Nerves ran through Emily Heller’s small frame as the fourth grader stepped onto the field. Twin sister beside her, Heller gripped a lacrosse stick for the first time. She didn’t know it then, but the turf would become her domain and take her from Babylon, New York, to Gainesville.
No. 9 began her lacrosse career at 9 years old alongside her twin Hannah.
“I always knew where she would be and she always knew where I would be,” Heller said. “We had a connection every time we’d play.”
Heller, a rising junior on the Gators lacrosse team, credits her uncle with introducing the two to the sport after he accepted a coaching position with the Duke University men’s lacrosse team.
The twins played together at West Babylon Senior High School and played travel lacrosse with the Long Island Top Guns.
Hannah said the two loved being competitive with one another. They knew each other’s tendencies and their connection was best seen in action on the field. Hannah would assist Emily’s goals and vice versa.
The Hellers walked hand-in-hand in every aspect of life — from school to lacrosse to just relaxing at home.
“We always had someone who we knew and were comfortable with,” Hannah said. “Even when we’d go to tryouts, I would always be with Emily and be like ‘Okay this is good, I feel a little bit more confident.’”
The girls had been inseparable since birth, but the two took different paths once the college commitment process came around. They wanted to stick together at first, but Emily ended up at UF, while Hannah plays lacrosse at the University of Massachusetts.
“I honestly miss playing with her,” Emily said. “We both did a good job in pushing each other to be the best possible players we could be.”
Emily started every game for the Gators during the shortened 2020 season. She said the 2021 season meant a lot to her because it gave her another opportunity to play after her freshman season was cut short.
“Obviously the season was very different from my freshman season,” she said. “It was a tough season, but at the end, things opened up and got better and it was fun.”
She finished the season with 12 goals and two assists, totaling 14 points over 21 games. Emily recorded a career-high three points against Cincinnati March 28, two caused turnovers in the AAC semifinals and six draw controls versus Old Dominion April 25. The midfielder boasted 42 draw controls, 22 ground balls and seven caused turnovers on the season.
“Her athleticism just shows at every point on the field,” Florida head coach Amanda O’Leary said. “Offensively, defensively [and] through the midfield.”
O’Leary said Emily embodies everything a UF athlete should be.
“I think she is tough as nails,” she said. “Probably one of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached.”
Emily saw herself in O’Leary, which she said drew her to commit to UF.
“I went on my visit to Florida and I just compared every school to it,” Emily said. “I feel like there’s no place like Florida, for lacrosse especially.”
It takes 16 hours and 30 minutes to drive from Babylon, New York, to Gainesville. Luckily, Emily wasn’t alone in her transition from the Empire State to the Sunshine State, as fellow classmate Janine Suris joined her at UF.
The Hellers and Suris played travel lacrosse together for Top Gun, but Emily said her friendship with Suris grew once they both committed to Florida. Suris said it was nice having someone she knew before college at UF with her. Emily and Suris roomed together their first year at UF and still live together two years later.
“We’re always helping each other out,” Suris said. “It’s so nice having her during practice to keep each other in check; we’re always on top of one another.”
The duo makes the trek home to New York together whenever they return, Suris said. She said they often stop at Emily’s cousin’s house in North Carolina to shoot arrows on the ranch before finishing the night off watching “The Bachelor.”
“She’s my best friend. We do everything together,” Suris said. “She means the world to me. I would do anything for her.”
Now, it’s the offseason. The Heller twins are participating in the Long Island Lacrosse Journal Women’s Collegiate Summer League to keep their stick skills sharp, Hannah said. She said it’s exciting to be able to finally play together again, but she knows her sister is eager to return to Donald R. Dizney Stadium.
The Florida lacrosse team lost a historic senior class at the conclusion of the 2021 season. Emily said the team has big shoes to fill, but the opportunity doesn’t scare her.
“I’m excited for the whole team to step up and try our best to fill their spot,” she said.
O’Leary said she hopes to see Emily build upon what she’s already accomplished.
“If you throw a ball out and it’s [Emily] and someone else, my money is on Emily,” O’Leary said.
O’Leary, Suris and Hannah each spoke highly of Emily’s character.
“I wouldn't say she's a vocal leader, because she doesn't have to,” O’Leary said. “She leads by example.”
As the 2021 season fades into the past and the 2022 season is on the horizon, Emily looks to persevere past the Elite Eight.
“I just can't wait for another year to be like playing with those girls again,” she said.
Contact Karina Wilson at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @kk_rinaa
Karina Wilson is a second-year student at the University of Florida within the College of Journalism and Communications with a specialization in sports and media. She aims to produce engaging, accurate and current content for all types of sports fans. Currently, Karina is The Alligator's lacrosse beat writer.