The Unsurprising Rise of Ally Mastroianni

Ally Mastroianni stood on the sideline of Tierney Field on October 17, looking onward at the Canadian national team — the U.S. women’s training team opponent at Fall Classic. Her gaze slowly focused on Dana Dobbie, the All-World player and draw specialist whom she grew up idolizing.

As she pondered a potential matchup with Dobbie, nostalgia seeped into her mind.

“‘Oh wow. I’m about to take the draw against someone who I grew up watching on YouTube,’” she said aloud. It was a thought she had yet to internalize.

As soon as the words left her mouth, she turned her head to the left and found Athletes Unlimited champion and U.S. teammate Taylor Cummings.

“Not to be a fan girl, but I might have watched yours, too,” she said as her teammate and idol laughed.

Minutes later, Mastroianni took the field and lined up against Dobbie. She remembered the wrist control drills she worked on in her backyard after watching the Canadian on YouTube. She still uses the elbow positioning she learned from those videos and uses those tips to teach young girls at clinics.

“We went up to do the draw, and I didn’t want to make anyone feel old or anything like that,” Mastroianni joked. “I had to approach it in a funny way, like, ‘Oh, the irony, it’s come full circle.’”

As cliché as it may sound, Mastroianni’s lacrosse career has come full circle — and quickly. Cummings and Mastroianni dominated the draw in the 19-3 win over Dobbie at Fall Classic. The moment may have been surreal for the New Jersey native, but she didn’t let it affect her game.

“I think it’s a good experience for her to realize how great she can be,” coach Jenny Levy said of Mastroianni’s time with the national team.

Once she shook off the gravity of the occasion, she got to work — just as she’s done for the better part of 20 years. When Mastroianni takes the field with the U.S. women’s national team, she doesn’t look like a player who as recently as June had never put on the red, white and blue.

“Whatever situation she’s in, she will always spin it to where it has a positive outcome.” 

— Carol Mastroianni

Mastroianni, who battled a gruesome hamstring injury that cost her parts of her freshman and sophomore seasons at UNC, is finally feeling 100 percent. This past spring, she was a first-team All-American and ACC Midfielder of the Year while leading North Carolina to the final four. She made the first cut, then the second, for the U.S. women’s national and will compete at next month’s Spring Premiere in Auburndale, Fla. — potentially the last event before she finds out if she makes the world championship squad set for Towson in July.

A year ago, all Mastroianni wanted was to play a full season at her peak level. Now, she’s quickly becoming one of the most efficient women’s lacrosse players in the world, gaining confidence with every draw.

“I don’t even think she’s being valued enough,” said her father, Dan Mastroianni. “I think she’s got more the tank. You haven’t seen everything she can do yet. Would I say she’s 100 percent? I’d say she’s a 99.”

As swift as Mastroianni’s rise has been, it hasn’t surprised anyone that has followed her lacrosse story. Even before she picked up a stick in Bridgewater Township, she showed the competitiveness and athletic ability that gave her coaches reason to believe she was special.

The backyard games were intense, with her brother, Ray, and neighbors pushing her to win — whether it be manhunt in the woods or lacrosse in the backyard. As soon as she started playing organized sports like field hockey, basketball, softball and lacrosse, her potential was evident.

“It became clear very early on to me that I was looking at LeBron James,” said MG Hollingsworth, her youth lacrosse coach and neighbor. “She was a woman amongst girls at the youth level, and there were times where it was just complete and utter domination.”

The only question, according to Hollingsworth, whose daughter Hannah just finished a four-year lacrosse career at Rutgers, was what sport would Mastroianni choose to dominate. Her mother, Carol Mastroianni, was a prominent field hockey, basketball and softball coach in Central Jersey, and she made sure to get her daughter involved in the sports she loved.

Ally Mastroianni flew around the bases in softball and showed plenty of promise, but as soon as her daughter picked up a lacrosse stick, Carol Mastroianni could feel the pull from the sport that both her children played.

“When I saw her with a lacrosse stick, I knew in my head,” Carol Mastroianni said. “I loved softball, but when I saw her with a stick in her hands and the way she ran, I knew she truly was a lacrosse player. I had to let her figure that out for herself.”

By the seventh grade, Mastroianni had made up her mind, thanks to a trip to the 2013 NCAA final four just an hour down the road in Villanova, Pa. North Carolina took down Maryland in an epic triple-overtime thriller, and Mastroianni sat on the edge of her seat the entire game.

All of Mastroianni’s friends wore red for the Terps, but Mastroianni chose Carolina Blue. She stood on her tippy toes as Brittney Coppa rushed down the field and found Sammy Jo Tracy for the championship-winning goal.

Amidst the chaos, Mastroianni’s mission became clear.

“Everyone was jumping up and down screaming. Their sticks were going in the air,” she remembered. “The confetti was everywhere. I was cheering at first, and then I was silent with my jaw dropped, just staring at those girls, and I’m like, ‘Holy crap. How do I make that happen for myself?’”

For the next two years, Mastroianni set her sights on playing lacrosse for North Carolina. She hit the wall every single day. She asked her friends to practice around the neighborhood. She asked for a trip to a North Carolina summer camp for Christmas before her freshman year of high school.

By the time Levy had Mastroianni on her radar entering that freshman year, she didn’t have to pitch the benefits of her program.

“When we were recruiting her class, she came in and on her visit, she committed right away,” Levy said. “She was one of those kids where we were like, ‘Yep. Thank you for coming down.’ We liked her, and she’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m ready to go. I’d like to be a Tar Heel.’ Not everyone’s that easy.”

In the next three years, Mastroianni proved what those around her had already believed, pouring in 561 points and helping lead Bridgewater-Raritan to its first Tournament of Champions title in 2017.

As she entered her freshman year at Chapel Hill, she had already accomplished one of her dreams. Still, she knew there was plenty left to do, and an entire college career in which she could develop. She dropped 14 goals during her freshman season, but by May, the biggest challenge of her career was upon her.

Mastroianni had no idea the extent to which she had damaged her hamstring when the initial injury occurred. In the final regular-season game of 2018, she dodged and fired off a shot but felt a sensation “like a braided rope breaking” in her upper right leg.  She continued to play, but she didn’t feel like herself.

After a week of rehabbing and pain management, Mastroianni tried to give it a go in the ACC semifinals against Syracuse, but once she started cutting aggressively again, the pain returned.

“It just felt like something yanked down my leg,” she said.

She missed the ACC championship game and a run to the NCAA title game, where the Tar Heels lost to James Madison. It wasn’t until a couple weeks after the season that she discovered the severity of her injury. She was having trouble running and sitting down, so she decided to see a surgeon to assess the damage.

“My surgeon was kind of amazed,” she said. “He was like, ‘How are you walking?’”

After extensive evaluation, Mastroianni was diagnosed with a Grade 3 proximal hamstring tear. All three hamstrings were torn off their insertion point, bringing bone fragments from the pelvis with them — called a hamstring avulsion. In addition, doctors were worried her sciatic nerve, the largest in the human body centered in the lower spine, was exposed.

The injury was so severe that the Mastroianni family sought the advice of the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. There, they heard from Dr. Struan Coleman, who had experience with a procedure to repair her hamstring, although she was among the youngest and most active patients they had worked on.

“I'm like, ‘Oh good. I’m an experiment,’” she said.

That summer, Dr. Coleman performed the procedure on Mastroianni, intending to get her back to 100 percent and allow her to fulfill her potential in lacrosse. He came out of the operating room to address Carol and Dan Mastroianni about a successful surgery.

“What he said to us was, ‘You can't even believe how lucky she was, because a piece of the bone came off and it actually held those three hamstrings up,” Carol Mastroianni said. “If that didn't happen, and if they would've gone down her leg, they would never have been able to stretch them that much to anchor them back in.”

In addition, Dr. Duretti Fula was called in to provide extra protection for Mastroianni’s sciatic nerve. He wrapped the nerve in shark collagen, an elastic tissue that provides support to bones and nerves.

Yes, Mastroianni is now part shark.

“My friends are now like, ‘OK, that’s your new fun fact. You win,” she said.

“I’ve never had any of my athletes be part fish,” Levy said. “She’s the first.”

As light-hearted as she could keep her mind after surgery, Mastroianni faced a challenging recovery. For the better part of three months, her right leg was locked in a 90-degree angle from hip to foot by a brace. She spent much of that time on her stomach, where it was most comfortable.

Through physical therapy, she had to relearn to walk and was allowed to slowly ease the angle at which her leg was fixed. Once she got back to Chapel Hill, she continued her therapy with strength coach Eric Hernandez, who started her in the gymnastics room, hopping on the trampoline and slowly adding more rigorous exercises.

Through the fall of 2018, Mastroianni worked with Hernandez to build her strength and prepare for the 2019 season. No matter how uncomfortable she felt, she knew the joy that waited for her on the other side of the recovery process.

“It was tough to feel like I’m a little bit on the outside, but I did everything in my power to stay super positive,” she said. “That transition and that time of perseverance was great for me emotionally. I was growing physically through that whole thing, but also psychologically and emotionally. I worked to create a positive mindset, and it kind of made me fall in love with the game again.”


Ally Mastroianni lines up to take the draw against one of her childhood idols, Dana Dobbie of Team Canada.

Mastroianni returned to the North Carolina lineup as a draw specialist for much of the 2019 season, working her way back to full health, but she was grateful to step on the field in any capacity. She led the team with 75 draw controls and added 21 points as the Tar Heels made another final four. By the beginning of the 2020 season, she felt ready to play at full strength, but COVID-19 derailed the season after just seven games. She waited for weeks to see whether she’d have a chance to play a fifth season in Chapel Hill, or if her career was over without a last hoorah.

Luckily, she was granted an extra year of eligibility, but the remainder of 2020 tested her in different ways. She lost both of her grandfathers within a month of one another, both of whom were major supporters. From keeping newspaper clippings to memorizing stats and bragging about Mastroianni to everyone they knew, her grandfathers were her biggest fans.

She dedicated the 2021 college season to Allen Van Winkle and Anthony Mastroianni, and she delivered one to remember. She scored 31 times and poured in 112 draw controls to lead North Carolina to the precipice of an unbeaten season, eventually falling in the NCAA semifinals to Boston College.

Mastroianni emerged as one of the top players in the country and garnered plenty of accolades to back it up. She’s grown into the player that Levy and her teammates knew that she could become, and she returns as a key component to a national title contender (once again).

“Development for players happens two ways. One is, we need to put them in an environment that helps them develop and inspires them to develop,” Levy said. “But the athlete needs to want to play at the next level. With Ally, once we got her physical piece of it settled, we were really able to help her find the next level of play.”

“Knowing that I had such a solid player in front of me, and someone who works well on defense, it’s a huge benefit to have Ally on the field,” said North Carolina goalie and teammate Taylor Moreno. “Even off the field, she’s someone who is always able to put a smile on everyone’s face.”

This summer, Mastroianni got the invite to join the U.S. women’s national team tryout process, where she showcased a skill set that blended well with veterans like Cummings and Marie McCool, who served as a volunteer assistant at North Carolina and helped Mastroianni develop heading into the 2021 season.

Now on the cusp of a potential spot on the world championship roster, Mastroianni’s platform continues to grow. She signed every autograph she could at Fall Classic in October and at the IWLCA Presidents Cup in Dallas in November.

She regularly offers her time for clinics, whether in Chapel Hill or back home in New Jersey. Just last week, Olivia Dirks and Moreno stayed at the Mastroianni household so they could conduct a clinic in Bridgewater for various aspiring lacrosse players, just like Mastroianni was a decade ago.

Mastroianni’s interest in giving back extends far beyond the field. As soon as she got to North Carolina, she got involved with Gigi’s Playhouse, an organization that provides programming and support for people with Down syndrome and their families.

Inspired by her cousin, Danielle, who lives with Down syndrome and with whom she talks daily on FaceTime, Mastroianni is the liaison for UNC women’s lacrosse and Gigi’s Playhouse, regularly gathering her teammates to meet children with special needs. During the pandemic, she asked her teammates to submit exercise videos to send to the children at Gigi’s Playhouse. She edited the entire compilation herself — another skill she’s been working on.

“We as student-athletes in this town have the ability to make a positive impact on the community,” she said. “It’s so important and inspiring to be involved.”

Through her challenges, Mastroianni has developed gratefulness for playing the game of lacrosse and being able to give back. While she’s quickly risen to great heights in her lacrosse career, she’s maintained a willingness to help others and spread the positivity that makes her unique.

“I’m a health teacher and talk about positivity. I always ask my students, ‘Who’s the most, positive person that you know?’ Then, they turn it to me. I said my daughter, Ally,’” Carol Mastroianni said. “Whatever situation she’s in, she will always spin it to where it has a positive outcome.”