Lilly Reale: The ‘coach on the field’ and voice that guides UCLA women’s soccer

Lilly Reale smiles with the ball tucked under her arm. She currently holds the title of Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. (Jake Greenberg-Bell/Daily Bruin staff)

By Grace Whitaker

October 24, 2023 at 3:46 p.m.

This post was updated Oct 24. 10:43 p.m.

Many noises fill the air at any given women’s soccer game in Wallis Annenberg Stadium: the cheering of the fans, the hum of the announcer’s tone, the thump of the ball being passed from player to player.

But, as her teammates can attest, there is one voice that emerges above all the others, guiding her team from the opening kickoff to the final whistle.

The voice in question belongs to Lilly Reale, whose awards and accolades speak for themselves and whose teammates attest that she is what wins them championships.

The national championship-winning junior defender holds claim to both a Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year title and Honda Sport Award and is widely recognized by both national outlets and the rest of No. 2 UCLA women’s soccer as a top player.

In addition to the statistical presence and the laundry list of accomplishments that the defender totes, it is Reale’s vocal presence and leadership abilities that make her stand out to coach Margueritte Aozasa.

“Lilly only has one volume, which is loud,” Aozasa said. “She’s kind of like a coach on the field. She’s directing, she’s encouraging, she’s organizing things, and that’s why I think our team really looks to her to be a leader for us.”

But before Reale was winning awards and guiding one of the top collegiate programs in the country, she was just a kid playing sports with her sister.

(Jake Greenberg-Bell/Daily Bruin staff)
Junior defender Lilly Reale dribbles the ball. Reale is the reigning Honda Sports Award winner for soccer. (Jake Greenberg-Bell/Daily Bruin staff)

“I started soccer when I was three or four,” Reale said. “I would just run around on the field in tots classes. My mom would even be there and my little sister – we would both cry and run around on the field.”

UCLA, which has started the defender in every game since her freshman campaign, is also now home to another Reale sister. Sophie Reale, a freshman forward, joined the program this season. The pair have been playing soccer since they were toddlers, according to Lilly.

“I definitely think she’s (Lilly) one of my biggest role models,” Sophie said.

About 16 years after their early soccer roots, Lilly and Sophie can now be seen running the field in Wallis Annenberg Stadium on most weekends.

The elder Reale said having her sister on the team is comforting, especially considering that the duo – who are originally from Hingham, Massachusetts – are on the opposite side of the country from home.

“Having a friend is something, but having a family member is totally different, someone who kind of gets your growing up situation, your family situation, stuff like that,” Lilly said. “So it’s super nice to have her around, especially being far from home.”

After tossing around the idea of choosing soccer growing up, Lilly said that while she didn’t necessarily love the sport from a young age, there eventually came a time where soccer meant more to her than other activities – when she joined a club team. She added that her club soccer coach Liz Lima – the owner and director of the South Shore Select club soccer company – had a significant influence on the success she has today.

“They (Lima and her husband) made me figure out that competitive side of me, and brought out that competitive side to eventually get me to only focus on soccer,” Lilly said.

That competitive spirit – which also carried with it a Player of the Year nod and All-American honors in high school – eventually caught the attention of then-reigning Pac-12 champion UCLA in 2020. It was an offer that Lilly couldn’t pass up. Soon enough, she was making her way over to Westwood, not knowing what would lie ahead in her first few years of collegiate soccer.

Right off the bat, the then 18-year-old defender settled into a starting role, going up against 22-year-olds bound for the NWSL draft. She said despite feeling early pressure, she didn’t let it faze her, since holding a starting position was a goal she had set for herself.

“Coming to college is a big change, and it can be overwhelming. But then, going into a starting position – I think for me though, I saw it as more exciting,” Lilly said. “I knew that was something that I wanted to achieve throughout the freshman season.”

It quickly became evident that she could handle the pressure.

(Jake Greenberg-Bell/Daily Bruin staff)
Reale holds the soccer ball in front of her. (Jake Greenberg-Bell/Daily Bruin staff)

Lilly started 19 of the Bruins’ 20 games that season, averaging 89 minutes of play per game. She played a key role in the Bruins going 16-0-3 in the regular season, a record that won them the Pac-12 title once again. In the NCAA tournament, however, No. 2 seed UCLA faced a swift and early end to its season after it was eliminated in the first round by UC Irvine.

Shortly thereafter, UCLA had a change in coaching staff, with Aozasa taking over at the helm of the squad. The first-year head coach would go on to lead the Bruins to their first national championship in nine years. Aozasa said when she first arrived, Lilly was a player that stuck out.

“Lilly was just a player that, right away, you notice her potential,” Aozasa said. “And that’s what’s been really exciting, that while she remains one of our top players, I would consider her one of our most improved players from last season to this season.”

Earlier this season, senior forward Reilyn Turner said players like Lilly are the reason the Bruins were able to come back from down 2-0 in the final 10 minutes of the 2022 national championship game. Aozasa added that Lilly played a large role in keeping her teammates focused.

“In the final, when I think back to that, there was a solid 20 minutes when it seemed like it was just Lilly and Jayden (junior defender Jayden Perry) defending,” Aozasa said. “She just has that pure determination and that competitiveness. And then where she’s really grown is her maturity, and I think that’s what’s really shown this year.”

In 2023, Lilly continues to pave her way and cement herself as one of the elite women’s soccer players in the nation. On a list released this month, she was slotted at No. 10 on Top Drawer Soccer’s Midseason Top 100 players list for women’s college soccer – the highest-ranked UCLA player on the list and second-highest Pac-12 player.

Lilly can also be found on the watch list for the 2023 MAC Hermann Trophy, which is given to the top player in the country as voted on by Division 1 coaches.

A vocal leader on the field, Lilly used her voice once more to thank the people that uplifted her on her journey – her teammates, past coaches and parents.

“My family has obviously, I’ve mentioned, given up so much to put me in the places that I am,” Reale said. “I’ve been very lucky to have such a great support system and be where I am today.”

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