Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Rachel Vallarelli’s career-year in net anchors tournament-bound Minutewomen

Goalie Rachel Vallarelli prepares for a potential attack by George Washington. (Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)
Goalie Rachel Vallarelli prepares for a potential attack by George Washington. (Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)

Rachel Vallarelli’s eyes locked in downfield as George Washington’s transition offense was in full motion. The Massachusetts women’s lacrosse goalkeeper stood poised, analyzing the offensive play before it unfolded.

“Cross coming center,” she yelled, directing her teammates into defensive positions. As the ball floated into the UMass zone, Vallarelli acted on instincts. The savvy 5-foot-7 senior sprinted toward a crowd of blue jerseys and corralled the loose ball before any Colonial could blink.

Vallarelli’s momentum-changing play led to a Minutewomen (16-1, 8-0 Atlantic 10 Conference) goal just 20 seconds later, giving UMass a 15-6 lead in a game it eventually won 18-11 on Senior Day at McGuirk Stadium Sunday.

“I really focus on having this killer instinct a little bit,” Vallarelli said prior to Sunday’s game.

This instinct in front of the cage has been on display more than just “a little bit” this season for the Minutewomen.

The 22-year-old Hartsdale, New York native is the nation’s top-ranked goalie in both goals against average (5.07) and save percentage (.535). She’s been named the A-10 Defensive Player of the Week four times this season, in addition to an ECAC New England Defensive Player of the Week honor. Her numbers speak for themselves.

“Rachel is playing the best lacrosse she’s played in her entire career this year,” UMass coach Angela McMahon said.

“It’s a true testament to her attitude,” McMahon added. “Rachel has really bought into everything we do.”

No ‘me’ in Vallarelli

Vallarelli is not the type to bask in her statistical glory.

The second-year starter doesn’t care about the flashy numbers or the accolades she’s rightfully earned this spring.

Sure, she sets preseason goals of reaching certain benchmarks – but that’s what every dedicated player does.

When asked about her individual success, Vallarelli’s answers steered in another direction. She doesn’t go a breath without crediting her teammates and how they constantly “boost” her confidence.

“The reason that I’m here is because of the great players in front of me, everyone on this team and the coaches,” Vallarelli said. “That’s the biggest thing for me, more than the stats.”

“If I let in a dinky goal that I don’t believe should have been let in, they’re like, ‘Rachel, we got you don’t worry,’” Vallarelli added. “That’s something that means the world to me. …You definitely can’t see that in a save percentage or stat you see online.”

McMahon can speak endlessly about her goalkeeper’s identity as the “ultimate team player.”

“It’s just all about UMass,” McMahon said of Vallarelli’s persona. “She makes it very clear that this is the most important thing to her. Her passion and her energy, her desire to win, and really be the best UMass lacrosse team possible is something that she really takes a lot of pride in.”

It’s no coincidence that Vallarelli’s emergence as one of the nation’s elite keepers occurred simultaneously as UMass’ overall defensive unit established itself as one of the stingiest in college lacrosse.

The Minutewomen are ranked second in the nation in both scoring defense (5.53 goals per game) and save percentage (.520). They rank second in caused turnovers per game (12.35) and third in ground balls (21.18). UMass also ranks fifth in scoring margin (7.35).

“Her general understanding and lacrosse IQ has really improved,” McMahon said. “Which therefore has really helped our defense because we want to play aggressive and take a lot of risks … Having Rachel back there, it enables us to take a lot more risks than we were able to do in the past.”

In the rare occurrence when UMass’ defense cracks, there’s no panic amongst McMahon and her defensive unit. There’s a confidence in their goaltender’s special ability to make a play.

Vallarelli has more than proven herself to be a viable last resort.

“Whether we get beat or not, I feel like any one of us defenders is fully confident in Rachel saving the ball or stopping the shot,” senior defender Morgan Walker said. “It’s good because we can trust her and she will fulfill that role.”

‘The bigger the stage the better’

The Minutewomen punched their ticket to yet another postseason appearance after clinching their seventh consecutive A-10 Conference crown this past weekend. UMass has reached the NCAA tournament the previous four seasons but hasn’t advanced past the second round.

Vallarelli is no stranger to the pressure-filled atmosphere. McMahon has seen her goaltender rise to the occasion in many critical moments throughout her four-year career.

“The bigger the stage the better,” McMahon said of Vallarelli. “Things don’t really rattle her. She handles it really well.”

In a sport where a goaltender on a hot streak can carry a team far into the playoffs, McMahon is thrilled to have Vallarelli in front of her net.

“It’s clutch,” McMahon smiled. “She’s really made some clutch saves in key moments. She takes things personally. She wants to win and she’s a competitor. I think that her ability to do that and do it at the biggest stage is great and the most important thing for her … We’re definitely going to rely on her pretty heavily going forward to help us out and keeping our season going as long as possible.”

Motivation is not an issue for Vallarelli. Her last three tournament exits still sting. Last spring’s 10-4 loss to Loyola was the toughest.

“It’s been a heartbreak at the end of each season,” Vallarelli said. “You learn from that. I don’t want to cry like I did at the end of last season. I don’t want that to happen this year. If I cry this year, I want it to be tears of joy, May 24, Memorial Day weekend, down in (Philadelphia) … That’s my mindset.”

Not done yet

Vallarelli will graduate this May as one of the most decorated players in program history. Her career 45-5 (and counting) record as a starter places her second all-time in wins at UMass, and she’ll likely finish second in goals against average. She never lost a regular season conference game (19-0).

McMahon will say goodbye to the player she originally recruited in her first season coaching the program, and watched become one of the country’s best at her position.

“She’s a die-hard UMass fan, UMass lacrosse, she loves it,” McMahon said. “If she could, she’d be on the field 18 hours a day. That’s the type of energy and enthusiasm and commitment that we love and what’s made her so special.

“We’re definitely going to miss her when she leaves here.”

Vallarelli hopes Sunday’s Senior Day game won’t be her last.

While her days playing at McGuirk Stadium may be over, Vallarelli’s still focused on extending the fortunate ones she has left.

“This is it for me,” Vallarelli said. “There’s no pretending. I am done after this year. It’s really sad, but I just want to make it the best yet, and continue however I can. Making sure I’m doing everything possible to help the team in front of me.

“You want to be there another day with your teammates; that’s what it comes down to. We want to see another day together.”


Joey Saade can be reached at [email protected].

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