Nine lacrosse legends — Ryan Boyle, Charlie Coker, Kara Ariza Cooke, Rachael Becker DeCecco, Sarah Forbes, Cathy Reese, Paul Schimoler, Richard Speckmann and Matt Striebel — will be inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame Oct. 19 at The Grand Lodge in Hunt Valley, Md. These are their stories.
There’s an old expression. Speak softly and carry a big stick.
For Rachael Becker DeCecco, that was literal.
“It was so unusual,” said her college coach at Princeton, Chris Sailer. “Here she has this heavy wooden stick. She had a plastic head on it — orange with a little bit of black. I’m like, ‘Rachael, that thing weighs a ton. Think how much quicker you could be.’ Our attackers got a few bruises back in the days when attackers didn’t get all that many bruises.”
DeCecco did more than carry a big stick. She was one of the sport’s all-time great defenders and will cement her place in history with her induction into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame next month.
DeCecco was a key cog in Princeton winning back-to-back NCAA championships in her final two college seasons in 2002 and 2003. Following the 2003 season, she received the Tewaaraton Award as the nation’s top player. She’s the only defender so honored.
“Going against players like Jen Adams, Amy Appelt and Erin Elbe gave me the opportunity to stand out,” DeCecco said.
There may be some truth to that, but there was far more to DeCecco’s excellence than mere matchup fortuity.
“She was just so good at positional defense, people couldn’t get around her,” Sailer said. “She’s a big, tough kid. That left hand. That wooden shaft. She was also a great team defender. We played a system when she was there with really early double-teaming, high pressure on the ball, and she was great in that.”
Sailer first saw DeCecco as a high school freshman when she was recruiting one of her teammates. Sailer’s scheduled home visit with DeCecco came after a shocking loss in field hockey for the high schooler’s Marple Newtown (Pa.) team. Sailer thought about cancelling, but the visit went on as planned and DeCecco came to Princeton to play both field hockey and lacrosse.
She didn’t lose much more.
In her four years playing two sports at Princeton, DeCecco won a combined seven Ivy League championships in addition to the two NCAA titles. But she took some lumps getting started with her field hockey career as a freshman.
“Field hockey was an uphill climb, but struggling in field hockey was great preparation for lacrosse,” DeCecco said. “I played maybe five minutes in total.”
Quitting field hockey to focus solely on lacrosse wasn’t a consideration for DeCecco.
“Never,” she said. “It was a challenge I set for myself. I loved the sport. Having a coach tell me I wasn’t going to play was all I needed to hear.”
That fire was evident to Sailer every day DeCecco put on a Princeton uniform.
“Rachael was such a leader by example first and foremost by showing up every day ready to go,” Sailer said. “She had fun, but she took her lacrosse seriously. There wasn’t a day when she wasn’t ready to give her best. I’ve been told by some of the attackers on our team that they always wanted to go against her, because they knew playing against Rachael would make them a better player. She brought that competitive spirit and fire to everything she did.”
Following her Princeton career, DeCecco went on to represent the United States in the 2005 World Cup in Annapolis, Md. The result wasn’t what she hoped for — a loss to Australia in the gold medal game — but it’s a memory she’ll cherish forever.
“My husband was in the military at the time and had just come back from a deployment,” DeCecco said. “Hearing the national anthem played while you’re wearing red, white and blue at the Naval Academy was pretty surreal. Australia, with Jen Adams and Hannah Nielsen, who was super young at the time, was tough, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to represent my country.”
DeCecco was one of the lucky ones, getting the chance to play at a high level after college. That’s part of the reason she left a successful career in the senior living industry to work in the front office for the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League three years ago.
“I was happily going along in my career, and this opportunity to combine my love of the sport with the business acumen I’ve got along the way came up,” DeCecco said. “I’m learning a lot. Starting a new professional league is not something a lot of people get to do.”
The WPLL completed its second season this summer with a thrilling championship game played before a packed house at US Lacrosse headquarters and a national television audience on ESPNU.
“I love when Princeton players continue in the game,” Sailer said. “Whether they’re club owners, or coaches or now with Rachael being involved with the WPLL. To totally change careers and go for something that was unknown and basically a startup with no guarantee of success, that’s some risk taking. And Rachael would take risks as a player.”
“It’s something I wanted my kids to see,” DeCecco said. “You follow your dreams, and you do what makes you happy.”
DeCecco has always chased her dreams, and that’s part of the reason she finds herself entering the Hall of Fame alongside the sport’s legends.
“When she first found out she was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, she was shocked,” Sailer said.
Her coach wasn’t.
“She was so dominant in her position, and there was no better in that time,” Sailer said. “She was a huge influencer in the outcome of a game. I don’t know that she saw herself like that in the moment, but she was that kind of player.”
The National Lacrosse Hall of Fame, a program of US Lacrosse, was established in 1957 to honor men and women who by their deeds as players, coaches, officials and/or contributors, and by the example of their lives, personify the great contribution of lacrosse to our way of life. The Class of 2019 will be officially recognized at the induction ceremony in Hunt Valley, Md., on Saturday, Oct 19. Tickets for the event, sponsored by RPS Bollinger and the Markel Insurance Company, are available at uslacrosse.org/HOF.
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