PHOTO BY JUSTIN SNIPES

Veteran keeper Devon Wills, who joined Team USA in 2003, may retire after the World Cup and World Games this summer.

Wills' Last Ride? America's Goalie Hopes Next Generation Ushers Lacrosse into Olympics


At age 14, Devon Wills could clear the ball 50 yards up the field on the run with her non-dominant left hand. By high school, she cruised through workouts required of the U.S. and Canadian women’s national teams.

But it wasn’t until she met Danielle Gallagher and Susan Stuart that Wills, a Denver native who grew up dreaming of playing Olympic ice hockey, realized lacrosse would be her life’s calling.

LaxWorld, then a little-known store in a state where lacrosse was only beginning to buzz, launched a youth league in 1998. Wills divided her time between the field and the crease, but began to favor the goalie position when she encountered Gallagher, a four-time U.S. World Cup attacker who lived nearby in Steamboat Springs, and Stuart, the Colorado College coach who played goalie for both the U.S. and Canadian national teams. Gallagher and Stuart trained together. Young Wills soon joined them.

“They looked at me as somebody who loved the game as much as they did,” Wills said. “They were happy to see that somebody in Colorado was also as inspired and wanted the same things that they did. I tagged along like a little sister.”


“People respect what she’s done. She’s a shoo-in, obviously, for the US Lacrosse Hall of Fame in the future. I’m sure anything she wants to take on in the lacrosse world is at her doorstep.” - Susan Stuart on Devon Wills


When then-Team USA coach Sue Stahl hosted a clinic at the University of Denver, leading the U.S. into the new millennium with a who’s who of lacrosse like Gallagher, Kelly Amonte and Jess Wilk, Stuart introduced Wills to her.

“Stuey marched me right over to Sue and said, ‘This kid is going to make the U.S. team one day,’” Wills said. 

Wills was a freshman at Dartmouth when she qualified for her first U.S. team in 2003. She then became a four-time all-Ivy League goalie, leading the Big Green to their first and only NCAA final as a captain in 2006.

“You remember the big moments with her,” said current U.S. and Georgetown head coach Ricky Fried. “She was one of the rare early players out of the crease and active in and around the crease, picking off passes, making plays for her defense. She became that eighth defender.”
 








In addition to leading the U.S. to World Cup titles in 2009 and 2013, she was the first woman to make a Major League Lacrosse roster, earning a spot on the New York Lizards’ practice squad in 2014 — an appropriate milestone for the girl who played with and against the boys growing up — and was the inaugural MVP of the United Women’s Lacrosse League, which debuted in 2016.

“Devon’s been known as a great athlete for a long time,” Fried said. “The work that she has done to become the premier goaltender in the world goes unnoticed by most people. Every aspect of the game, she has broken down and worked on to continue to improve, even when she was the best in the world. That just tells a lot about her as a person.”

Wills also never forgot how Gallagher and Stuart, and later Wilk, took a young goalie under their wings. Now it’s her turn. Gussie Johns, one of the youngest players on the 2017 U.S. Women’s World Cup team and a current junior at USC, where Wills is the associate head coach under two-time U.S. gold medalist Lindsey Munday, has witnessed Wills’ legacy since she was in fifth grade.

As a “tiny little goalie,” Johns watched every move of the then-Dartmouth senior during a Team USA clinic at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va. Johns called her over, asked Wills for her autograph and reveled at the poster in her possession. She still has it today.

“There aren’t that many active goalies, at least when I was recruited,” said Johns, who played boys’ lacrosse from ages 4 to 14. “That was a huge draw, to be able to come and learn from someone who’s the best in the world. She’s been such a great role model to me.”
 




PHOTO BY JUSTIN SNIPES

Devon Wills, a one-time phenom, is thankful for the meaningful relationships and experiences she gained through the U.S. program.


Yet, as the USC duo turns to attack the World Cup in England this summer for a record eighth world title, Wills, a two-time gold medalist, has begun reflecting on her career. With 14 years under her belt with Team USA, she heads to Guildford after recovering from surgery on a torn labrum in her hip.

“This could probably be it,” Wills said. “My body can only take so much. ... It’s time to start settling down and thinking about family.”

Will Wills retire? She will decide following the World Cup and World Games, the latter being a multi-sport event where 15 U.S. players will compete with hopes of catching the eyes of the Olympic committee. But for now, she’s thankful for all the meaningful relationships the U.S. program has given her. 

“It’s been a crazy journey. It’s definitely one of the programs, even if it’s just a short time, that you meet people that you would have never met,” she said. “This is a really amazing group. A lot of these people that are on the team are young — and they will be the faces that take it to the Olympics. It’s really cool to be a part of that, get that experience with them and then kind of step back and watch them grow the sport.”

Fried said it would be “sad for the game” if Wills retires, but he finds solace in knowing that she will never leave the sport. She may never take full credit, but Wills, herself, has already grown the game tenfold.

“People respect what she’s done,” Stuart said. “She’s a shoo-in, obviously, for the US Lacrosse Hall of Fame in the future. I’m sure anything she wants to take on in the lacrosse world is at her doorstep.”