NEEDHAM, Mass. -- Ask anyone who follows Massachusetts girls lacrosse will tell you there’s no doubt Needham is the number one team in the state.
But bring up the topic of what exactly makes these Rockets tick, and that’s where the divide begins.
Some might point out heralded senior midfielder Katie Belval, whose mix of track star speed and a keen nose for goal on offense is only matched by her suffocating, aggressive style of defense on the other end. Others are quick to point to leading scorer Kailey Conry (46 goals, 54 assists) and her knack for being in the right place at the right time.
However, it might just be the least acclaimed player of the bunch that might be the catalyst for Needham’s 14-0 start.
We’re talking about the Rockets’ first-year starting sophomore goalkeeper.
"Give me 10 minutes of your time, and I promise you, you’ll want to play."
There Beth O’Brien sat, inside the local Dunkin Donuts on a hot, scorching August day in 2013, hoping the answer to her problem would come walking through those doors at any moment.
Her dilemma? Finding a goalkeeper that could potentially fill the void in between the pipes for her team. No, not for the upcoming season -- senior Annee O’Connor all but had a vice grip on the position -- but for the one after that.
The kind of prophetic foresight that had been instrumental in helping O’Brien build a 191-41-7 record over the last 10 years, including a string of eight consecutive 16-win seasons.
Meanwhile, outside in the parking lot, Liz Vallatini sat in the passenger seat of a car, not knowing what to expect.
If being a couple weeks away from her freshman year of high school wasn’t stressful enough, the 14-year-old now had to decide on taking up a sport she had little-to-no background in. At the very least, Vallatini figured she would at least afford O’Brien the courtesy of hearing her out.
As she walked into the Dunkin Donuts, accompanied by her mother, Vallatini was immediately greeted by a warm reception from O’Brien.
Whatever O’Brien spoke about that day seemingly resonated well. That following spring, Vallatini was among the girls going through drills as the Needham junior varsity team opened practice.
There was no doubt she had all the potential to be the answer O’Brien was looking for.
“You could tell she was an absolutely well-rounded kid, mature beyond her years, just from talking with her,” O’Brien recalled of her immediate impressions of Vallatini. “Yeah, you look at her and you can tell she’s a strong athletic kid. But what stood out to me is that she struck me as a kid that was disciplined and not easily fazed.”
Not surprisingly, Vallatini prospered during her freshman season.
Even the keenest of observers would have had a hard time identifying that this was a player who had never played lacrosse goalie a day in her life prior to high school. Valatini’s athletic build, paired with her quick hands, made the transition almost seamless.
They also developed an admirer in O’Brien, who quickly made the decision to call the freshman up to varsity ahead of the postseason.
“I was really surprised [at being called up],” Vallatini said. “Because it was my first year playing and I was still getting a feel for the game. But I was really honored that coach chose to bring me up.”
Even though Vallatini barely played during the Rockets’ run to the South sectional semifinals, aside from at the very end of games, the whole experience was extremely beneficial for the young goalie.
Playing behind a four-year starter of O’Connor’s caliber was a learning experience in itself. One Vallatini made sure she took full advantage of.
“I never really spoke much [with O’Connor], but I watched her and how she did things,” said Vallatini. “I think I learned most of the things I know now just from watching her technique. It definitely helped prepare me coming into this season.”
"Make sure your own worst enemy doesn’t live in between your own two ears."
Walking into the locker room, O’Brien quickly tried to grab the pulse of her team.
Understandably so, as her squad would be taking the field opposite of top-ranked Notre Dame Hingham in about 45 minutes. It presented the perfect measuring-stick game for the Rockets—ranked No. 2 at the time—against a Cougars side that had been a constant thorn in Needham’s side over the last couple of years.
As O’Brien scanned the room, she made it a point to zero in on Vallatini, her sophomore goalie.
Just a month prior, Vallatini was engaged in a tightly contested battle for the starting goalkeeper spot with fellow newcomer senior Maggie Hirschland. Although both flashed talent, each giving O’Brien reason to believe that they were deserving of the position, Vallatini ultimately emerged as the top choice by the time the season-opener against Franklin rolled around.
However, as is usually the case with situations like these, concerns lingered over whether such a young player could handle the spotlight and the pressure that came along with it.
But when O’Brien found Vallatini in that locker room, she didn’t find an athlete struggling to fill the shoes of one of the best goalkeepers the program had ever seen, nor did she find someone fazed by the accolades of the opposition. Instead, she found Vallatini the definition of a cool cat, her headphones blaring as she calmly put on her equipment.
O’Brien inched forward to get a closer look, and that’s when she saw it.
Scrawled on tape wrapped around Vallatini’s wrist was a quote: “Make sure your own worst enemy doesn’t live between your own two ears.”
“When I saw it, I was surprised,” O’Brien recalled of seeing the quote, originally spoken by American surfer Laird Hamilton. “I just told her, ‘Yep, I know you got it.’ I could tell she was ready.”
As the bright lights beamed and the fans gathered atop the hill overlooking Memorial Field, the Rockets were flying.
Needham looked the part of the superior team early on, racing out to a 4-1 lead. And in between the pipes, Vallatini was putting on a clinic.
“I think early on [in the season], she felt a little bit of the pressure,” said senior defender Carly Coleman. “But she handled it well, and [against Notre Dame] she was huge. She was our defensive key that game.”
With each save, Vallatini’s confidence grew. Every opportunity the Cougars managed to conjure up, whether it was from point-blank range, from the free position, or from a difficult angle, Vallatini was there to deny it.
When all was said and done, Vallatini finished with a game-high nine saves, outdueling Notre Dame goalkeeper and ESPN Boston preseason All-State team member Hanna Cooper in leading the Rockets to the upset, 11-10.
As the girls celebrated the victory euphorically, Vallatini momentarily broke from her usually calm-and-collected character.
“[Vallatini]’s a kid that doesn’t show much emotion, so when she smiles, you know that she’s rocking inside,” said O’Brien. “But for her to just step in and do what she did against one of the top teams in the state is really something. It made me say, ‘Wow, this kid is really going to be something.’”
"One time, I accidentally hit her in the head with a shot, and was like, 'Oh my God, I’m so sorry!' She just looked at me and was like, ‘That’s what a helmet is for'."
These days, Vallatini is all smiles as Needham (14-0) is enjoying its best start in program history.
In eight starts, Vallatini has compiled 60 saves. Aside from her standout performance against Notre Dame, the sophomore also had an epic showing against then-No. 5 North Andover on the road, registering nine stops in a thrilling come-from-behind victory.
Her guts and courage in net don’t go unrecognized by teammates.
“It definitely takes a little craziness to get in there and let people rip shots at you,” said senior midfielder Katie Belval. “But she’s so tough about it. One time, I accidentally hit her in the head with a shot and was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m so sorry!’ She just looked at me and was like, ‘That’s what a helmet is for.’”
With Vallatini back in goal, the Rockets have to feel confident in their chances the rest of the way.
That includes a monumental showdown against reigning Division I champions Westwood on Wednesday night. Winners of five of the last seven state titles, the Wolverines also have won 62 consecutive regular-season games since -- oddly enough -- losing to Needham back on May 10, 2012.
Thanks to a defense led by Vallatini, Needham will be hoping history repeats itself nearly three years later.
“Let’s be real here for a second. A brand new goalie, stepping into [O’Connor]’s shoes, the pressure of what our team could do this year...I think Liz has far exceeded anybody’s expectations,” said O’Brien. “I think, yeah, when push comes to shove, she has been a tremendous key to our success.
“We’re just so fortunate to have Liz.”
Sebastian can be reached via e-mail at Sebastian.LenaBR@gmail.com or on Twitter @SP7988