Top Story, Fall

Lucky Break: Leah Settipane’s Record-Setting Journey

Leah Settipane rolls down her stretchy compression bandage, exposing a dark black and blue bruise on the inside of her knee. Parts of the skin were tinged with the yellow of a hematoma. The edges splay out across her leg, seemingly spreading. For Settipane, getting hit with a solid plastic ball going 60 miles per hour is just another day on the field. Granted, she saves most of them, diving and blocking in a getup that makes her look like a padded Transformer. She got hit in practice the day before, the ball missing her long leg pads and instead finding an unprotected spot next to her kneecap. 

Even though she suits up in a cushy exoskeleton before every game, bruises like this happen often, dotting her body. Settipane is not looking for sympathy—she is smiling, excited to show off the hard work that she puts in for her sport. She has started every game in her collegiate career at Boston College.

Field hockey, a sport native to Europe with little following in the United States, does not have the same tradition as a dad teaching his son how to throw the perfect spiral or how to set up in the batter’s box. Settipane grew up, like most athletes, with a ball at her feet or in her hands. She planned to continue playing basketball, her favorite sport, in high school. After being cut from the team in seventh grade, she practiced every day to make sure that next year, there wouldn’t be a question that she was talented enough.

But in the summer between eighth grade and freshman year, Settipane’s former gym teacher suggested that she try out for field hockey, which she also coached. Settipane had no interest in taking up another sport. After much begging by the team’s other goalie, Settipane showed up to her first practice. Despite the discomfort of the heavy goalkeeping equipment, Settipane took a liking to field hockey. She felt confident enough to compete with the girls on her team, most of whom had been playing with the same coach through camps and clubs in middle school.

As a junior in high school, Settipane played on the school field hockey team and had joined a club team. She did not start on the school squad, and one of the first times she saw action on the field was during the semifinals of a state tournament. Her fellow teammate was injured while protecting the cage, so Settipane’s coaches threw her into the game to stave off a goal during overtime. After fighting her hardest, an opponent shot the ball into the cage, and the game was over. “I remember going to bed and I could hear the sound of the goal,” Settipane said.

It gnawed at her, but instead of growing disheartened, she used the opportunity to jump-start a tougher training regimen. She practiced with her club team and worked on her own to get stronger. By the end of a grueling summer, Settipane was awarded the starting goalie position.

The end of high school left Settipane unsatisfied with her recruitment experience. Other teammates had matriculated to Division I universities, but recruiters suggested that Settipane take a postgraduate year to seek better opportunities. Her path changed when she decided to follow their advice and take a PG year at the Hotchkiss School, an elite boarding school in Connecticut. Not one to settle for second-best, Settipane took the year to improve her grades as well as her athletic prospects. Instead of packing up for college and enjoying the firsts that come with it, Settipane willingly put herself through another year of high school, a decision some would consider a nightmare. She continued her outstanding performance as a three-season athlete, clinching the MVP awards for basketball, field hockey, and softball. Another year went by as Settipane saw her Hotchkiss teammates commit to high-performance schools. And then, finally, it was her turn. Boston College came calling.

BC, originally uninterested in Settipane during high school because it had no need for another goalie, decided to recruit her after a goalkeeper quit. “It was like my dream come true,” Settipane said. “I had secretly always wanted to come to BC, but I felt like I wasn’t good enough.”

It was a justifiable fear, considering Settipane only began playing in high school. Most students who pick up a sport to branch out during freshman year end up having a good time and get a participation award. But Settipane is not like most students—she knows what she wants, and she will do whatever it takes to get it.

Settipane knew the opportunity she was getting when she signed with BC. The summer before she suited up as an Eagle, she spent each day with a personal trainer to work out the kinks and tackle potential problems. She did suicides until she was out of breath, but still tried to run even faster.

Her toughest challenge was adapting to watered AstroTurf after playing on regular turf for the entirety of her field hockey experience. She had to improve on her footwork the most, learning to use her feet to save goals instead of dramatically diving for every ball.

Weeks before she arrived on campus, Settipane learned that she would be the only goalkeeper for BC that year. Not only was she getting to play for a Division I team in the best conference for field hockey in the nation, but she was going to be the only goalie playing. This stroke of luck allowed her to shine in her freshman year, earning 10 wins and 87 saves.

Four years after her first game with the Eagles, and it seems as though nothing has changed—Settipane dominates the goalkeeper position for BC, as her counterpart, redshirt sophomore Audra Hampsch, has played just 31 minutes in her career. Settipane has grown into a more aggressive player, one who will throw her body around to get the save for her team.

She has also just broken the record for most wins earned by a BC goalkeeper. After a two-game setback, the Eagles came back from the slump by winning 4-2 against the University of New Hampshire. A celebration erupted in Durham, N.H. for Settipane, but she wasn’t thinking of herself.

Those who know Settipane say the same thing about her breaking the monumental record: she passed on the credit to everyone else. When reflecting on the game, she first took the time to thank the people who helped her along the way. She mentioned friends, family, coaches, teammates, and even those whom she had never met but had played for BC. Head coach Kelly Doton, too, stressed Settipane’s gratitude. “I think she feels that it wasn’t just her victory,” Doton said. “It was everyone’s victory.”

This is just how Settipane is. She can excel to the highest level, but still find another person to compliment or give credit to. Most weekends, she travels home to Rhode Island to see her younger brother’s high school football games. It takes her mind off the most pressing issue for her: a last chance at winning it all in the postseason, either in the NCAA or ACC tournaments.

BC field hockey has failed to win a postseason game not just in Settipane’s time at BC, but in the team’s whole existence. Settipane attributes the tournament losses to the long season, which consists of 18 games. She thinks, though, that this could be the year things change. With the right seed, they can come up with a win. “It’s kind of tough to celebrate 42 wins when there’s no postseason games in there, because I definitely need to get some of those,” Settipane said.

After that, who knows? Though coaches and teammates believe that she can play on the United States national team, Settipane makes no mention of it, preferring to suggest that her future is up in the air right now. But for an athlete whose future has been uncertain several times in the past, it seems that Settipane has something great on the horizon.

Featured Image by John Quackenbos / BC Athletics

October 21, 2015