Weekend Warriors: The best goalkeeper in women's lacrosse leads the way to a new era
Surfing has nothing to do with lacrosse, but it explains a lot about Devon Wills.
Wills, considered by many to be the best and most athletic goalkeeper in women's lacrosse, grew up in Colorado and went on to star at Dartmouth and for the U.S. national team. She helped the U.S. win World Cups in 2009 and 2013.
She's known for her supreme fitness and energetic style -- and she'll often leave the cage to mark attackers and challenge opponents far from the goalmouth.
"I can be pretty competitive and pretty aggressive," she says.
She also seeks out challenges. In 2014, she spent time on the roster of the New York Lizards -- the all-male Major League Lacrosse team -- and learned to adapt to a faster, more physical game.
"It helped me get back to basics, just to focus on small elements inside the cage and making sure I was ready and never slacking off for a second," she says. "It was incredible."
So when Wills, now 32, moved to Los Angeles five years ago to join the coaching staff of the new lacrosse program at USC, she found a place by the beach and took up surfing. And even though the athlete from the Rockies by way of the Northeast hadn't grown up with sand between her toes and seawater up her nose, she of course bypassed a longboard for a more challenging shortboard.
"I went straight to a shortboard because I was stubborn," she says. "It's probably taken me like four years to be semiconsistent at it on my shortboard that pretty much barely floats. It's kinda like a kickboard."
But this summer, the shortboard will have to hang out in her garage while Wills is happily occupied with a new chapter in her long and varied lacrosse career. She was the first draft pick of the Long Island Sound in the new United Women's Lacrosse League that will begin play in late May.
A decade after graduating from Dartmouth, she'll finally get a chance to play in a women's pro league. "It's just going to be so great for the game, just the exposure across the country," she says, "I think we've all been waiting for it. It just took the right people to push it forward."
For now, the league will feature only four teams: the Sound, Philadelphia Force, Baltimore Ride and Boston Storm. But that's fine with Wills, who's just eager to see it get established and experience a more wide-open game thanks to some new rules, such as a shot clock and a two-point shot.
"It's the first opportunity for professional women's lacrosse," she says. "It gives a lot of people the chance to continue playing after college."
Playing after Dartmouth wasn't a question for Wills, even without a women's pro league. She joined the U.S. national team in 2007 and was outstanding in both the 2009 and 2013 World Cups. In the 2009 Cup final in the Czech Republic, she made eight saves and was named player of the match in an 8-7 victory over Australia. Four years later, she started all seven World Cup games in Canada and made 16 saves with a 5.58 goals-against average, as the Americans capped off the tournament with a 19-5 win over the Canadians.
She'll be part of a 24-member U.S. team that that will travel to Guildford, England, in late June and early July to play England, Scotland and Wales. And she hopes to be part of Team USA for the 2017 World Cup at the same venue.
Between World Cups, she has stayed immersed in the game as a coach, first at Dartmouth, then at the University of Denver and now at USC, where she is associate head coach for head coach Lindsey Munday, her teammate on both World Cup teams.
Having the chance to coach has helped Wills stay at an elite level. She says she and Munday and Alyssa Leonard, another USC assistant, train together and sometimes jump into drills and scrimmages with the USC players. Wills also runs six days a week and lifts weights two to three days a week.
But she doesn't know when she'll actually join the Sound. Her priority right now is to help the Trojans get as far as they can, and a strong postseason could take them all the way through May. The NCAA championships start Friday, and USC is ranked fourth in the country.
Wills loves coaching, and this group of players is special: The seniors this year were in the first class of women's lacrosse players at USC -- and Wills has been there since that inaugural season.
"We're just so proud of them," she says, "They started the program and every year they've grown and grown, and it's nice to take a step back and look at them and see where we started to where we are now."
Wills started out as a hockey player in Denver, then discovered lacrosse in middle school, thanks to a friend who was the daughter of the owner of the lone lacrosse-equipment store in the area.
She first wanted to play in goal because she thought wearing the equipment was cool. But the more she played in the net, the more she loved it.
"I just found a way to be aggressive and play it a little bit differently than people had seen before," she says. "It was a position I felt I could really own."
Now, Wills is ready to play a lot of lacrosse over the next two years, for the Sound and the national team. She says she was "really humbled" by being the No. 1 pick of the Sound but is mostly just excited for the opportunity. It's a new era for her and lacrosse.
"I'm so grateful to the game and the places I've been and the experiences I've had," she says. "I love the game."
How long can she play?
"I don't know," she says, laughing. "We'll have to see."