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‘We want to resonate with other women’: How a new pro lacrosse league is helping two mothers return to the field

Amber Falcone McKenzie, left, and her husband Norval McKenzie, the running game coordinator for Vanderbilt football, pose with children Storm McKenzie (age 5) and Bolt (age 1). Amber, a former Westminster resident and Winters Mill graduate, is one of two mothers returning to professional lacrosse with the Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse League.
Amber Falcone McKenzie, left, and her husband Norval McKenzie, the running game coordinator for Vanderbilt football, pose with children Storm McKenzie (age 5) and Bolt (age 1). Amber, a former Westminster resident and Winters Mill graduate, is one of two mothers returning to professional lacrosse with the Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse League. (Courtesy of the McKenzie family)

At the age of 5, Storm McKenzie is too young to know much about his mother’s previous life as one of the nation’s top defenders in lacrosse — first at Winters Mill and North Carolina, then the U.S. national team at the World Lacrosse Women’s World Championship in 2009 and 2013, and finally the New England Command of the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League (WPLL).

But he knows enough to refer to Amber Falcone McKenzie by a somewhat blue term.

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“He walks around the house calling me ‘Badass,’ which is probably so inappropriate for a 5-year-old, but I kind of like it,” she said with a laugh. “I let it slide. But if he does it in kindergarten, then I’m going to be in trouble.”

McKenzie will attempt to affirm her household status when she returns to the playing field for the first time since 2018 as a member of the Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse League, which opens its inaugural season this Friday at Maureen Hendricks Field in Boyds in Montgomery County. The former Westminster resident will be joined by Holly McGarvie Reilly, who — like McKenzie — was born in 1987 and will return after a three-year hiatus of raising a family, coaching and running a business.

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“This whole week, I’ve woken up with little butterflies in my stomach every day, and that’s exciting,” said Reilly, who starred as a midfielder at Princeton, the U.S. national team in 2009 and 2013, and the WPLL’s Philadelphia Fire. “There’s this idea that in so much of my life, I do know what’s going on, but this is something that’s a little unpredictable and a little scary.”

In the Athletes Unlimited model that emulates fantasy sports leagues by ranking players by their individual and team performances and changing lineups every week, with the top four players serving as captains who draft new teams, McKenzie and Reilly are two of the league’s oldest players, turning 34 in March and April, respectively. But if the remaining 54 players — many of whom are recent college graduates — think McKenzie and Reilly will curl up into a ball, think again.

“I might not be the fastest any more or I might not be the fittest,” McKenzie said. “But I have the experience and leadership of playing for in the U.S. program for eight years, and just being around the game in so many facets makes me qualified to be out there.”

Added Reilly: “I love a good challenge myself. So this is going to be the hardest thing I’ve done this year, but I’m up for it.”

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Holly McGarvie Reilly, left, and her husband Brendan pose with sons Liam, middle, and Finnegan, right. Holly, who played midfield at Princeton, is returning to lacrosse from a three-year layoff after raising children.
Holly McGarvie Reilly, left, and her husband Brendan pose with sons Liam, middle, and Finnegan, right. Holly, who played midfield at Princeton, is returning to lacrosse from a three-year layoff after raising children. (Courtesy of the Reilly family)

Athletes Unlimited analyst Courtney Martinez Connor said McKenzie’s recent work as the recruiting coordinator for Eagles Stix Lacrosse Club in Atlanta and Reilly’s role as founder and director of Renegade Lacrosse in Orange County, Calif., should help them adapt quickly to the current game.

“They may not be as athletic as they once were or they may not be the fastest players on the field anymore, but they have so much knowledge and experience that it’s going to carry them through,” said Connor, a Towson native and Loch Raven graduate who was a defender for Maryland that captured NCAA titles from 1997 to 2001. “I think they’re going to do great. I think it’s always exciting that they can still run around and play and show their kids, ‘Look, this is what Mommy can do.’”

After getting married (Reilly to Brendan Reilly in 2012, McKenzie to Norval McKenzie in 2014), McKenzie gave birth to Storm in 2016, while Reilly bore Finnegan a year later. Both played in the WPLL’s debut season in 2018, but sat out the 2019 campaign to welcome sons Bolt McKenzie and Liam Reilly that year.

Amber McKenzie, who served as an assistant coach for the Command in 2019, had not planned to return to the sport as a player until last summer when Athletes Unlimited reached out to her. When officials pledged to help her secure childcare so that she could play, she signed up in July.

“My sons constantly see these wonderful male role models in the college football world, and while that’s amazing, this is an opportunity for them to see really amazing women that work really hard at other aspects of their lives but are also amazing lacrosse players,” said McKenzie, whose husband is a former Vanderbilt running back and the school’s run game coordinator. “So I think it’s important that my sons see me train for something that I love and get to be around these amazing women.”

McKenzie then called Reilly and convinced the fellow 2009 college graduate to jump aboard.

“There’s an element that we want to resonate with other women – whether they’re 12 [years old] and they want to be motivated by [three-time Tewaaraton Award winner] Taylor Cummings and be a Maryland All-Star or they’re older females and they’re moms and they’re working through handling the challenges and the advantages of being a mom and a working woman and working towards two dreams simultaneously,” said Reilly, who is also co-head coach of the Argentina national team which has qualified for next summer’s World Championships in Towson. “So for me, I sat back and thought about using and sharing my lifestyle as a mom and a professional lacrosse player and a business owner with others about how I work through those challenges.”

Athletes Unlimited co-founder and CEO Jon Patricof said players who are pregnant and cannot finish the season will be placed on paid leave. The organization will also provide childcare for mothers or pay caregivers selected by the mothers. That model worked well during the Athletes Unlimited volleyball season when Brazilian star Sheilla Castro and UCLA standout Katie Carter brought their children to Dallas in February.

“We realize that maybe too often in the world, that’s the case, and there are a lot of hard choices that have to be made by people who are trying to balance pregnancy or childcare in general with their careers,” he said. “So we are working really hard to accommodate and create an environment where our players don’t have to choose between the two.”

McKenzie said the issue of childcare for female athletes has never been more important when juxtaposing the NCAA’s decision not to provide accommodations for children of coaches working in the women’s basketball tournament in March and the International Olympic Committee’s announcement that female athletes who are nursing will be permitted to bring their children to the Summer Games in Tokyo.

Amber Falcone McKenzie, left, and her husband Norval McKenzie, the running game coordinator for Vanderbilt football, pose with children Storm McKenzie (age 5) and Bolt (age 1). Amber will play in the new Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse League this year.
Amber Falcone McKenzie, left, and her husband Norval McKenzie, the running game coordinator for Vanderbilt football, pose with children Storm McKenzie (age 5) and Bolt (age 1). Amber will play in the new Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse League this year. (Courtesy of the McKenzie family)

“Right now, you can see in the media all of the struggles that mothers are facing,” said McKenzie, whose mother, Dawn Kibler, will be paid by Athletes Unlimited to care for her grandsons. “That shouldn’t even be up for debate in my opinion. So, Athletes Unlimited is so progressive in that regard.”

McKenzie selected The Arc Carroll County as her beneficiary partner with Athlete Causes with her play earning funds to support the nonprofit organization’s programs, which benefit individuals such as her aunt, Pippi Kibler.

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Once the decision to return was finalized, carving out time in their schedules to train required some flexibility and imagination from the mothers. Reilly, who has found ways to condense two hours of training into a 30-to-45-minute window, has incorporated her sons into her workouts such as pushing them in a double stroller for high intensity interval training.

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McKenzie has access to a home gym in the basement. While her sons are playing in a bounce house or with a mini basketball hoop, she works with barbells and cardio machines.

“Basically our basement is half-workout gym and half-circus,” she quipped. “That’s how I get it done.”

Reilly admitted there is a part of her that yearns to prove to the younger generation that she can keep pace. She noted that when she and McKenzie were college graduates on the 2009 national team, Loch Raven and Penn State graduate Michele DeJuliis captained the squad to its seventh of nine world titles.

“I was like, ‘DJ was 34. If she could do at 34, I can do it at 34,’” she said. “So now that I’m doing it at 34, I might inspire someone else down the line who is 34 and has two kids and says, ‘I can do this.’”

Both McKenzie and Reilly said their objective is to play well this summer. They acknowledged that a strong season could compel them to consider returning next year.

“I initially said, ‘Yeah, this will be my last summer,’ but I don’t want to count myself out yet,” McKenzie said. “So if I exceed my expectations and I play really well and I’m offered a spot back, I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.”

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