Teammates for Life: The Huff sisters are a unit on and off the field

For Kaeli and Kelsey Huff, lacrosse is a family affair.

The Huff sisters took the field for the 2015 New York State Class B Championship with a reminder of who they were playing for: Each of them had the other’s number written on her wrist in black Sharpie.

“I’m doing this for my sister,” Kaeli said. “Writing Kelsey’s number on my wrist made me reflect on how lucky I am that not only do I get to play lacrosse at this school that I love, but I also get to play with my sister.”

Born just 14 months apart, the Huff sisters, who double as two of USC’s three starting midfielders, have always been incredibly close. They shared the same room, friends and love for lacrosse.

“Your sibling is such a game changer,” Kelsey said of her older sister. “We’ve been able to play together for so long that we’ve developed this unspoken connection on the field.”

The Huffs and the rest of the Eastport-South Manor Sharks had high nerves going into the match, but following a fiery huddle, the team hit the field with an unmatched intensity. The sisters combined for nine goals en route to the school’s first state title victory, and Kaeli was named tournament MVP.

“That is one of the best moments of my life,” Kelsey said. “It was such an honor to do that for my school. I just felt like I was on top of the world.”

In the Huff house are pictures of baby Kaeli and Kelsey with children’s lacrosse sticks.

The two were first introduced to lacrosse as toddlers by their dad Scott Huff, a former Major League Lacrosse player for the New York Saints. Scott and all of his five siblings played sports, and the four boys played lacrosse in high school and college. Picking up a stick is in their blood.

After his MLL career ended and he started his family, Scott started coaching his daughters in youth sports. He went on to coach Kelsey’s travel lacrosse team from her sixth grade to 12th grade seasons.

“Being able to have that closeness with my dad and being able to travel to tournaments with him, I feel like I appreciated lacrosse a lot more and even loved going to tournaments a lot more because I knew it was that time I had with my dad,” Kelsey said. “I was able to bond with him and get even closer than we already were.”

Similar to their dad and uncles, Kelsey and Kaeli were always there to compete with and better one another.

“In lacrosse, we were able to be each other’s biggest cheerleaders and each other’s biggest critic,” Kaeli said. “I think that led into other things in life. We’re hard on each other but it comes from a place of love. Being so competitive in lacrosse has definitely made us closer.”

It’s made their whole extended family closer, too.

That’s why when Kaeli and Kelsey looked over to the stands during that state championship game, they weren’t surprised to see their parents, aunts, uncles and cousins had packed the bleachers in shirts custom-made for the occasion.

Bringing a championship home to Eastport-South Manor was a dream come true for the Huff sisters. ESM is more than their high school, it’s the epicenter of their large family. Kaeli and Kelsey have more than 20 cousins, many of whom play or played for the Sharks.

“We literally lived at the field,” Kaeli said. “When we were younger and when we were in high school, we’d always be there supporting one another.”

The Huff family map intersects in many different ways. All 20-something of them have played with or against each other in one way or another and have become closer because of it.

“We talk to each other every day,” Kelsey said. “I also like how open our family is. We can tell each other stuff no matter what.”

So in the fall of 2016, when it was time to pack up and move out west, Kaeli struggled leaving her hometown. As excited as she was to start a new chapter at USC, she was nervous. She had never been on her own and, most importantly, thousands of miles away from her family.

“I think that made me miss them even more," Kaeli said. "I’d get a lot of calls from my cousins and my whole family because I was the first one to go super far away for college. That was really nice for me.”

She’d have to wait a year until Kelsey could run alongside her in a USC jersey, too.

Kaeli also had trouble adjusting to the speed of the college game. When she started playing on USC’s squad as a freshman, Kaeli noticed lacrosse was faster paced and full of fancier moves at the college level.

To grow, Kaeli had to be resilient. She sometimes relied on Kelsey to remind her of that.

“I was super homesick my freshman year and Kelsey has always been somebody that’s outgoing and tells it how it is,” Kaeli said. “I would call her and tell her I’m homesick and she’d be like, ‘Suck it up, you’re being a baby!’.

As it turned out, missing one another only helped bring them closer together.

“My freshman year when I was at USC and Kelsey was at home, we definitely got closer and that helped our relationship,” Kaeli said. “Then we just became even closer when we were in college together.”

As the more outspoken and outgoing sister, Kelsey is always pushing Kaeli outside her comfort zone. Their head coach Lindsey Munday notices the contrast.

“They’re really different and they bicker and hold each other accountable, but obviously love each other so much,” Munday said. “On the field, Kaeli is a little more silent but deadly, and Kelsey is a little more in your face.”

Unlike in high school, Kaeli and Kelsey didn’t formally get to say goodbye to playing lacrosse together.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought USC’s promising 2020 season to a halt. The Trojans started the season 6-0, beating three top 25 teams and solidifying a No. 7 ranking in the IWLCA Division I poll before play was suspended.

On March 13, the team was halfway into its bus ride to Arizona State when Munday stood up and made an announcement.

“Lindsey told us the Pac-12 just released a statement and everything was done until further notice,” Kaeli said. “That was definitely tough being on the bus, on the way to a game and having to turn around and come back.”

When Kelsey heard, she immediately thought of her sister.

“For us two, we’ve been playing together since we were five years old, so it was crazy to not even notice the last game we played was our last game together or potentially could be,” Kelsey said. “It was more of a shock. We didn’t get to have Senior Day, be in the playoffs or prepare that this could be our last game. It was heartbreaking for the both of us.”

If Kaeli returns to USC to use the extra year of eligibility granted to spring athletes, Kelsey said she will make sure the duo takes advantage of every moment. Kelsey’s favorite part of being on the field with Kaeli is being able to play off of her. If she had known this was her last game with her big sister, she said she would try to do more together.

The opportunity to play with her sister will influence Kaeli’s decision. After their final high school game together during Kaeli’s senior year, the two put their emotions aside until they were officially state champions. Once the final whistle blew, the two cried together but knew that it wasn’t the last time they would take the turf in the same uniform.

Now, their careers together feel cut short.

Kaeli doesn’t know whether or not she’ll use the extra year of eligibility that the NCAA granted. Regardless, Kelsey is her teammate for life.

“It’s crazy when you put it into perspective," Kaeli said. "We played together for 17 or 18 years. I’d tell Kelsey how much I love her and how much I’ve appreciated playing with her all these years and how much she’s motivated me.”

Kaeli will stay around lacrosse, going to Kelsey’s games and their cousins’ matchups. The Huff’s family relationship will only grow stronger from Kaeli’s untimely departure from the game.

But there is one positive that has come from it.

“Ever since we’ve been home, it’s a heartbreaking thing that’s happened, but being able to see all our family again has been the one positive out of it,” Kelsey said.

Kaeli and Kelsey may or may not follow in their dad’s footsteps and play professional lacrosse, but they’ll always be on the field or sideline, especially for their two young cousins who look up to them and hope to follow in their footsteps.

“They watch our games on their iPad. It’s so funny,” Kaeli said. “We joke with them like, ‘Don’t worry! When you guys finally get older, we’ll be at all your games!’”

For the Huffs, lacrosse will always be a family affair.