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Wednesday January 19th

'Tough as hell': Caylee Waters' fire fuels UNC women's lacrosse before Maryland matchup

Senior Caylee Waters is the starting goalie for the women's lacrosse team. She played a significant role in leading the team to their second national championship in last year's season.
Buy Photos Senior Caylee Waters is the starting goalie for the women's lacrosse team. She played a significant role in leading the team to their second national championship in last year's season.

Ask senior goalkeeper Caylee Waters what she thinks about the women's lacrosse rivalry between North Carolina and Maryland, and she’ll say, “It’s funny that you mention it …”

The No. 1 Tar Heels (3-0) travel to take on the No. 2 Terrapins (2-0) on Saturday at 3 p.m. in a clash of the nation's greatest powerhouses. But Caylee's history with UNC's opponent goes past the national championship game the past two seasons. It's even beyond the three other times she's played against Maryland in her college career.

You'd have to go back to the fall of her junior year of high school.

It was a hectic couple of weeks for Caylee. Already forced to choose her college a year ahead of her peers because of the oddities of the lacrosse recruiting process, Caylee was ready to get it over with.

North Carolina had emerged as a force in the ACC, but Maryland had the national title pedigree and was closer to home. Caylee labored over the decision but ultimately went with the logical choice: She committed to Maryland.

“It didn’t last for long,” she said.

Caylee went to compete in a tournament the following weekend. And while she was away, her mother, Cappy, had a funny feeling. She planned on telling Caylee that it was okay to have second thoughts about Maryland.

“I was waiting for her to come home that Sunday night,” Cappy recounted. “And they were late. It was just funny, before I could even mention it to her — I started to, and she says, 'Mom, do you think it’s too late if I change my mind?'"

If Caylee wasn’t certain in her first commitment, she couldn’t have been more confident in her second one.

“It was kinda just like this gut feeling that came across me,” she said. “I couldn’t get the thought of UNC out of my head.”

***

Time inside was time wasted for a young Caylee.

“She went from school to sports and then came home and would be out in the front yard with the boys,” said her father, Artie. “For her down time, she would be just playing on the front yard.”

To keep up with her three brothers, Caylee developed "toughness and roughness" and boundless energy. She tried everything — from playing pitcher, catcher and infielder for the boys' baseball team to starring at safety for the local tackle football team.

That resilience caught the eye of her middle school club lacrosse coach, Jay Hardison — a 1985 UNC graduate and devoted Tar Heel fan.

“We really didn’t have a goalie,” Hardison said. “We had a bunch of kids that tried to do it, and they were afraid of getting hit by the ball.”

Caylee was serving as part of the rotation of midfielders, but Hardison had an idea.

“I just thought, ‘The kid is tough as hell, a very good athlete, very good hands,’” Hardison said. “I asked her, ‘Would you be willing to try goalie?’”

But where Caylee’s resilience caught the eyes of her coach, it was that boundless energy her mom was worried about.

“I was worried that if she just stood there in goal and watched all the action around her, she just wouldn't like it as much," Cappy said.

So Caylee's mother and coach came to an agreement: for every half she played in goal, she would play a half in the field.

The next game, she stepped in goal to start the first half. But she wasn't just standing in goal — she was dominating it. 

"She was the real deal," Hardison said. "Tiny, but tough as hell."

***

Even in middle school, it was hard to ignore the goalie who was a step ahead of the shooter.

“Every handshake line I went through, the other coach would say, ‘We've never seen a kid play goalie like that at this age,’” Hardison said.

Her high school coaches and teammates took notice of her maturity in goal. Caylee was the only first-year to make the varsity team at Darien High School in Connecticut, starting in goal in her first season.

“I feel like she never felt the age barrier,” high school teammate Brynn Gasparino said. “She was comfortable telling a senior defender exactly what to do.”

And in her first year of college, opposing teams struggled to get past the goalie that seemed more like a mind reader.

"It doesn't matter the situation," UNC assistant coach Phil Barnes said. "Caylee can understand it and process it very quickly."

She started for much of her first year, splitting time with goalie Megan Ward — who was a year ahead of her. The two formed a formidable duo, sharing the 2016 National Goalie of the Year title in their final season together.

“Those two were great to push each other,” Barnes said. “It goes without saying, their relationship was amazing to watch. They wanted to be successful, but they wanted the team to have more success than their individual success.”

But their combined force wasn't enough in the national title game during Caylee’s sophomore year. The two allowed just eight goals, but six came in the second half as Maryland overcame the biggest halftime deficit in title game history to beat the Tar Heels, 9-8.

“You don't ever want to come that close to winning a national championship, and it slips through your fingers,” Caylee said. “I couldn’t get my head wrapped around not winning a national championship.”

A year later, the team got its chance at redemption in the 2016 title game. Head coach Jenny Levy was tasked with the tough decision of whether to give the nod to the senior Ward or to Caylee — who had come in for the save in the semifinal game against Penn State.

“When Jenny came in and spoke to her and said, 'We are going to go with Meg’, she handled it like a champ," Artie said, "knowing that if she had to come in in the championship game, she would be ready."

Caylee was never called.

Instead, she watched from the bench as the underdog Tar Heels routed Maryland by six goals for their second national title in four seasons.

***

“Everyone talks about when athletes have a look in their eyes …” Barnes said. “People talk about people like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and Tom Brady. When they are there, they are completely dialed in and focused to what is happening every single moment."

"Caylee has that look every single day in practice this year.”

The long childhood days that wore her lawn down to dirt were preparation. Caylee's toughness was sparked while trampling the yard with her brothers, and that spirit has never faded.

“Caylee is a constant reminder of why we started playing lacrosse and why we love it so much …" senior defender Katie Kinsey said. "Caylee embodies the little girl who scored her first goal or saved her first shot. She gets excited about the simple opportunity to play and brings me and so many others alongside her.”

For Caylee, the two-year captain, team and family are synonymous. When she says she loves being a part of the team, it's not a sentiment. It's a playbook for how she carries herself every day.

“I am extremely grateful that I am graduating with Caylee," Kinsey said. "Because I would never want to play a year without her."

But before Caylee’s time as a Tar Heel comes to an end, she has some business to take care of.

On Saturday, the senior has what could be her last chance to face Maryland. That's the draw of North Carolina lacrosse — the big games.

“Beating Maryland is one of the most satisfying things that Carolina has to offer,” Kinsey said.

For Caylee, this game isn’t about Maryland. Just like her junior year of high school, she's thinking about the opportunity to represent the school that she just couldn’t get off her mind.

@James_Tatter

sports@dailytarheel.com

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