‘I think everything happens for a reason,’ how Kelly Marra ultimately chose between soccer and lacrosse
A global pandemic left Marra with the inability to continue competing in both
May 26, 2022
Growing up, Kelly Marra became enamored with the competitive nature of both soccer and lacrosse. She never wanted to choose between the two, and luckily for her, the University of Massachusetts never forced her too.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 did.
When the pandemic first began, sports stopped, and all students were sent home to complete the semester remotely. Throughout the summer, there was no definite answer on what UMass was going to do, specifically regarding the sports teams.
“I was planning on going back in the fall and playing soccer, but in August I think we found out that only a few teams were invited to come back to campus and practice and soccer was not one of them,” Marra said. “So that kind of just made me obviously choose lacrosse because if soccer wasn’t going to be going back, like I might as well go back and just play lacrosse with my team.”
A month later, soccer was invited back, and while Marra was happy that they were getting the opportunity to play, it was hard for her because she had already committed to lacrosse. Had she waited a month or two, she could have continued playing both sports, but this also gave her a new and exciting opportunity.
This was the first time that Marra was going to play lacrosse throughout the entire year, joining the team for preseason training and committing herself to just one sport.
“I think it just ended up working out because it made me realize that I wanted to focus on lacrosse,” Marra said. “My senior year allowed me to kind of develop more as a player throughout the fall and really connect with my teammates which led me to a great senior year.”
During the 2021 season, games were never certain. The dates, times, and opponents were always subject to change. However, the Minutewomen persevered through all the challenges, putting up an undefeated conference record and winning the Atlantic 10 championship, earning an automatic bid into the NCAA women’s lacrosse Tournament. While they lost by one point in the first round, UMass’ accomplishments were something to be celebrated and they looked to repeat that success the following year.
During this time, head coach Angela McMahon-Serpone noticed growth in Marra’s playstyle and leadership capabilities. She isn’t the loudest on the field, but Marra is still heard in other ways.
“She leads through example, through her hard work, and you know, commitment, and she’s really tough,” McMahon-Serpone said. “She really is a physical player, and some of those defenders that she was playing against, really pushed her around, she got knocked down, pushed all the time, but she just popped back up with a smile.”
“And I think it says a lot about her as a person that her level of resiliency and kind of that ‘I’ll do whatever it takes for the team’ mentality, to sort of take that physicality in stride and almost embrace it.”
The culture of the women’s lacrosse team is built off friendships and a team mentality. Marra was just one of 10 players who chose to come back for their fifth year, and these were teammates that she had been playing with since freshman year. Through all the positives and negatives that they have gone through together whether it be a global pandemic or winning the conference championship, they have created relationships that will last a lifetime.
When reflecting on her time at UMass, Marra explained that she never thought she would choose lacrosse if she ultimately had to choose one sport. Soccer was something she did for her entire life and her love for the sport showed every time she stepped on the field.
“I think everything happens for a reason,” Marra said “I still am very close with all the soccer girls, and I don’t think anybody held that against me that I chose lacrosse, but I think it just worked out the way it was supposed to.”
Growing up, Marra was heavily influenced by her two older sisters, following in their footsteps by playing both soccer and lacrosse. They played, their dad coach so Marra began playing soccer as soon as she could walk, and then began lacrosse once she was a little older.
“Soccer was always my number one sport growing up, like it’s in my blood,” Marra said. “I started playing and it was just like second nature to me.”
Her family, and specifically her parents played a large role during her time competing in the two sports. There were times when they would take her to a soccer tournament, and halfway through, they would get into the car once again and rush over to a lacrosse game.
From practices to tryouts to camps, they were willing to sign her up and take her to them all. Their support and constantly optimistic outlook allowed her to breeze over any bad games or days where she wasn’t in the mindset to play and look forward towards improving and playing the next game.
“I think they were always just the ones that picked me back up on my feet and just keep pushing me and supporting me and, I think my family has just been the best support system I could have had these past 22 years.” Marra said. “I don’t think I would be where I am without them today.”
During her five years at UMass, the number of games her parents have missed can probably be counted on one hand, despite them living about four hours away.
In high school, Marra’s kept with both sports but as her four years at Sayville High School began to end, the big decision of which sport to continue with in college was looming.
“I struggled for literally four or five years trying to decide,” Marra said. “So, then I finally went on a visit to a different school, and I actually committed to just play lacrosse, and I thought I was going to be ok with that.”
With that struggle came multiple times where her mind would change, with Marra claiming to choose one sport after a hard and exhausting day playing the other. However, after a good night sleep, she would wake up with the same back-and-forth once again. Marra described it as an equal balance, having both sports to ensure that she never got sick of the other. That balance was her inspiration to continue and her love for both sports was overpowering, with her mind unable to settle on just one.
Marra originally committed to play only lacrosse at Loyola University in Maryland, but the itch to play soccer remained. It was around the time of her junior year in high school when she started the search process again.
“When I came to UMass for a visit, I was given the opportunity to play both,” Marra said. “So, that kind of just made me realize that like I never chose one sport growing up, so why did I have to choose one once I got to college if I was given the opportunity to play both, so I think that was super special.
During her visit, Marra met with both the soccer and lacrosse teams and learned more about the programs, specifically, how they were willing to work with her on the balance for playing both sports. McMahon-Serpone, reached out to the soccer program, and learned that they were already looking to recruit her without knowing about her interest in lacrosse. From there, they connected the dots and offered her the spot on both teams.
“The girls and the culture of both teams were something I was looking for that I had not found in my previous school that I was committed to,” Marra said. “I think growing up playing both sports, my closest friends were always the girls I played travel soccer and lacrosse with, so then when I found that energy when I came on my visit, I was just like these are the girls I’m going to be friends with my whole life.”
Right then and there, Marra knew that UMass was the perfect fit for her.
Julia Smith and Ally Murphy were also part of the same recruiting class and played club lacrosse with Marra growing up, playing heavily into her decision.
Marra was not the first two-sport athlete UMass recruited in recent memory. Rebekka Sverrisdottir played in Amherst from 2012 to 2016 and began as a member of the women’s soccer team before being recruited to join lacrosse during her senior year. Despite never having played lacrosse, they taught her how to catch and she joined the team.
“I’m always of that mindset of an athlete’s an athlete, and if they’ve got that drive, motivation and commitment, like they can do and achieve anything,” McMahon-Serpone said. “We’re all about the multisport athletes.”
McMahon-Serpone found all of those traits in Marra, and she exceeded everyone’s expectations.
“She obviously has an elite level of skill that allowed her to do that,” McMahon-Serpone said. “But she was just a great teammate, positive attitude, and I think she just was really in the moment with whatever she had to do and did a great job of balancing it all.”
That balance was something that didn’t worry Marra; she was aware that she had been doing that her whole life, whether it be from practices to tournaments. Growing up, she prioritized school and athletics which left little time for socializing outside of the team and was something she was prepared for going to college.
The coaching staff for both teams made it clear that during each respective season her focus was solely on that team. For those months at the end of the summer and into the fall, she would just play soccer and at the conclusion of the season would have a few weeks of rest before she moved onto lacrosse.
“I was never pressured to be involved in both at all times,” Marra said. “I think the coaches just made it super helpful and also the transition between soccer and lacrosse season was made extremely easy for me because of the girls on my team.”
However, her ability to balance it all had one coach in shock and amazement.
“I don’t know,” women’s soccer head coach Jason Dowiak said when asked about how Marra was able to balance both sports and school. “I think it’s incredible. You don’t see it. You just don’t see it these days where student athletes can do two sports.”
While she wasn’t concerned with this, Marra described herself as a homebody and was more worried about the transition of living away from home. Stepping foot onto campus in August of her freshman year to begin preseason training was a shock. Her ability to adjust is credited to her teammates who provided a comfortable environment to ensure that everyone would succeed. During that time, she was quickly thrown into a more competitive side of soccer, playing Division I.
“I think it was a really good steppingstone for me and, just like developing as a player on the field and also just a person off the field” Marra said. “Just stepping out of my comfort zone.”
While McMahon-Serpone was involved in Marra’s recruitment, Dowiak’s tenure began in 2018 and Marra, a sophomore at the time, was a player he inherited. Ed Matz was the prior head coach, and both he and McMahon-Serpone recognized Marra’s extensive talent, realizing that she was better suited to contribute to both teams rather than forcing her to choose just one. In her sophomore year, Dowiak was quick to notice her athleticism, describing her as one of the fastest players he coached.
Dowiak started coaching in the spring but was without Marra due to the lacrosse season and because of that he couldn’t get to know her until the summer. During that first month it took time for both Dowiak and Marra to acclimate to the change, but by the middle of the season her success with his coaching started to show. However, she was soon sidelined with a knee injury.
“That was hard to go through, but it wasn’t something that stopped her from continuing to bring that joy to the team,” Dowiak said, “She was great on the sideline for us.”
The following year in 2019, Marra ended the season scoring one goal and recording 12 assists, with the goal being a game winner against Providence, a benchmark opponent for the Minutewomen. They once again earned a spot in the A-10 tournament, and advanced to the semifinals where they lost by one goal. At the time they didn’t realize it, but it would be last time Marra was a member of the women’s soccer team.
“We would have loved to have had [Marra] these last few seasons but, understand her decision and supported it,” Dowiak said. “She’s had an incredible last few years in her lacrosse career, so we go out to as many games as we can to support her.”
Despite Marra no longer being a member of the soccer team, Dowiak’s respect and support for her continued long after, attending women’s lacrosse games and cheering her one. He appreciated her ability to go through the pandemic and all the challenges that accompanied it and coming out on the other side with the same level of desire and passion to play.
Marra’s passion for soccer and lacrosse is something that she hopes to carry with her into her future career and plans to continue training younger girls in both sports during the summer. She hopes to inspire the younger generation and teach them the sports that she has loved her entire life, and with that comes helping sports grow off the field.
During one game in her final season, the stands were filled by the parents and friends of the players, with one family sitting front row ready to see Marra play. They had two young daughters who made large posters with her name and number all over and were loudly cheering the entire game. Marra had started babysitting them last summer, and they also played soccer and lacrosse, so the mother asked her to train them. The relationship has grown, and the young girls look up to her as an older sister. They skipped school and drove all the way from New York to support her, showing how Marra is already making an impact on others.
Through all the ups and downs brought on by the pandemic, Marra has never regretted her decision to continue playing lacrosse, keeping with the mentality that everything happens for a reason.
“I think just playing lacrosse at UMass has transformed my life both as an athlete and a person off the field.”
Sophie Weller can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @SophieeWellerr