If anyone can do it, Devon Wills can.
That is what Joe Spallina, the coach of the New York Lizards, told team owner Andrew Murstein a year ago when they first starting talking about bringing a woman onto the all-male Major League Lacrosse team. Murstein, whose company also owns Richard Petty Motorsports, had seen first hand what the addition of Danica Patrick had done to widen the appeal of NASCAR. He wondered if the same thing could happen with lacrosse.
"Devon is the best women's goalie in the world," Spallina said in an interview last week. "If someone is going to do it, she's going to be the one."
Wills, who last week became the first woman to be selected by an MLL team, will get her chance to be the first woman to play in the league when the Lizards open training camp in Hempstead in the spring. Wills, 29, had made herself eligible for the league's supplemental draft, and when she was not selected, the Lizards picked her up from the league's player pool.
"This is a dream come true," said Wills, a two-time World Cup gold medalist for Team USA who now works as an assistant coach at USC. "Growing up, every player wants to be a professional, but women don't have that avenue. Now, I have a chance to compete for a spot."
Though it would be groundbreaking for a woman to make an MLL team, Wills wouldn't be the first female to have played in a men's professional lacrosse game. Goaltender Ginny Capicchioni played 11 minutes of a game for the New Jersey Storm in 2003. A woman goaltender has also played in an NHL game. Manon Rhéaume suited up for the Tampa Bay Lightning in an exhibition contest in 1992.
Spallina, who also coaches the women's team at Stony Brook, is in a unique position to point out the difference between the men's and women's games. He believes the biggest adjustment for Wills will be the types of shots she has to stop. As a women's goalie, Wills sees more inside shots and shots around the crease. In the men's game, she will face more long-range shots and have to contend with screens, which are not allowed in the women's game.
This will involve a lot of hard work, but Wills has never been one to back down from a challenge. On the collegiate level, she led Dartmouth to its first national championship appearance in 2006. In 2009, she earned the starting job for Team USA for the World Cup and earned player of the match honors for her seven-save performance in the gold medal victory over Australia.
This past summer, she again led the U.S. team to another gold medal at the Federation of International Lacrosse World Cup.
"This is really historic and ground breaking and Devon is a person who is not afraid to do something like this," said U.S. team captain Lindsey Munday, who trains with Wills and is the head coach at USC. "In every aspect of her athletic career, she's wanted to change the face of the goalie position. She wants to be the best. She wants to push herself."
Munday said one reason she is so excited about Wills' pursing this opportunity is that it shows the women they are coaching at USC "not to be afraid to put themselves out there."
Spallina said the response to drafting Wills has been "90 percent positive," adding that he has gotten countless emails and texts of support from fans.
"It is an inspiration for women athletes across the world," Spallina said. "I have a daughter of my own, and she's very excited. Sometimes, all people need is a chance and she is going to get a fair opportunity."