PHOTO COURTESY OF RACHEL VALLARELI

Rachel Vallarelli: 'I Exist to Inspire Others Around Me'


Dear Lacrosse,

With everything going on with women playing men’s sports — *cough cough Sarah Fuller* —  I thought it would be a perfect time for me to tell a little bit of my story. I’m not sure why there are full-grown people acting like a bunch of chicken littles — “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” — because there are women playing men’s sports. It’s old at this point.

So, here’s the thing: I’m not the first woman to play on a men’s team, or in a league, or anything like that. And I sure don’t want to be the last. I exist to inspire others around me, so they too know that they can achieve anything they set their minds and hearts to. And I love to play and coach, but that’s a whole other story.

My name is Rachel Vallarelli, and I’m a professional women’s field and men’s box lacrosse goalie. I’m a college coach, club director and the owner of RV Lacrosse, LLC. I’m a former U.S. U19 national team player, and I played at UMass Amherst where I hold NCAA, conference and school records.

I grew up with hoop dreams to play for Geno Auriemma at UConn as the starting center. A WNBA Draftee — first round to the New York Liberty. But I stopped growing at 5-foot-4 (and 3/4ths of an inch), so that dream took a backseat.

I was the kid watching “Miracle” on repeat, whole movie memorized, three DVD copies burned through. I would skate around my neighborhood, pretending to be every player on the 1980 team.

I just loved to play and wanted to continue at the highest level. I’ve always had big dreams and the confidence in myself that I would achieve them. Even if I’ve had to pivot along the way.


"I’m not the first woman to play on a men’s team, or in a league, or anything like that. And I sure don’t want to be the last."


When I was in fifth grade we read “Bloomability” by Sharon Creech.

It was required reading from Holy Child. I had just transferred in for the new school year. The book struck me as a great metaphor for life because it was about this young girl who had transferred to a new school and had to go through new experiences. Very fitting for everyone in the fifth grade at Holy Child; we were all new. The main character, Dinnie, attends a school with much diversity and learns to adapt to her new surroundings and to the new people in her life.

And to be honest, my mom is the reason that the book had such an impact in my life. It was through her, and the book, that I learned about expecting the unexpected and to open your eyes to new possibilities, for you never know where they will take you.

It taught me that life is all about possibilities and to never give up and persevere and persist. When a door closes, another one opens. Always be ready for any opportunity that comes your way. This led me to lacrosse.

I started playing in the seventh grade and entered the club world my sophomore year. Then, I made the U.S. U19 team going into my senior year before committing to UMass that August.

Before that experience, I was passed up, told I wasn’t good enough, and that I would never play Division I lacrosse.

“You don’t have the talent.”

My response: “I’ll go top Division I.”

I was laughed at, but I persisted, and my dream came true.

With UMass said and done, “Bloomabilities” yet again. Pro women’s field was there, but then the UWLX folded.

I was in the U.S. national team system for years, invited to tryouts, right on the cusp, but it was not meant to be. I kept the love alive, playing for the New York Athletic Club. Again, “Bloomabilities” and I found ourselves at the doorway of new enterprises and possibilities.








***

Let’s backtrack several years. I attended a New York Titans game for my 16th birthday, and my love for box lacrosse was born. It merged the sports I loved: basketball, hockey and lacrosse.

I could be King Henrik (talking about New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist!). After the game, we looked into opportunities to play box lacrosse, and there weren’t any viable options in the U.S., let alone for women. My love for box took a backseat for a while.

Fast forward to the summer of 2018 when I came home from California and coaching Division I to pursue my entrepreneurial spirit and again, “Bloomabilities.”

I was invited to U.S. U20 indoor tryouts to train. I had the amazing opportunity to work with Ginny Cappuchioni, the first woman to play in the NLL.

You know the part where the main character in a story gets the pep talk that launches them to greatness? This was not the uplifting talk that I imagined. It was more along the lines of a healthy and much-needed interrogation. Ginny questioning my intentions. That was the pep talk in the movie, just not the Disney version.

When a man decides to make an attempt at the NLL, no one questions it. It’s commonplace in athletics. For a woman playing a men’s sport, that’s a whole different story.

You have to be five times better than any man. You can never have a bad day, set or rep, or you’ll be painted as a token and made to feel like you don’t belong. Go home, Go cook. (For reference, I can’t cook to save my life. My running joke is that anytime I cook, the fire department will come, and not to join us for dinner).

“If you aren’t ready for the backlash, don’t try,” is basically what Ginny said.

I want to play at the highest level I can, for as long as I can, to inspire the next generation and pave the way. More “Bloomabilities” for others.

After U.S. U20s and playing in the Boston Box League in 2018, I decided to play bigger events against the best. I felt confident.

My enthusiasm to play in these bigger sponsored events was not always met with the same excitement. Women are still not allowed to play box or field lacrosse in some regions in North America. One box event had even waited until I was geared up and on the floor to tell me I wasn’t welcome.

Nonetheless, I persevered and put my name in the hat for The U.S. men’s indoor squad. I didn’t get enough votes to make it to tryouts. The number wasn’t zero, though. Again, “Bloomabilities.”

It was time to try another route.

I joined the Cambridge Nor’Easters, and with that came more three-plus hour drives from Hartsdale, NY, to Boston and back. (I was also the first woman to ever start and play in the IBLA.) With this, I truly felt ready. The box community now knew Rachel Vallarelli.

I wasn’t just this field lacrosse goalie anymore — I was something more. I became the box goalie who just happened to be a chick, who just happened to have a great career at UMass, who just happened to be a field goalie.

Now, it’s two more steps forward.

I was invited to the NLL U.S. Elite Combine in the summer of 2019. I was so excited to be the first woman ever invited. With that came the looming thought of women in sport: How will this be perceived? I kept reminding myself that I was being asked for a reason, and that it was my shot.

It just wasn’t a combine invite. It was filming “a day in the life,” too. I pondered whether this was just a publicity stunt. If so, thanks, but no thanks.

I didn’t want people to think I got where I am because I am a woman. I wanted them to think it was because I am damn good at what I do. The couch quarterbacks would try and connect dots that aren’t even there.

Devan Kaney, senior producer with the NLL, told me that was not the case. I had earned my opportunity, and they wanted to show others my story. I agreed to be filmed and prepared for the backlash.

Here’s the thing, the backlash never came. Some showered praise and acceptance. Others said it inspired them to play. Girls and boys, men and women around the country reacting positively to the news that someone like them was attempting to play professional box lacrosse.

Once I got to the NLL Elite Combine, some of the guys were more than supportive, while others had a more colorful array of comments. If we were rating movies, they would range from G-rated to R-rated.

Many of the guys wanted to make sure this was no publicity stunt. They wanted to see if you can take the heat. Some were still skeptical, of course. Once they realize you know what you’re talking about and know what you’re doing, they want you to stick around.

“She’s good, she’s legit,” they’d say.

It’s an initiation. They let you know if you are welcome. The interesting thing is, though, some get mad when you show how good you are. It’s a double-edged sword. Many of these players don’t like being shown up by a girl. Sometimes the officials don’t like it either.

“How dare a woman be better? It’s not right. It’s not natural. Men are stronger, more dominant and just plain better, right?”

Some try to prove that by words, others through actions.

In the end, I earned their respect. If you are going to check a goalie into the boards for going for a loosie (ground ball-speak in box), you better be doing it to me, too.

Treat me just like everyone else, or tougher. If you don’t, I won’t know where I stand and I won’t be treating anyone else that way.

I’m saying all this after being checked into the boards so hard that I was flipped over and making snow angels on the floor, trying to get up. I still had the ball, though. My guys cleared the bench and got into an all-out brawl.

“That’s my goalie!” It was then that I realized the importance of enforcers.

But I had earned their respect. I was one of the guys.




PHOTO COURTESY OF RACHEL VALLARELI


Here’s what you need to know when playing with/against me:

  1. You come into my crease, you better believe you are going to get it. I make it known when you come in my house.

  2. I retaliate. Have to throw down to let them know you mean business.

  3. Don’t treat me with kid gloves. I’m here to play with the big boys.

  4. This isn’t a formality. I am damn good and here to prove it. And if you don’t like it, go cry. I’m here to stay. Get used to it.

Women aren’t supposed to act this way or come across as bullish and tough. It’s not ladylike. Welcome to my alter-ego. But in order to play with men, you have to have that mentality to survive and thrive.

***

Fall 2019, after the combines, I’m called to invite-only tryouts for the New York Riptide. I am so grateful that Regy Thorpe took a chance on me and believed in me to play for the hometown team. I thought of how my grandma would be able to see me play live.

I didn’t make the cut, but my road wasn’t over. I was drafted (first woman ever) into the Arena Lacrosse League up in Canada by the Whitby Steelhawks. Coach Brad MacArthur said I earned it and was excited to see what I could do. He compared me to Manon Rhéaume, the first woman to play in the NHL. Small and mighty, inspiring others, like me, to achieve their wildest dreams.

And there are others, too. I think the most important thing to note is that the good outweighs the bad. The support from my current squads, the NYC Spiders (and all the guys with the IBLA), Lightkeepers (and all the B3L guys) and Boston Blazers (and all the guys at Boston Box), is second to none, and the support I have from individuals in the game is unreal. Grateful beyond measure for guys like CJ Flemming, Randy Fraser, Chuck Jaffee, Ryan Conwell, Connor Wilson, TJ Ragusa, Brendan Murphy, Brice Queener, Chris Collins and so many others! (There are too many to name, and that is a good thing.) It’s the support from within the lacrosse community that will propel us forward.

So that leaves me to where I am now — an NLL free agent, looking for a home. Just looking to be seen as the best goalie for the job. Not looking for handouts, looking to play the game I love, at the highest level I can, for as long as I can.

I think about all the people who came before me, all those here with me, and those that will come after me, and I do it for them. I take a deep breath, close my eyes, put on my gear and let it all go.

I’m Rachel Vallarelli, I’m here for the love of the game. Always have been, always will be. I play and coach to inspire others to know the they can achieve anything they set their mind and hearts to. It’s all possible. Believe in “Bloomabilities.”

Much Love,
Rachel

You can find Rachel Vallareli on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, 500px, Twitch, Snapchat and YouTube. Head to RVLacrosse.com to learn more.