A New Wave: U.S. Women's Sixes Team Ignites Nationals, Displays New Discipline

PHOTO BY MASON PERRICONE

Dempsey Arsenault led Team White with two goals on Tuesday.


FREDERICA, Del. — In November 2018, the U.S. women’s national team tried something new in front of hundreds of youth girls’ lacrosse players who lined the fields at the IWLCA Presidents Cup in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Jenny Levy and her program were the first U.S. national team to experiment with a 6-v-6 lacrosse game under Olympic trial rules featuring a smaller field, shorter quarters and plenty of goals. The U.S. competed in a Blue-White exhibition and played against the professionals of the United Women’s Lacrosse League and the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League — all under the the then-Federation of International Lacrosse’s trial rules.

“They were running some really good girls, and I remember having to learn so fast on the fly,” Dempsey Arsenault said of an important day in women’s lacrosse.

Arsenault and her former Boston College teammate Sam Apuzzo made their national team debuts at that event in 2018, months after a third consecutive trip to the NCAA championship game. Each got the chance to follow in the footsteps of idols like Michelle Tumolo and Kayla Treanor.

As if joining the national team for the first time wasn't enough of a new experience, Arsenault and Apuzzo attempted to play a new discipline of lacrosse — one that would later become World Lacrosse’s “Sixes.”

“It was such a learning curve for us,” Apuzzo said. “No one had ever done it, and the coaches were still trying to figure out how each player fit into the structure. It was a bit overwhelming because it felt like a practice pick-up game, but it was a legit game.”

Less than three years later, Arsenault and Apuzzo are seasoned veterans of the U.S. team program. The Athletes Unlimited professionals competed in U.S. team tryouts and an additional training camp in June and returned this week to wear the red, white and blue in an entirely different discipline.

Two of the biggest stars in women’s lacrosse made up the core of the first-ever U.S. Sixes training camp — an event they shared with their male counterparts. After a Monday night session learning the concepts of Sixes, the U.S. women’s  team took the bus to Frederica, Del., to show off the progress they’ve made in front of a large crowd of aspiring athletes at USA Lacrosse Nationals — much like it did when Arsenault and Apuzzo made their debuts.

Apuzzo scored three goals to help Team Blue take a 17-13 victory in the Blue-White Sixes exhibition. Arsenault led White with two goals, while goalie Caylee Waters made a whopping 21 saves in a back-and-forth battle that left players out of breath but wanting more action.

“I had maybe like one or two up-and-back runs,” Apuzzo joked. “At that point, you’re like, ‘Gotta get off.’”

Both Arsenault and Apuzzo said they’ve learned plenty about the short-sided game since 2018, and that the U.S. team is starting to grow within the Sixes discipline, which includes a 30-second shot clock.

“We know we have to be a bit smarter,” Arsenault said. “Before, it was go-go-go. Now, we’re saying, ’30 seconds is quick, but we have some time to create strategy and offense.”

“Back then, everything was either a fast break or a missed shot,” Apuzzo said. “Today, we were able to set up an offense a little more and play out of it. That was different than the first time we played, when I was exhausted after about two minutes.”

Also in contrast to the last time the U.S. team played an official 6-v-6 game, Arsenault and Apuzzo are the most experienced players on the 24-player training camp roster.

Youth players competing at USA Lacrosse Nationals smiled as they looked at photos taken with the two stars. Fans waited for more than 30 minutes after the Blue-White exhibition for a chance to see their favorite players.

With an infusion of younger collegiate talent on this 24-player roster, both Arsenault and Apuzzo have made their voices heard in huddles, along with Waters. Both have grown into their platforms as some of most popular women’s lacrosse players in the world and now bring a leadership component to the national team.

“It’s been so different,” Arsenault said. “It’s really exciting being able to lean on each other. We’ve stepped out of our comfort zones. Caylee is awesome, and we’re looking up to her. It’s really cool to see younger girls looking up to us.”







HICKLEN TRADING STICKS

U.S. Sixes coach Andy Shay approached Haley Hicklen at the beginning of Monday’s training session.

“Are you my goalie?” he asked Hicklen, who was holding a field stick.

“Yeah, but I’ll play wherever you need me,” she replied.

Hicklen trotted onto Tierney Field as part of the U.S. Sixes  offense — a position she had never imagined she’d enter. Florida's all-time leader in saves (566), ground balls (197) and minutes played for a goalie, Hicklen is trying her hand at playing in the field during this training camp.

Entering this week, Hicklen had not played a competitive game as a field player since she suited up for Towson (Md.) High School when her team was low on players in fall ball. Her future college coach, Amanda O’Leary, was in attendance for a game Hicklen will always remember.

“I’m on the draw circle ready to go, and [the Florida coaches were] dying laughing at me,” she said. “I go down and shoot and hit the goalie and my coaches pulled me out and they were like, ‘Seriously, you hit the goalie, you’re out of the game.’ My coaches are cracking up, but I went back in and scored.”

Hicklen was a full-time goalie from age 7 through her college career and into the professional ranks with the WPLL Brave. She picked up a field stick once again during her time as an assistant at Pitt ahead of its inaugural season in 2022.

With the Panthers down to just 14 players on campus this year, the entire coaching staff — including head coach Emily Boissonneault — grabbed their sicks to join in. Hicklen’s experience at Pitt gave her confidence she could be an asset in Sixes.

“I got a lot more comfortable with my stick and taking risks and taking chances,” she said. “Going from goalie to field, you just have to have fun with it. Trust yourself and your knowledge of the game. You’re in the best position to understand the game. You see both sides of the field. You just have to go out and fake it until you make it.”

Hicklen’s ability to play goalie and field could prove valuable as the U.S. looks to fill a Sixes roster ahead of next year’s World Games. A player of her skill set could serve as a reserve goalie and field player.

“If I have the ability to expand my game and, in the future, other goalies’ games to be able to do both, it will help this sport be more successful,” she said. “You’ll have more depth on your rosters, and you’re going to be able to hold more players.”

A NEW WAY TO ENGAGE

The U.S. women may not have been prepared for what Tuesday’s USA Nationals autograph session entailed, but they had plenty of fun with it.

While players like Arsenault, Apuzzo and Emma Ward signed autographs for youth players, excitement broke out behind their tent. There, players from Big 4 Lax (Philadelphia) danced alongside Sam Swart and Olivia Dirks.

Swart, Dirks and a group of girls put together a TikTok dance video to the tune of Popp Hunna’s “Corvette Corvette.” It may have been the first time in national team history fans asked for a TikTok appearance in lieu of an autograph.

“In this generation, it’s not, ‘Can I have your autograph?’” Swart joked. “It’s, ‘Can we make a TikTok?’ It was hilarious. They saw me and [Dirks] doing a TikTok on the U.S. women’s Instagram, and they were like, ‘Can we be in it?’ It was crazy to see the girls so happy, and it really set the tone for the game.”

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