot colder here than in California," the woman joked.

Wills, the assistant women's lacrosse coach at USC, laughed politely, and continued scouting players.

Wills did not realize it at the time, but she had just met her historical doppelganger. The official was Ginny Capicchioni, the former Sacred Heart goalie who in 2003 became the first woman to play in the National Lacrosse League.

Wills, the former Dartmouth goalie and two-time U.S. World Cup gold medalist, wants to become the first woman to play in Major League Lacrosse.

Asked last week if she remembered their encounter, Wills excitedly responded, "Oh yes, I do! I usually try to keep quiet at those tournaments because of the NCAA rules, but I do remember that exactly!"

Now Wills has a chance to join Capicchioni in professional lacrosse lore. The New York Lizards claimed Wills from the player pool last Monday, five days after she went unselected in the MLL supplemental draft. MLL teams can carry up to 40 players into April training camp, after which they will name 25-player active rosters and practice squads for the 2014 season.

What may have started as a marketing ploy — team owner Andrew Murstein, also the president of Medallion Financial Group and owner of Richard Petty Motorsports, referenced NASCAR's Danica Patrick and emphasized his company's investment in women and minority businesses in a statement Monday — has yielded a real opportunity for Wills to make history.

"It's a legit tryout. I can go and prove myself. I can get away from this being a publicity stunt," Wills said. "I'm looking forward to showing what I can do. I'm grateful to the Lizards organization for giving me a legit shot."

Capicchioni remains involved with the game today as a player, official and entrepreneur. She led the European Lacrosse League in save percentage this fall as the starting goalie for Pietro Filipi, a men's box team in Radotin, Czech Republic. Earlier this month, she launched Goal Guardian National, a championship-style goalie combine that uses a patent-pending system to rate the productivity of goalies based on Moneyball-like metrics.

"Devon Wills is a great goalie," Capicchioni said. "One of the reasons why she has had so much success in the women's game is her ability to anticipate scoring situations two and three steps ahead of time. To be successful in the men's game, she will need to be able to do the same."

It's no surprise Joe Spallina, the Lizards' audacious coach and general manager, would take a flier on Wills. He's also the women's lacrosse coach at Stony Brook and previously won three NCAA Division II championships at Adelphi.

"I've never been shy to shake it up," Spallina said.

Goalie Ginny Capicchioni was the first woman to play in the National Lacrosse League and for a men's national team in any sport, making the U.S. indoor team in 2011.

After winning the 2011 NCAA title at Adelphi, Spallina joked that then-Panthers goalie Frankie Caridi should get a tryout with the Lizards. Caridi and a host of other players would later follow him to Stony Brook.

In Wills, Spallina would have the preeminent goalie in the women's game potentially to back up two-time MLL All-Star and Team USA hopeful Drew Adams.

He's not joking this time.

"I wanted it to be an athletic thing. I didn't want it to be a boy-girl thing. I didn't want it to be a propaganda thing," Spallina said. "I talked to Devon, and her biggest thing was she just wanted a chance. She's accomplished all she can accomplish in the women's game. She just wants an opportunity to come into camp and compete. Who I am I to deny her the opportunity to compete?"

Spallina said Murstein approached him in April and asked if a woman could ever play in the MLL.

"I said if there's one position that would work, it would be in the goal," Spallina said. "Same ball, goals the same size, no change in equipment."

Capicchioni had it harder. Playing men's box lacrosse required massive padding, hunkering down in front of a smaller goal and holding her stick under her armpit. The mechanics were entirely different.

"Box is a whole other beast," Wills said. "I have total respect for her, having learned about her through this process. I'm kind of in awe of it."

After her brief NLL stint — the Storm relocated to Anaheim, California, and the franchise eventually folded — Capicchioni played in the Canadian Lacrosse Association (CLA) and for the U.S. indoor team at the 2011 Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Indoor Championship in the Czech Republic. She's the first woman to play for a men's national team in any sport.

Capicchioni pinpointed three differences that make the men's game different from a goalie's perspective: shot velocity, stick capacity and traffic in front of the goal. Pockets allow shooters to hold and release the ball at different speeds and angles, shooters can follow through into their defenders and there are no shooting space provisions.

"It will be important [for Wills] to expose herself to as many of these situations as possible, so she will learn how to negotiate them," she said.

Joe Spallina, general manager and coach of the MLL's New York Lizards, also coaches the Stony Brook women's lacrosse team. "Is it a gimmick? Absolutely not," he said of Wills' tryout.
(John Mecionis)

Spallina tried to get Wills out to Stony Brook for a shooting session —"I shoot gas at Frankie all the time," he said — but they could not connect. Spallina shelved the idea of bringing Wills on board in 2013, as the injury-depleted Lizards stumbled to a 4-10 finish.

Wills took matters into her own hands when she entered the MLL player pool in November. She and Spallina then spoke at the IWLCA Convention in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

"I don't think it's because I'm a girl that he's giving me the opportunity," Wills said. "It's just that he has the exposure to the women's game to know about me. It's kind of like recruiting. He made it clear to not sell myself short in thinking this is just something for publicity. He has the same expectations of me that he has of all the guys, and that's the way it should be."

Spallina advised Wills to see as many shots from as many angles as possible before training camp, especially those of the 10- to 15-yard step-down and deep-alley variety. She said she has spoken with her strength coaches about gaining muscle mass and will ratchet up her regimen after playing for the U.S. women at Champion Challenge, a US Lacrosse event in Florida at the end of January.

"There are outstanding players sitting in that player pool that never get an opportunity because there are just not enough spots. All-American men's college goalies come out and they can't adapt. It's a different speed, a different intensity level. The ball dances," Spallina said. "She's doing it for the right reasons. The organization is doing it for the right reasons. Is there a lot of publicity that comes with it? Yes. But is it a gimmick? Absolutely not."

Spallina praised the Lizards players for embracing the competition. Co-captains Greg Gurenlian and Kevin Unterstein reached out to Wills directly, as did Sean Brady, who likely will battle Wills for a roster spot.

"If those guys thought this was going to make them look stupid in any way, they would be standoffish and not embrace it," Spallina said. "They are true examples of professionals."

Wills does not expect special treatment in training camp.

"If I'm good enough, I'm good enough," she said. "If I'm not, I'm not."

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