Taylor Moreno, Sam Apuzzo

Apuzzo-Moreno rivalry filled with fierce competition on field, mutual respect off it

© Athletes Unlimited, LLC 2023 / Credit: Kait Devir, Josie Rohach
Bruce Miles
Aug 08, 2023

Whether it’s in lacrosse, hockey or soccer, there is nothing like the confrontation between shooter and goalkeeper.

Eyes locked on each other.

One sees an opening. One tries to close the opening.

And in a hold-your-breath split second, the ball or puck is either in the back of the net or is turned away or smothered.

Cheers on one side. Groans on the other. 

That one-on-one drama is on display week in and week out in Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse.

The shooter is Sam Apuzzo. 

The goalkeeper is Taylor Moreno.

They are two of the world’s best, and their confrontations have been historic, going back to their days in college (Moreno at North Carolina and Apuzzo at Boston College) and now in Athletes Unlimited.

In a game on July 30 of this year, Apuzzo scored three goals on Moreno, who despite that, set an AU single-game record for saves with 17. 

“It’s honestly funny how we keep ending up in these positions where we’re pitted up against each other on the field,” Moreno said. “It’s been quite an exhilarating experience. It’s certainly something that’s dated back to when we were both still in college because BC was such a phenomenal team. I feel like it’s always been a tough, high-level rivalry that clearly is continuing to trickle into the professional leagues.”

The day ended up being a little more memorable for Apuzzo, whose team went home with an 8-7 victory.

“It was fun,” Apuzzo said. “Taylor is such a great competitor and an amazing goalie. Playing against her so much, it’s hard because she’s such a great goalie. But I think it’s such a fun competitive thing that we both have. It’s very respectful. It’s not like with either of us that there’s a negativity towards it, which is amazing. It’s such a great aspect of this league to be able to compete against people you competed with in college. And professionally, to keep moving that forward is awesome.”

Moreno and Apuzzo enter the final week of competition 1-2, respectively, on the leaderboard. Their rivalry is one of fierce competition on the field and mutual respect off of it. 

“I think it’s super high,” Apuzzo said. “I respect her beyond lacrosse. She and I have a great relationship off the field. We’re very friendly. She’s just a good part of this league in showing just how competitive the goalies are, how great and skillful every aspect of the player is.”

Between the pipes, Moreno knows what she’s up against when Apuzzo has the ball and is bearing down on her. 

“She’s an awesome player, a great leader,” the goalkeeper said. “She has such a high lacrosse IQ. She’s just a really great person off the field. Having that relationship off the field with her and being friendly and being able to have those conversations, whether it’s about lacrosse or not about lacrosse is something that I’m super appreciative of. I think the competition that she and I have on the field is also fueled by our desire to win and our competitiveness and certainly drives both of our performances on the field, especially when we’re up against each other.”

As experienced as each player is and as many times as they have faced each other, both know that there’s only a limited amount of “going to school” on each other they can do to learn tendencies and to try to gain an edge. 

After all, a shot can come with a flick of the wrist. 

“As you have more opportunities to play against people, it’s learning what their tendencies are and using that to my advantage,” Moreno said. “But at the same time, Sam manages to find a way to win and to put balls into the back of the net and keep the ball in the offensive end.

“I think for her it’s not just putting balls into the back of the net. It’s assisting other people, creating a lot of opportunities off of the attention that she draws and then at the end of the day, she has an absolutely incredible ride, which I think, for her, creates a lot more opportunities for them to have the ball. It’s just a testament to how hard she works. I think for me it’s about continuing to pay attention and work on my own skills and my own techniques to continue to stay at that level and compete.”

Apuzzo points out that for as much preparation she can do to learn about opposing keepers, they’re doing the same to learn about shooters.

“They’re constantly adapting and constantly watching our tendencies,” she said. “So it’s really kind of hard to scout in any way, offensively, defensively, goalie wise, just because the game is moving so fast. There are so many things that contribute to how you’re getting shots, where you’re shooting those shots. There’s not a ton you can do. Plus, everything is changing week to week. It’s hard to have something set for each player.”

In fact, Apuzzo said she can’t think of a goal she has scored against Moreno that resulted from studying her rival. 

“Honestly, not really,” she said. “It’s always like you cross your fingers every time you release the ball, whether it’s a save or not, just kind of hoping you get one past her that particular time, but you never know what saves she can make because of how great a goalie she is.”

For as great as each player is, they don’t get to play with each other much because each is a frequent captain. Last season, Moreno won the individual title with Apuzzo finishing second. Of course, the idea of being teammates appeals to both. 

“The last time I actually was on her team was when she drafted me Week One of my rookie season to her team in Orange,” Moreno said. “That was just an awesome opportunity, and it was probably one of the first times that we’ve literally played in a game together besides training next to each other at (Team) U.S. She’s just a great leader, and she certainly makes things happen. Any opportunity that I’d ever get to be on her team again would be pretty nice. Especially for me, I would appreciate not having her shoot on me every weekend. Hopefully one day we’ll see that happen again.”

Said Apuzzo: “It would be amazing. I think Kenzie Kent said it gives you so much freedom offensively to have a goaltender like her behind you. It is a bummer that I can’t play with her, but I know how incredible it is because I had gotten to play with her last year in that first weekend.”

Just as in hockey and soccer, most of the glory goes to the goal scorers. But with Athletes Unlimited’s unique individual point-scoring system, goalkeepers and defenders can and do dominate the top of the leaderboard with regularity. 

“Obviously with the league being as unique as it is, it’s a great opportunity for the defensive side of the field to have a little bit of recognition,” Moreno said. “But at the same time, I think as the league continues to evolve, we’ll definitely see a more balanced Top 10. If you’re winning games, that’s where you’re going to see a lot of your points come from. I think at the end of the day, while you still want to play great defense and you still want to get and accumulate some stat points, you certainly want to be on a team that has successful weekends. That’s where everyone is going to find their success in terms of points. I definitely think it’s nice to see there is an opportunity for defensive players to see a little bit more payoff for their play.

“I think 2022 was certainly an incredible year for me lacrosse wise. Winning a national championship and then winning the league was super special. I was just grateful for the opportunity to be there. At the end of the day, it was just about going out and having fun and playing to the best of my ability.”

Another hallmark of Athletes Unlimited is that players compete hard on the lacrosse and softball fields and basketball and volleyball courts, but when the games are done, those same players demonstrate compassion for and camaraderie with each other. 

“I think it’s such a special thing, especially coming from the college level, where you’re so connected to your team and the belief in your team,” Apuzzo said. “Here, there are no (permanent) teams. I think the fact that we’re all so competitive, we’re all so hyper-focused on winning that moment or winning that game, and then once we step off the field, we all have so much respect for one another because we all know what it takes to be at this level.

“What you sacrifice and what you’re doing to be here, I think that respect forms relationships and forms friendships. It really emphasizes the whole part of the league where it is this group of really strong, powerful women to create this sports league. It’s a group thing that we need all 56 players to do.”

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