Midfielder Rayna Sabella in the game against UMass Lowell on Mar. 14, 2021. Last season, Sabella was named America East Defensive Player of the Year. CAMRON WANG/THE STATESMAN

The Stony Brook women’s lacrosse program is known for turning under-recruited athletes into national superstars, and no player on the roster exemplifies that trademark facade better than Rayna Sabella. 

Sabella, with her slight 5-foot-3 size and friendly demeanor, looks to have no business bothering opposition attackers and scooping up ground balls.

That all changes once she steps on the field.

Now in her fifth year with the Seawolves and fourth as a starting midfielder, Sabella was named America East Defensive Player of the Year last season after helping Stony Brook’s defense allow 8.63 goals per game, eighth-best in the country. Her leadership helped the Seawolves reach the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament and nearly upset the top-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels.

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Stony Brook’s program still lacks the instant name recognition of teams like UNC or Syracuse, but that’s exactly how Sabella likes it.

“We want to do it the hard way,” Sabella said in an interview with The Statesman. “We want to work hard every day. We want to be that gritty Stony Brook team that has under-recruited kids. Those characteristics are just things that I love.”

Sabella fell in love with lacrosse as a 10-year-old growing up in Mount Sinai, a hamlet in Suffolk County that boasts one of New York’s most successful high school lacrosse programs.

Despite four years of dominating other Long Island schools as a star at Mount Sinai High, Sabella was not named to Inside Lacrosse’s annual list of the nation’s 100 best prospects once she graduated. But head coach Joe Spallina, as he often does, saw potential in the otherwise passed-over star.

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Sabella committed to Stony Brook in 2018. The transition was a joyous one.

“I was like, ‘whoa,’ obviously a lot different than high school lacrosse,” Sabella said. “The speed was so much faster and much more intense. But I loved it. I loved all my coaches and my teammates. I loved coming out and competing, and I knew that this was my home.”

Sabella’s freshman year coincided with Stony Brook’s biggest ascension into the limelight. She appeared in 20 games while helping the team earn its first-ever No. 1 national ranking and was rewarded with a spot on the conference All-Rookie Team.

She also had the opportunity to learn from program legends Kylie Ohlmiller and Courtney Murphy, both seniors at the time, as they led the team to its sixth-straight America East title.

“They were great role models as I was younger to watch,” Sabella said. “I had the ability to watch all of them be leaders when I was a freshman and sophomore. And, you know, they kind of paved the way for me. I watched them working hard in every drill, and I was like, ‘I want to be like that.’”

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Sabella emerged as a steady presence in the Seawolves’ starting lineup over the next two seasons and finally came into her own as a senior last year. Her Defensive Player of the Year Award enshrined her as a vital part of Stony Brook’s legacy: a Stony Brook athlete has won the award every year since it was created in 2014.

Her breakout season culminated with an invitation to try out for the U.S. national team along with teammate Ellie Masera and Stony Brook alums Ohlmiller and Ally Kennedy.

“It was something, honestly, I’ve never really pictured myself doing in my life,” Sabella said. “So when I went there, it was just so cool. I was so honored to be able to put on that jersey and just play with a bunch of lacrosse legends. It was unlike any other experience I’ve ever had.” 

All that’s left for Sabella to accomplish is to help Stony Brook win its first-ever national championship. When asked what goals she has for her final season aside from winning the title, Sabella declined to even name any.

“[A national title] would mean about everything,” Sabella said. “You know, that’s why I came here. When I was in 10th grade, and I sat in coach’s office for my visit, he painted that picture for me and painted that picture for everybody. And that’s why we came here: because we want to win.”

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