Team USA celebrates its gold medal after getting the ball to its veteran goalie Devon Wills for the final seconds of her final World Cup.

Fitting Ending for Team USA Captains Bullard, Wills in Last Ride

With 13 seconds remaining on the clock, plus a five-goal lead for the U.S. women’s national team, Kelly Rabil received the ball in the midfield, ran the opposite direction of the goal she would score on, and kicked it to defender Kristen Carr, who then passed to fellow defender Becca Block.

Now with just 10 seconds left in the gold medal game at the 2017 FIL Rathbones Women’s World Cup, the ball made its way back into the hands of captain and longtime U.S. goalie Devon Wills. Before the buzzer even sounded, fellow captain Sarah Bullard, who has played with Wills in the past two World Cups, also earning gold medals, had already dropped her stick to run and jump into Wills’ arms to celebrate.

Embracing each other, Bullard and Wills had just ended their international careers with three straight gold medals for Team USA, defeating Canada 10-5.

That was by design.

Team USA wanted the legendary goalkeeper who broke barriers, changed the game, and became “the standard for goaltenders in the United States,” according to U.S. assistant Liz Robertshaw, to live out those final seconds with the game-winning ball.

“I’m going nuts on the sideline making sure we get the ball back in Devon’s stick at the end of the game,” Team USA coach Ricky Fried said. “People may wonder why we did that because there wasn’t a lot of pressure, but it was really to give her that reward – to have the ball in that moment and be able to end the tournament with her having the ball and the team coming to her.”

Prior to crossing the pond earlier this month, Wills had acknowledged that this would be her last World Cup. She now ends her U.S. career as a three-time gold medalist and an All-World goalie.

Bullard, who has added four gold medals to her resume starting with the U.S. under-19 team in 2007 and succeeding with the women’s team now three times, also will be retiring, she said following the championship. She, too, ended her career on a high note, being named the Player of the Match with a hat trick against Canada. It was “justice,” for Bullard, said Fried, because “she’s put so much of her soul and energy into this team.”

U.S. assistant, three-time gold medalist and three-time captain Jess Wilk likened Bullard and Wills to previous standout captains within the American system, like Lindsey Munday (2013), Michele DeJuliis (2009), Betsy Dougherty (1993) and Dee Cross (1989), all of whom also won gold.

But it was Bullard’s and Wills’ leadership of a mostly younger team – with 11 newcomers to the World Cup – that made them stand out.

“It’s very fitting for them to go out as gold medal winners and champions,” Wilk said. “They’ve invested a lot in this team, in this program, for US Lacrosse and they just have been two of the most phenomenal leaders. … The chemistry and the connectedness is due in large part to them.”

“It’s very fitting for them to go out as gold medal winners and champions. They’ve invested a lot in this team, in this program, for US Lacrosse and they just have been two of the most phenomenal leaders." - Jess Wilk on Devon Wills and Sarah Bullard

According to Wilk, to be a U.S. captain, you have to be willing to put in the work, care more about the team than yourself and be aware of what your team needs and when it needs it. That describes Bullard and Wills to a tee.

“This was Sarah’s and Devon’s team,” Fried said.

Bullard is a U.S. captain who leads by example, lives by her words, and doesn’t look to be the leading scorer, despite it being her day against the Canadians. In Wilks' words, since being “baby Bull” in 2007, she has allowed her personality to shine, becoming an “elder statesman” who has gained the respect and trust from the coaching staff and her teammates. “She can say what needs to be said in the most simplest terms and it gets everyone to rally behind it – and she’s never wrong,” Wills said.

Wills is a U.S. captain that recognizes she allowed herself to feel the burden of leadership with it being her last World Cup and then adjusted her play to fit the needs of the team. She “truly played like the best goalie in the world like she is,” said Bullard. Wilk added she led with her heart, which almost tops her athleticism. “She is the reason we are here,” Robertshaw said. "If she wasn’t in cage, we couldn’t do what we do."

Over the past nine years, together they have grown to become better friends and teammates. Before entering the World Cup, Bullard and Wills discussed what they wanted to accomplish, how they wanted to achieve those goals and how they wanted to end their careers – sharing the cup with their teammates, wearing gold medals around their necks.  

“This is the best team I’ve ever been a part of,” Wills said. “These players become your best friends. I see them like I see my family. Those friendships you just can’t replace.”

Thanks to a dominant performance with keen leadership throughout the tournament, Team USA finished on top with an undefeated 8-0 record for its eighth gold medal, allowing Bullard and Wills to celebrate one last time.

“It’s been an incredibly special experience with Devon, honestly,” Bullard said. “She’s someone whom I have looked up to since day one as a teammate. … We both have a tremendous amount of respect for one another and just love for one another as teammate to be able to go through that experience and go through all three of these together. I’m just thrilled we were able to do it the way we did.”

Said Robertshaw: “It’s fitting. It’s huge. It’s what we needed.” 

How Team USA Won Gold – Again

Team USA defeated Canada for its third straight and eighth overall gold medal. The turning point was attacker Michelle Tumolo's half-field near buzzer beater, but the Americans won by playing "our brand of lacrosse [and] making sure we were ending things on our terms," said U.S. head coach Ricky Fried. 

"They’re champions. There’s no defending," said U.S. assistant Liz Robertshaw. "They earned it. They took it. They fought for it and sometimes you have to fight tooth and nail and they did that, and other times it was ping pong down the field and it was beautiful and they did that too. That goes to show how great of a team they are."

Here are three big reasons why Team USA is still the world champion:

1. The midfield lines – dubbed "Grit" and "Glory" – were grinders.

The veteran line of Grit – Sarah Bullard, Ally Carey and Kelly Rabil, self-described as the “old timer line” – identifies its key strength as grittiness between the 30-yard lines. They enjoy fighting for the 50-50 balls, including draw controls, ground balls and causing turnovers in the ride.

While the younger Glory line of Taylor Cummings, Marie McCool, Katie Schwarzmann and Laura Zimmerman are equally talented in the same area, it prides itself on skill, playing with flair and flash.

But together, they embraced what each line brought to the table, according to Bullard.

Team USA has consistently preached the need to put on a show in the most respectful way possible at the international level. In their first seven games, the Americans scored between 15 and 20 goals, but only 10 in the gold medal game. With faceguards on their top attackers Kayla Treanor and Michelle Tumolo, the midfielders had to step up. Eight of the Americans' 10 goals were scored by midfielders – three by Bullard, two each for McCool and Zimmerman and one by Schwarzmann.

“Canada’s game plan defensively was to shut off our attackers and they weren’t able to completely neutralize them, obviously, but we embraced the fact that we had to step up a little more offensively and contribute a bit more than we have for most of this tournament,” Bullard said. “That made a big difference on both lines. … We only scored 10 goals and that’s half of what we were used to scoring, but we found that way to adjust, shine and put on a show in maybe a little bit less of a flashy goal way and more of a ‘Let’s get the ball back; let’s keep grinding; let’s win this game.”

2. Canada got creative, but nothing was too tall of a task for the U.S.

The Canadians threw two new obvious tactics at Team USA.

First, on offense, they utilized the restraining line as extra space for midfielders and attackers to play interchangeably and allow for open lanes to goal with presumably an extra man.

“Their offensive plan was really smart,” goalie Devon Wills said. “They worked the restraining line a little bit to get some open lanes to dodge. I thought that was smart and something we hadn’t seen before, but luckily we were able to adjust throughout the game.”

Second, Canada’s goalie Katie Donohoe didn’t clear the ball as expected. Instead, she left the ball in the crease and midfielder Erica Evans hopped in, who allowed the clock to tick down until she could hopefully just run the ball up the field with her speed to beat the stout American ride.

“We’re used to having someone on the goalie, so we just instead had to have that player go play Erica who was in the crease,” Bullard said.

While down the stretch, Canada eventually had a three-goal run in the second half – “At some point, you knew they would have to play offense,” said Fried – but the Americans were already “out of reach.”

 “I don’t know if you ever prepare for a team not wanting to bring the ball up to their offensive end of the field,” Fried said. “Give them credit for coming up with a game plan that wouldn’t be expected, but I think that played into our hands a little bit because of the ride. I don’t think they got the ball over the 30 literally the first 15 to 20 minutes of the game. Our players handled it well.”


Captains Sarah Bullard and Devon Wills hug before receiving their final gold medals and hoisting their last World Cup together.

3. Team USA wanted to build its legacy.

The morning of the gold medal game, Fried read a letter from a U.S. alum to the team. It talked about how this day was about them and no one else. The team had come to appreciate the past, embrace the present and lead American lacrosse into the future, but the gold medal game was about them only and how they would leave their mark in the program’s history.

“For the last four years, the rest of the world has been trying to figure out how to get up to our level,” Fried said after Team USA won gold. “With that target, they didn’t back away. They continued to play their game, they continued to be aggressive and they continued to epitomize and show everybody what the game of lacrosse can look like, and in my opinion, should look like.”

The letter Fried read came from U.S. assistant and Hall of Famer Jess Wilk, who was a three-time captain for Team USA and a four-time member, having won three gold medals as a goalie in 1993, 1997 and 2005. At the closing ceremony, the team honored her with the Heart of Lacrosse award because she is a “legend,” teaching this year’s gold medalists “to leave the game better than we found it.”

With that in mind, Team USA was tasked with stripping the notion of being the “defending champion” and assume the title as the champion. Truly embracing pressure as a privilege, Bullard said the U.S. program stayed at the top because they were “rising to the opportunity to be the best team that we can be.”

“Ricky’s talked a lot about this is not the same team that played in 2013. This is a new team. It’s a unique team,” Wilk said. “It’s the 2017 team and each team creates their own identity and what I think this team has really created is 19 players with one heartbeat.

“They’ve been unselfish. They’ve had each other’s backs, they have just worked tremendously hard for each other on and off the field when we’re together and when they’re away,” she continued. “I don’t think the amount of training they do, the amount of preparation that they put in away from here, always gets noticed, but they’ve done it for each other. They’ve set a standard and hopefully they made the players that came before them proud. They’ve certainly made the coaching staff proud and they’ve certainly done themselves proud.”