June 22, 2013

Team USA's Devon Wills: Unmasked

World's best goalie explains her unorthodox style

by Clare Lochary | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

With her athleticism, Wills is never afraid to get out of the cage while leading Team USA.
© John Strohsacker 

Devon Wills had national team ambitions from the very beginning.

"I can remember that eighth grade year, I had this ratty little USA jersey that I wore under every single uniform, ever," said Wills.

Wills still loves wearing a Team USA jersey, albeit outside her pads instead of under them. Now in her seventh year with the team, Wills is the squad's veteran goalkeeper and the most athletic, creative goalie playing the game today.

"The whole idea about being goalie, I wanted to make it something different than what you generally perceive it to be. I don't want it to be, you just stand in a circle and that's it," said Wills.

Wills doesn't stay in the safe house of the goal circle. She picks off passes and throws checks. She marks up on attackers in 3v2 situations. She wanders above and beyond the restraining line, and blows by most midfielders when she does it. Wills occasionally plays field herself, memorably winning tournament MVP at Vail in 2009, the same year she won gold as a goalkeeper with Team USA at the FIL World Cup. But she doesn't play field for cross-training purposes, or as opposition research for her new role as defensive coordinator for the University of Southern California. She does it to keep a lid on her world-class intensity when it's just a friendly game.

"Sometimes, when you go to those tournaments that are supposed to be fun, my competitiveness comes out. If any goal goes in, it will always bother me, a lot," said Wills. "When I play field, I'll relax a little."

Wills was an ice hockey player with Olympic ambitions growing up in Denver, but was introduced to lacrosse in the eighth grade and never looked back. Two of her early mentors were Colorado College coaches Sue Stuart, a goalie for both the Canadian and American national teams between 1989 and 2001, and Danielle Gallagher, who played for Team USA between 1987 and 2005. Wills played defense and forward on the ice, but on land she preferred the cage.

"Danielle and Sue would rip shots on me, which I loved," said Wills. "It's one of those positions where it gets your adrenaline going. It's the best of both worlds. I could highlight my competitive side while still being in a team sport."

Just two years later, Wills was literally turning heads. Dartmouth head coach Amy Patton remembers walking between fields at a 1999 recruiting tournament in Annapolis, Md., and catching sight of a lithe keeper who prowled the crease and batted down shots.

"I vividly remember seeing her," said Patton. "You can easily notice a very athletic goalie. I was like 'Who is that kid?'"

Looking at colleges, Wills wanted a program that would compete for a national championship, and one with a specific plan to get her into a Team USA jersey.

"A lot of the schools I was looking at, I didn't know who exactly was working with the goalies, or if it was just an assistant coach throwing shots at you," said Wills. "Amy was very, very clear. She said, 'If you want to be on the U.S. team, we will do everything to help you.'"

Wills went on to post a 7.14 goals allowed average in four years as a starting keeper. She first made the U.S. team in 2005, and led the Big Green to its first NCAA championship appearance in 2006.

"Some goalies are islands in the cage. Someone who can command the D and be a presence at their own position, that's something special," said Patton. "She always knows she can get better, and she's always yearning to get better, and I think that's the sign of a world-class athlete."

At the 2009 World Games in Prague, Wills earned the starting spot, and Team USA finished with 6.85 GAA. For developing lacrosse nations more accustomed to slow, unathletic goalies, Wills was a revelation. Wills wowed the international crowd with her way-out-of-the-crease antics; there were audible gasps from the crowd when she pulled a face dodge, or sprinted up the center.

"Devon is one of the most gifted athletes I've ever met," said Team USA defender Amber Falcone. "She keeps the [defensive] unit cohesive and tough, which is why I love playing alongside her."

Leading up to 2009, Wills had an intense fitness routine – one that in retrospect was a little too heavy on endurance. A goalie doesn't need to be able to smoke field players; she needs to spend time in the cage, looking at shots. Happily, Wills now has the chance to train on a daily basis with Trojans head coach Lindsey Munday.

"This time, when I get up at o'dark hundred, I know I'm going to meet my teammate," said Wills. "Lindsey's so competitive. It's the best thing ever to have the best attacker in the world shooting at me every day. We're both getting better for it."

With Munday as her sparring partner, Wills, already the best in the world, will be even better by the 2013 FIL World Cup. She admits her game has a fatal flaw, though – at least when she plays field.

"I have no left hand," Wills said. "People can force me left, and I'll just give up."

Maybe that's true. But you'd have to catch her first.

This article appeared in the January 2012 issue of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse. Don't get the mag? Join US Lacrosse and its 400,000-plus members today to start your subscription.

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