By Vin Gallo
There is a town an hour north of the hustle and bustle of New York City, tucked away in the rolling hills and vast farmland of Westchester County, where lacrosse is king. It is a location that is considered a Mecca for one of the oldest sports in history. It is a world encapsulated within Yorktown Heights, N.Y., the hometown of Springfield College women’s lacrosse graduate attacker, Bianca Raniolo.
“Lacrosse is huge, everyone in the town has a lacrosse stick in their hand,” said Bianca’s mother Claudine Raniolo. “Even on cold days you’ll see people outside on the turf shooting or at the wall trying to get better. It’s just such a big part of everyone’s life. We almost wonder if there’s anyone in town who play any other sport during the spring.”
The town has its signature training grounds in which for years, the locals have called, “the wall.” “The wall” is simply the exterior of Yorktown High’s gymnasium, but it has helped mold the youth into Division I talent, and Yorktown Husker legends.
“[In Yorktown Heights] Lacrosse is almost like a lifestyle,” said Bianca.
When March comes around, and winter winds smooth out into gentle spring gales, kids of all ages line up along the wall. They shoot lacrosse balls at the facing in high lobs and sharp line drives amongst light-hearted chatter. A rapid fire of faint, thud-thud-thud-thuds echo through the breeze when the rubber connects with the bricks.
“There’s people of all different ages who go,” said Bianca’s brother, and former Springfield men’s lacrosse midfielder Joey Raniolo. “We made friends there. That’s where a lot of the Yorktown lacrosse players bond for the season.”
The harsh scrape of sneakers on blacktop from those who were unable to secure a shooting spot at the wall add to the late-afternoon symphony. Anyone stationed on the asphalt would work vigorously on their stick skills, from handling, cradling, ball protection, or just your run-in-the-mill play of catch with a friend.
“There’s [also] a hill [behind the blacktop],” added Joey. “So if you miss your ball, you have to go down the hill and get it. It was kind of fun to make sure you weren’t dropping your ball, otherwise you’d get a little punishment having to go get it and chase it down the hill.”
Bianca Raniolo is a triplet. There’s her, then Joey, then their sister Mariah. They also have a younger sister, Holly. Bianca says she has no trouble reminding Joey who the eldest of the three triplets is. “Yeah, Bianca’s the oldest,” said Joey. “Only by a minute.”
The three triplets all played tee-ball to start, until Joey made the childhood decision that is almost inevitable in Yorktown Heights, and transitioned over from baseball to lacrosse. Bianca and Mariah would follow in their brother’s footsteps and pick up the sticks themselves. Joey can easily recall the times spent practicing with his eldest sister.
“Bianca and I would always practice together,” he said. “We’d have catches, we’d go shoot. We grew up with the sport together.”
Claudine said her two oldest children would spend hours away from the house crafting their game.
“If they had a bad day they’d go blow off some steam at the wall. There would be a bunch of high school kids there – and then there they’d be, still in middle school,” she said. “When they were older, sometimes they wouldn’t have their phones on them. They wouldn’t be in their pockets, they’d be on the bench off to the side. And we’d be trying to get in touch with them! So, we’d have to call a couple times to get them to come home.”
Raniolo started playing lacrosse in third grade, with every summer following the commitment being spent at camps, and every fall being expended at clinics. Then, there was always winter league. Her sister Mariah would move on to volleyball later in childhood, but Bianca’s love for lacrosse was apparent.
“Bianca took a strong liking to lacrosse, and that became her passion,” said Claudine. “She played some field hockey, she played some basketball. And she was good [at those sports]. But lacrosse was always her passion.”
Following freshman year of high school, Raniolo began to attend recruiting camps for collegiate lacrosse, as the search for schools began. She even attended an overnight recruiting visit to the University of Maryland. But then, seemingly as quickly as her love for lacrosse was born, it faded away.
“I had a bunch of opportunities [to play in college], but after playing for so many years, I didn’t know if I wanted to do it anymore,” Bianca said.
The Return to the Wall
By senior year of high school, Raniolo’s heart was no longer in lacrosse as it had been throughout her childhood. So, she decided to step away from the sport that raised countless Yorktown kids, the sport that no one in town would dream of dropping, and ventured off to the University of Delaware in search of something new.
“I wanted to focus on school – go to the gym when I wanted to go to the gym, I wanted to try out cool workout classes. I’ve always been regimented in my schedule,” said Raniolo. “So when I put my stick down it didn’t really bother me or hit me too much.”
The news was a bit tough on her family.
“Lacrosse was such a big part of her life,” said Claudine Raniolo. “She went to so many summer camps – so when she decided she didn’t want to play anymore, we were a little devastated. We thought that maybe we did something wrong by having her play so much at such a young age, and playing year round. And maybe she burned out. We just wanted to be supportive of her.”
To Joey Raniolo, all that mattered was that his sister was content.
“I really wanted her to play lacrosse in college, because I knew she was good enough,” Joey said. “But I just wanted her to be happy. If going to Delaware was what made her happy, that was fine with me.”
Bianca Raniolo would take a lengthy break from lacrosse. She did not attend any Division I games at the university. The students at Delaware would not see her name typed in under a club or intramural squad. For that year, it would be a total getaway.
Though the disconnection from lacrosse would not last for long. It was the spring-going-on-summer of 2013. When Raniolo was home from Delaware, she decided to return to her old stomping grounds and attend a girls’ varsity lacrosse game. It was sunny and warm.
“Perfect weather for lacrosse. It was exactly the same atmosphere I remember playing,” she recalled. “It was touching.” Raniolo watched her former teammates play that day. She watched them fire wicked shots towards the opposition’s goal. She watched the attackers feed their teammates from behind the X for an easy score. She saw them hustle towards groundballs with a relentlessness that could only be seen in a Husker. She saw everything that she used to do. Three words echoed through her mind. “I miss it.”
The following week, Raniolo had nothing to do. So she went to her garage – to the rack of family lacrosse sticks. She surveyed the treasure trove that had accumulated over the years. Fiddle sticks that she and her siblings used to play with in their youth. The backup sticks. The game sticks.
She clutched one with a black head, black and lime green string, and a black and silver shaft (handle) that her brother had bought once upon a time. Her stick.
She had not sold it. Her former partner in crime had been sitting there, waiting for her. Raniolo plucked it from its resting place, started her car and drove towards Yorktown High School.
Minutes later, Raniolo was gazing at the wall, her amber eyes filled with nostalgia. She raised her stick and fired a ball towards the bricks. Thud. Just like old times. It was the same sunny day that her, her brother and her friends would wish for each day, all those years ago. Yet it was a different feel this time around. Raniolo was alone. There was no light-hearted chatter. No scrapes of sneakers on pavement. There was only one rubber sphere ricocheting off the wall.
“I miss it.”
The thoughts would be fleeting. Raniolo returned home that day and placed her stick back alongside the family mementos. Then she turned and shut the garage door behind her. “I remember thinking, ‘okay I miss it,’” she said. “No big deal.”
But it would not be good-bye.
After one year at Delaware, Raniolo decided that she wanted to move closer to her hometown roots. She chose a campus much smaller than the home of the Blue Hens, a petite western Massachusetts institution. She chose Springfield College as her plan B.
Joey was starting his second year at Springfield, and had found his niche on the Pride’s men’s lacrosse team. By heading northeast, Raniolo would also be reunited with an old childhood friend. Heather – Heather Raniolo. Like Bianca and Joey, Heather was also raised in Yorktown Heights. She attended the same high school as the Raniolo’s. She participated in the same sports: baseball, softball, basketball, and lacrosse with Bianca and volleyball with Mariah. She has the same last name. Yet there is no known familial relation. In similarity to Joey, Heather was also into her second year with Springfield’s women’s lacrosse squad.
“[Heather and I] grew up together, we played basketball and lacrosse together for basically our entire lives,” said Bianca. “It was so nice to come to this school and have a piece of Yorktown with me when I got here. It’s funny because between the time when we played lacrosse [at Yorktown], Heather grew so much as a player. She was always great, but she didn’t have the same role in Yorktown as she did here. She stepped up huge – I remember coming to a game sophomore year and watching her play, I thought, ‘Who is this person?’ She just stepped up so much.”
Springfield women’s lacrosse head coach Kristen Mullady, had been scouting Bianca for recruitment prior to her decision to attend Delaware, and reached out a second time to the former Husker when she learned that Bianca had transferred in.
“[The women’s lacrosse program] has a strong connection with Yorktown, we love recruiting players from there, because they come from such a solid foundation,” she said. “They’re coached really well, they’re hard workers, and they play in the off-season. Bianca was a player who I was actively recruiting. She was a good fit for us.”
But Raniolo would again choose to pass on lacrosse in her sophomore year. After transitioning from such a large school and into a smaller environment like Springfield, she opted to take time to adjust to the new setting and new people.
Another year passed. Two years removed from playing competitive lacrosse, and having completed a successful first year at Springfield, though she was still having some difficulty adjusting to her new school. Raniolo was home again. It was an early August evening, when Raniolo received a text from Springfield goalkeeper Gabby Anderson. Raniolo had played against Anderson in high school, Anderson being from the rival lacrosse town of Mahopac. The two had reconciled at Springfield, and Anderson had spent that year attempting to recruit Raniolo onto the lacrosse team. “Hey,” it read. “I know this is last minute but if you’re free, would you want to play with us today? We could use a couple more people.” Raniolo agreed, with forewarning that she may be a bit rusty. After a 45 minute trip in Anderson’s jeep to Suffern, N.Y., she played that night for the first time in years. And it all came rushing back.
“It felt amazing to be out there,” Raniolo said. “Even though I was a little bit rusty, I felt like I still had it. That’s when it hit me. I wanted to play again. To this day I still say to Gab, ‘If you didn’t ask me to play in that game, I don’t know if I’d be here right now.’ As much as I thank coach I thank Gab too. She got me playing again.”
Anderson said that Raniolo hadn’t skipped a beat. “There was never a moment where I thought she was rusty,” she said. “Once she picked up the stick again, it didn’t look like she’d stop playing. She picked it right back up.”
Two weeks later, Mullady reached out to Raniolo a second time, asking her if she’d like a chance to walk onto the Springfield lacrosse team. This time, Raniolo agreed. The following March, Raniolo was suiting up for the Pride, her high school number 21, now being sported on the collegiate stage in Springfield maroon.
“I always thank coach for being so persistent,” Raniolo said. “She’s a huge reason why I’m [still playing], she’s been so influential to me. I’m so thankful for her because without her none of this would be possible.”
The lacrosse team welcomed Raniolo with open arms.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything better, everyone was so welcoming,” Raniolo said. “We have such a good culture. As a walk-on you see how much fun this team has and you want to be a part of it. Changing from UD, a huge school and coming here, even though it was my decision, it was still tough to transition, even going into my junior year. But luckily, I had the team and I had all of them to look forward to being with, and keep my spirits up.”
Heather Raniolo was impressed with Bianca’s ability on the college level after being away from the game for two years. “She is an incredible feeder and an unselfish player,” she said. “[And she’s] always hustling. When we’d lose the ball on attack, she’d be giving all she had to get us that ball back.”
Before Heather graduated from Springfield in 2016, she had played in hundreds of contests with Bianca, whether it would be in lacrosse or basketball. Although they are not related, the two have formed a bond that resembles a strong sisterhood.
“Bianca may not truly be my sister by blood,” Heather said. “But she’s grown to be a sister to me.”
Heather is now a graduate assistant for Sacred Heart University’s women’s lacrosse team. She says she owes her background in lacrosse all to Bianca. “When I was playing volleyball at Yorktown, she was always pushing me to play lacrosse,” she said. “I’m glad she did because my world’s changed ever since.”
The juniors on the team have a unique connection with Raniolo as well. As a walk-on her junior year, Raniolo was a rookie alongside the present junior class in the 2015 season.
“We all came in kind of unsure how we’d contribute to the team, but we ended up working really well together,” said junior attacker Shelby Corsano. “I’ve always said she’s my other half out there, because we have such a good connection sometimes. I always know she’s looking for me, and I know she’s counting on me to make good cuts. I trust her with my life out there.”
Raniolo does not believe that anyone would have guessed she’d be playing lacrosse while attending graduate school after leaving for Delaware. But she’s happier with her current situation than she’s ever been. All it took was trust in “the process.”
“When I graduated high school I never thought I’d touch a lacrosse stick again. I thought I was done for good,” she said. “If you just have faith, it’s crazy how things can fall into place. This is where I’m supposed to be.”