As Boston College lacrosse mobbed the field in Towson, Md. after securing its first National Championship, the women who met in the middle were visual reminders of the distance the program had gone to achieve that moment.
Cara Urbank, a veteran of three previous unsuccessful National Championship runs, was one of the first to join the jubilant huddle. Jillian Reilly, the other player on the team to feature in all four National Championship runs, was right on her heels. The streak put the two players in an elite group of college athletes that includes former UConn basketball star Breanna Stewart and ex-Alabama running back Damien Harris.
Six of the other Eagles in the hugging mass had played in three straight National Championships. Those that celebrated on the sideline represented an even longer part of the program’s upward trajectory. Head coach Acacia Walker-Weinstein beamed as she hugged her assistant coaches. One of those was Sam Apuzzo, who joined the coaching staff after leading the Eagles to three National Championship appearances as a player.
Yet the story of the Eagles’ finally successful quest for glory was not just one of continuity. After all, their first three bouts ended in defeat. The expression they wore off the field as they traipsed into the summer was not the only thing different about this team compared to its previous iterations.
Flying from the arc where she had stood as the seconds ticked down, Belle Smith boasted none of the previous National Championship experience that her teammates did.
Despite coming into the season having not played a lacrosse game in over a year and a half and missing three weeks of critical practice time in the fall, Smith was a revelation in her first year on the Heights.
The freshman poured in 47 goals and added 18 assists in a season of spectaculars highlighted by a four-point performance in her first ever college game and a five-goal performance to give the Eagles hope in an ACC Tournament Semifinals loss to Syracuse.
Her dominance made her the ACC Freshman of the Year, a feat accomplished just once prior in BC history. Now, she can add the 2020-21 Heights Breakout Female Athlete honor to what has quickly become a crowded trophy case.
Regardless of Smith and the Eagles’ ultimate success, the year did not come without challenges.
“I humbly did not play my best at all in the fall,” Smith said. “And I think that kind of got into my head a little bit and then also going off not playing a game in a year and a half, I was definitely struggling.”
While BC was one of the most successful programs in the nation at managing COVID-19 outbreaks this season, there were a few minor spikes in the fall, and all out-of-season sports went on pause in mid-September.
Smith was one of the athletes affected, testing positive for COVID-19 on the very first day of practice in the fall. She ended up missing the first three weeks of practice.
“I was definitely struggling, and honestly quite frankly it pissed me off because, I mean, I’m not used to being super, super bad compared to everyone else,” Smith said.
But “being bad” is not something that Smith could ever be accused of throughout her athletic career. She was a tri-sport prodigy at Westhampton Beach High School, setting the school record for career points with 1735, breaking the volleyball mark with 2,046 digs, and tallying 231 goals on the lacrosse field.
She was selected as all-county a combined 13 times across all three sports and was ranked as the top midfielder in her class by Inside Lacrosse.
While her success on the field has been similar between high school and college, the scenery surrounding the turf has not.
A quiet beach town that becomes a hotbed during the summer with the influx of second-home owners from New York City, Westhampton Beach is a far cry from Boston, and Smith laughs at the differences between the two places.
“You have the City of Boston and then you have Westhampton Beach, which is all just water—like 90% water, 10% land,” Smith said.
Despite the contrast, Smith said that the transition was easy because of the people around her.
“I still got the same feeling because I was surrounded by the right people in both places,” Smith said in reference to her teammates, coaches, and friends. “I’m a huge family person, and it honestly just felt like family.”
It’s easy to see why Walker-Weinstein, along with many of her peer coaches at other top schools, has drilled a pipeline between her program and the nexus of high school lacrosse that is Long Island.
Thirteen players on the Eagles’ roster hail from the area, and they regularly meet up in the offseason to train together. This proximity was particularly important for the team last summer as the players worked to stay in shape and return to the field after an abbreviated 2020 season. Apuzzo even traveled up to Long Island several times to aid the training.
Though the tight-knit nature of the lacrosse world has paid dividends for the Eagles on the field, Smith said that it can add an extra element that she does not always enjoy.
“People always ask me, ‘Oh my gosh you’re playing your friend, are you excited?’ And I’m like ‘No!’” Smith said with a laugh. “I really don’t like playing against people I know because I feel like it becomes more of a personal thing.”
Thankfully, her closest tie from the Long Island lacrosse community, best friend and cousin Hollie Schleicher, lines up right next to her in the Eagles’ midfield.
“We’ve been best friends since we were so young,” Schleicher said. “We’re pretty much sisters at this point, being so close in age, and our families are so close.”
The two began playing lacrosse together in second grade when Smith’s parents coached the team, and they have played together on a series of school and travel teams since. Schleicher’s hometown of Sag Harbor is 30 miles east of Westhampton Beach, and she went to her local high school for her freshman year before transferring to Westhampton Beach when Smith enrolled.
The pair’s prolific, decade-long partnership paid dividends, and Westhampton Beach reached its first ever county championship. Even before they dominated together in high school, the fact that their athletic careers would stay intertwined for college was already a certainty.
Schleicher committed to BC while she was in middle school, and Smith announced her decision soon afterwards. Despite Schleicher’s earlier announcement, she says that was really following Smith, as she knew that Smith wanted to go to BC.
That decision was easy for Smith to make ever since she and Schleicher visited BC for a camp.
“The second I stepped on campus it just felt like home and that didn’t really happen for any other school for me,” Smith said. “I just loved the entire atmosphere at BC, the whole atmosphere around Boston itself, and the hype around BC athletics.”
Twelve years after the pair first started playing lacrosse together, Schleicher still gets excited as she talks about Smith’s ability.
“She’s the most humble but confident player I’ve ever met in my entire life,” she raved. “I think that’s my favorite quality about Belle.”
Featured Image by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor
Other Images by by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor, and Jess Rivilis / Heights Senior Staff