After standout club career, Ratliff-Kailbourne makes impact at varsity level


Hannah Wilson | Senior Staff Photographer

Pitt women’s lacrosse player Kierin Ratliff-Kailborne faces off against Duquesne in February.

By Zack Gibney, Senior Staff Writer

Pitt senior attacker Kierin Ratliff-Kailbourne had made her peace with not playing college lacrosse. As a standout high school player, Ratliff-Kailbourne tested the waters with the recruiting process. But of the schools that recruited her, none stood out.

Born in Honeoye Falls, a small town just outside of Rochester, New York, Ratliff-Kailbourne began playing lacrosse in second grade after her friend’s father introduced her to the sport. As she improved throughout middle and high schools, Ratliff-Kailbourne grew interested in playing at the collegiate level.

Despite drawing interest from some smaller schools, she settled on Pitt — a school that didn’t have a varsity lacrosse program at the time, but was a fit in all other regards.

“I was looking at a lot of smaller schools but I knew ultimately that I wanted to go to a big-time sports school and if I got hurt, I wouldn’t be happy at a smaller school,” Ratliff-Kailbourne said. “I stopped the recruiting process and just focused on what school I wanted to go to academically and socially.”

Not only did Pitt have a storied varsity athletic program, she had heard that Pitt’s Club Lacrosse team was a talented group. The team won a national championship in 2014 and reached the national title game in 2017. A finance and marketing major, Ratliff-Kailbourne saw this as an opportunity to stay involved in the sport she loved while studying at a university where she wanted to be.

Before leaving for Pitt, some of Ratliff-Kailbourne’s friends mentioned the possibility of Pitt introducing a varsity lacrosse team. While the idea crossed her mind, Ratliff-Kailbourne wasn’t banking on it coming to fruition.

“I did not come here anticipating a varsity team,” Ratliff-Kailbourne said. “I had thought of it, but thought there was no way it would happen while I was here.”

But the school announced in fall 2018 that it would add a women’s lacrosse program and begin playing in spring 2022.

Ratliff-Kailbourne joined the club team upon arriving at Pitt and was immediately successful. Her club coach, Kevin Tidgewell, immediately noticed that Ratliff-Kailbourne had talent and had the potential to get even better.

“Kierin is a special player. She definitely had the skills and mindset and drive to play at the next level,” Tidgewell said. “We get a good number of girls who were recruited to NCAA programs who chose Pitt for academics or other reasons, and that’s what Kierin was.”

Even in a short time with Tidgewell and the club team, Ratliff-Kailbourne was quick to make her presence felt. Ratliff-Kailbourne scored 44 goals and won MCLL DI Player of the Year in 2019 as the team secured their first national title since 2014.

It was around this time that Pitt tapped Emily Boissonneault, a former assistant coach with James Madison University and Team Canada, as the varsity program’s first head coach. After the announcement, Boissonneault quickly got to work assembling a roster.

The Pitt Club Lacrosse team was one of her first stops on the recruiting trail.

Along with Ratliff-Kailbourne, Boissonneault also scouted senior defender Caroline Lederman and senior midfielder Payton Reed from the club team, and invited them to take part in early morning training sessions with the new coach of the varsity team.

The three had a quick turnaround after their late-night club practices, as Boissonneault’s sessions started the next morning at 7 a.m. The new head coach wanted to establish a regimented work ethic within the players that would help them succeed at the Division I level, valuing one thing above all else — showing up.

“I really wanted to see that they were committed to coming,” Boissonneault said. “The physicality and skill of the game is significantly different [at the DI level], but I think what’s even harder is to balance the schedule and to be able to come to practice every day and be challenged.”

None of the three ever missed a morning training session and, after they concluded, Boissonneault offered them a spot on the team the day before Pitt sent students home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Ratliff-Kailbourne, it was not an easy decision to leave Tidgewell and the club team.

“People have asked me and the two other girls if it was easy to leave, and that was probably the hardest decision,” Ratliff-Kailbourne said. “I had 50 best friends on that team.”

While Tidgewell’s squad was undoubtedly losing an asset on the field, the chance for Ratliff-Kailbourne to make the transition to the varsity team was something that he knew was the right choice.

“I knew it was happening,” Tidgewell said. “I was like, ‘Go for it. Go chase your dreams. You only get one shot at this, so why wouldn’t you?’”

After returning from the pandemic absence, Pitt lacrosse began to hold practices with the so-called “Original 14” — the first group of officially rostered players, including Ratliff-Kailbourne and some of her former club teammates. As the roster began to grow, the new members began to mold to the culture that the original players established.

“Us original 14 last year – we were so tight,” Ratliff-Kailbourne said. “That bond carried over and we are able to bring everyone together and everyone has bought in.”

Despite being a newcomer to the team just like everyone else, Ratliff-Kailbourne was one of the older players on the roster. Entering her senior year before the program’s inaugural season, Ratliff-Kailbourne stepped into a leadership role for some of the younger players on the team.

“We have a lot of people trying to step up into those leadership roles and I think Kierin is definitely one of them,” Boissonneault said. “She’s a really good person and I think any time you’re a great lacrosse player and a great person, that’s going to put you in a position where people have expectations for you to be a go-to … not just on the field, but off the field as well.”

As preseason practices came to a close, the program began to prepare for what would be its first season of competition. First up was the City Game against Duquesne.

After nearly three years of anticipation, Ratliff-Kailbourne’s dream of playing DI lacrosse would soon be realized — an unthinkable reality back when she enrolled at Pitt. Ratliff-Kailbourne said the first gameday felt almost surreal given all of the buildup.

“I hadn’t had the feeling that it was gameday in over two years,” Ratliff-Kailbourne said. “Seeing everybody decked out in their uniforms was the best feeling.”

Prior to the game, there were some nerves in the locker room — a reality that comes with playing the first game in the history of a program. A point of emphasis in the pregame huddle was to get the first goal on the board.

“It was super nerve-wracking,” Ratliff-Kailbourne said. “A couple of my teammates and I were in the huddle before the game and I was just like, ‘We just have to score the first goal.”

Ratliff-Kailbourne did just that.

After Duquesne took a 1-0 lead, Ratliff-Kailbourne scored the first goal in program history with 3:41 remaining in the first quarter. After narrowly missing the net just minutes prior, Ratliff-Kailbourne capitalized from the free position for the historic goal.

“I missed the first shot before that, so I was very frustrated with myself,” Ratliff-Kailbourne said. “In my head I wasn’t thinking ‘Oh, this is the first goal,’ but after I missed the first shot, that’s exactly what I was thinking.”

Even after the first quarter tally, Ratliff-Kailbourne wasn’t done. She added a goal in every quarter in her first career game at the collegiate level.

Pitt won a 9-8 overtime thriller in front of a packed Highmark stadium, which Ratliff-Kailbourne spearheaded with her four-goal outburst. One of the nearly 1,000 people in attendance was Tidgewell, the club coach, having the special experience of cheering for three of his former players.

“It was awesome. I was there for their first game screaming my head off,” Tidgewell said. “It’s awesome to watch them all succeed and play so well.”

Ratliff-Kailbourne scored 13 goals over the course of the season, good for No. 4 on the team.

Four years after she had ended her recruiting process, Ratliff-Kailbourne is now a vital piece to the inaugural season of the Pitt lacrosse team. She has found the key to success has been doing just what she had been on the club team — enjoying the game.

“Since we are a new program, we are going to have highs and lows,” Ratliff-Kailbourne said. “Just having fun with each other … that’s the best part about our team.”