In the heart of Auckland, New Zealand, a ball ricochets off a wall before landing back into the pocket of a lacrosse stick. The action repeats again and again, a fluid motion like a fly fisherman casting into a stream. Parallel to the wall, blocking the island view, is a five foot three young woman with long, dark hair and piercing brown eyes. Her weapon is a tall, black, titanium pole connected to a thin oval head of woven netting that cradles a ghost-white, 8-inch, 5.5-ounce rubber ball.
The lack of competitive Kiwi lacrosse players forces those married to the game to throw against a wall for practice, rather than honing their skills on a pitch. To be a champion, players have to bleed to play competitively, and sometimes that involves moving nine thousand miles away from home.
Central Connecticut lacrosse player Nina Sutton is often asked at home, “Are you catching butterflies?” while practicing her passion against a wall. During her five-year stint at Epsom Girls Grammar School, Sutton began playing lacrosse in her sophomore year. On her small island, only sixteen high schools currently play the sport, which is separated into three divisions. She excelled at lacrosse, but with only a few hundred players to compete against, Sutton’s talent quickly made her a big fish in the tiniest of ponds.
Sutton wanted to play lacrosse on a collegiate level, but that is impossible in New Zealand. According to Sutton, “you wouldn’t come to college, get a scholarship to play for athletics.” The ability to go to college and play for a university team did not become apparent to Sutton until her final leg of senior year and was “such a foreign thing” to her. Even in her own household, the concept of playing lacrosse—or “licorice,” according to her dad—was thought of as a joke. Her dad used to horse around about her “going to play licorice,” that it is “not a real sport,” or that she “should be doing soccer or tennis.” Despite lacrosse being the butt of every joke, Sutton’s mother and father are very supportive of her aspirations, especially after she revealed her long-kept secret of applying for the great opportunity to play at Central on a scholarship.
“They’re supportive of it. I did this all, like I did the whole process by myself for coming here. I didn’t really tell them that I wanted to do it until I was actually doing it,” Sutton explained, “Then I got this opportunity and my dad said ‘Maybe it’s not that bad,’ so they’re really supportive.”
When she left New Zealand in 2017, only about a thousand young adults played lacrosse, and none of them were very competitive in comparison to the opponents she would face in America. Stepping onto American soil was a completely different ball game. Sutton sacrificed her life back in Auckland for lacrosse with offerings of blood, sweat, and tears.
“I get homesick all the time and I miss the culture, and the food, and my friends, the beaches and everything but it’s just a sacrifice you make to better yourself and do the things you love, and home is always going to be there for me,” Sutton confessed.
Unlike most CCSU students, Sutton entered college at twenty years old. She spent two years following graduation living on her own with only one goal in mind: make it to the New Zealand Lacrosse National World Cup Team. She worked her way up to be a personal trainer by completing a six-month personal training course, while also “living on a real strict budget and eating pretty much toast and cheese, butter or jam.” To succeed in making her dream a reality, Sutton needed to save NZ $20,000, or the equivalent of US $13,549.
“I was able to save up that money, and I kept fighting for my spot because they kept cutting people, we had a squad of like thirty people and they just kept cutting people down to the final eighteen that went to the World Cup,” Sutton said.
“It’s just a sacrifice you make to better yourself and do the things you love. Home is always going to be there for me.”
The thought crossed her mind to attend college in New Zealand and then transfer to another school to play for their Division I team, but she did not want to risk incurring more debt or diminishing her eligibility. In the summer of 2017, Sutton finally made the cut for the New Zealand Lacrosse World Cup Team. Sutton’s road to the World Cup was not a walk in the park. It included two tours in California, one in Australia, then to Maryland and finally, England for the championship.
“I knew if I went to college [in New Zealand], it would probably inhibit my chances of making the World Cup team. But just solely for the fact that I wouldn’t be getting that team chemistry with my teammates, not necessarily because of the fact that my level of play was better or worse,” Sutton said, “I wasn’t physically with my team, and I wasn’t seeing the coaches, or the coaches weren’t seeing me working hard all the time.”
The New Zealanders on the team did not all attend Division I schools in the United States. Despite the seemingly unorthodox fleet of players, the team finished in the top eight for the first time in the country’s history. This experience has motivated Sutton to keep training and practicing in hopes of making the 2021 team.
Two years have elapsed since Sutton became a defender for the Blue Devils lacrosse team. As a Division I athlete and a full-time student, Sutton spends twenty hours a week with her coach in season, while juggling eighteen credits as an exercise science major and occasionally teaching fitness classes at RECentral; It is safe to say Sutton stays busy on a daily basis. And her ferocity and motivation have not evaporated. She is headstrong, in love with nature and fueling herself at the gym; she sometimes even walks around campus with no shoes on like she did in New Zealand. She mixed Kiwi culture with her adopted lifestyle playing lacrosse at Central.
Sutton is consistently on the go during her three-month, sixteen-series lacrosse season. Alongside her trusty steed (lacrosse stick), Sutton is always accompanied by her handy dandy Tupperware container, since she rarely seems to have the chance to sit for an extended time. She gets up, goes to practice and lift, and quickly slides into the dining hall when she has a few extra minutes to pack her plastic container before jet-setting off to class.
“I literally carry a Tupperware container with me everywhere I go, so I can just quickly go into the cafe, fill it up, and I just eat in class,” Sutton revealed.
On top of having limited time to even eat, Sutton’s early and demanding days drive her straight to bed hopefully before nine o’clock. “I can’t function after about seven, my brain shuts off, I can’t focus in the library, nothing, like after seven my brain and body have just shut down,” Sutton continued.
Just like the ball bouncing from the wall to the pocket of her pole, Sutton supports her fellow teammates on and off the field. Her new lacrosse coach, Betsy Vendel, former CCSU lacrosse alumnus and the program’s leading scorer, says that she always makes everyone feel included by working with them every step of the way.
“She is definitely someone who communicates well with people who might not get in as much or the underclassmen, to make everyone feel important and to bounce ideas off of them, which makes them and her better,” Vendel said.
Now that the friendships have been cemented, Sutton constructed a covalent bond with her coaches and the twenty-one women who share the roster. Sutton confessed to spending a hefty portion of her spare time off-campus with teammates Morgan Sinton and Keeley Henry at the “juniors house,” located five minutes from campus. New Jersey native Sinton stands three inches taller than Sutton, with long, straight, light blonde hair, while five foot four Henry calls Pennsylvania home; both have the same fiery tenacity as Sutton on and off the field.
On a recent Thursday night, the trio hung out at the nearby campus getaway to collect themselves the night before a game against University of New Hampshire. They used this time to temporarily forget the struggles of balancing life, academics, and sports. These girls are Sutton’s makeshift family in Connecticut.
The television brightens the dark living room, but no one is watching it because they are focused on their rituals. Sinton sits with a bowl of tuna pasta, shoveling forkfuls into her mouth, a normal pre-game, while Sutton is blaring her iPhone, which is hooked up to a speaker playing Spotify’s Top 20 Today’s Hits — rocking out consists of singing loudly off-key. Sinton joins the karaoke session when their favorite song “Shallow” from A Star Is Born escapes the speaker, taking a Snapchat video of herself singing to their current favorite bop.
As the night slowly fades to black, Sutton and Sinton crank the volume all the way in hopes of letting loose before their next matchup on a lacrosse field. The words “I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in / I’ll never meet the ground / Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us / We’re far from the shallow now” reverberate through the apartment, and the duo laugh at the shenanigans. From across the apartment, the bathroom door opens, and Henry pops her head out. Henry, sporting a blue towel tightly wrapped around her head, a t-shirt, and shorts, escapes the steam of the shower. “Every damn night!” she chuckles and joins the duo singing the latest Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper hit.
At nine o’clock, twilight fades from pink to orange to purple, now a solid blend of navy blue and velvet black in the New Britain sky. Sutton reluctantly leaves to take the seven-minute walk back to her dorm, escorted by her lacrosse stick and now empty Tupperware to hit the hay, ready to wake up early on Friday for game day.
Headline photo courtesy of Julia Jade Moran.