From the Mag: No Quit in Coquitlam
by Corey McLaughlin
A version of this article appears in the September/October issue of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse. Become a member today and receive the magazine delivered right to your mailbox.
Giving up the first six goals, and still trailing by a half dozen scores at halftime, was not part of The Blueprint. It was not on the set of standards slipped underneath plastic lamination on the back of players’ three-ring playbook binders, along with the “all in, we not me” mentality, “do your job,” and other Belichickian-sounding and Urban Meyer-inspired philosophies that Ohio State men’s lacrosse coach Nick Myers borrowed from Columbus for his tenure leading the U.S. under-19 men’s lacrosse team.
Not once during any of their meetings in the 24 hours ahead of the Federation of International Lacrosse U19 Men’s World Championship game on July 16 in Coquitlam, British Columbia, did coaches play out a down-six scenario to the 23 players that were selected to the U.S. roster at the end of a year-plus tryout process. If anything, the hope was to deliver an outcome similar to what unfolded 10 days earlier on a rainy opening night.
The U.S. — with a collection of recent high school standouts like midfielders Jared Bernhardt (Lake Brantley, Fla.) and Dox Aitken (Haverford School, Pa.) and attackman Michael Sowers (Upper Dublin, Pa.), and budding college stars like swingman Timmy Kelly (North Carolina), defensemen Jack Rowlett (North Carolina) and Pat Foley (Johns Hopkins) and faceoff man Austin Henningsen (Maryland) — largely shared the ball on offense (“hit singles”) and stuck to the plan on defense in a convincing 12-5 victory over host Canada. The Americans led early and controlled possession and pace as is possible in the international game where no shot clock exists.
The closest resemblance to a dire, what-if conversation in gold medal game preperation came in passing during a defensive talk the evening before the rematch with the rival Canadians, who, in different forms, had won the last three FIL championships (senior men in 2014, U19 women and indoor in 2015).
For nearly two weeks, U.S. players, coaches and support staff holed up in the Sheraton hotel in Surrey, B.C., a 35-minute drive east of Vancouver and 20 minutes south of where the U19 world title would be decided at Percy Perry Stadium in Coquitlam.
In the last few minutes of a film session in a meeting room called Green Timber 1, defensive coordinator Peter Toner reviewed a cut-up of a successful late-game clear situation by Canada against the Iroquois earlier in the tournament. “If we get to this point,” Toner said before explaining the play, and ended with, “then it’s probably game over.”
But privately, on the corner of 152nd and 104th streets across from a giant Canadian flag above a car dealership and within walking distance of a Tim Horton’s restaurant, Myers and the coaches later in the night watched the previous installment of the U.S.-Canada men’s lacrosse championship game rivalry: Canada’s 8-5 win over Team USA in the 2014 FIL senior men’s title game in Denver.
Members of that Canadian coaching staff, including U19 head coach Taylor Wray and assistant coach Matt Brown, would be just across the substitution box again for the U19 final.
In 2014, Canada built an 8-2 lead less than two minutes into the fourth quarter. Though the U.S. scored the last three goals, a star-studded lineup — Paul Rabil, Rob Pannell, Greg Gurenlian et al. — could not get Team USA any closer.
Canada had a plan, too: Its offense milked huge chunks of possession time and, after leading 4-2 five minutes into the second half, scored four straight rip-your-heart-out goals. Some came after long stretches with the help of ground ball plays around the crease. On faceoffs, Geoff Snider was even with Greg Gurenlian.
“What if we’re losing?” Myers thought.
Sure, the U.S. U19 men were favorites. Team USA had won each of the last seven international U19 titles. But the U.S. lost to Canada (and the Iroquois) in pool play in 2012 in Finland, not to mention the Team USA Spring Premiere exhibition in January — a wild overtime affair that foreshadowed what transpired six months later.
The next day, Myers was happy he asked the question.
Before a partisan Canadian standing-room-only crowd, the U.S. fell behind 6-0 at the end of the first quarter despite four settled possessions. And, just like the coaches had watched the night before, they were down 8-2 — except at halftime. Meanwhile, Canada scored two of their first three goals in transition and the other in a two-man game led by slick, Cornell-bound attackman Jeff Teat. Then it turned to a packed-in zone defense.
“They score a couple goals, and we knew that was coming,” Team USA offensive coordinator Pat Myers said later. “Our kids were a hair tight early in the game.”
During a quick, 10-minute halftime, though, as the team gathered in the corner of the field and the Canadians regrouped in their locker room, the mood was calm. Chip away. “You can’t score six goals in one shot,” said long-stick midfielder Matt Borges, who was forced to sit out the semifinals and championship game after taking a shot to the head in the Team USA’s final preliminary round game against England on Day Six of the tourney.
Maybe it was everything that was included in the Team USA’s cultural blueprint to that point. Bringing in U.S. senior team members, like Ryan Boyle, Pannell and Gurenlian, to talk about what the program meant to them. Or the Casey Powell talk in January, or the one from motivational author and former Cornell player Jon Gordon, or the one from leadership consultant Tim Kight, who who met with a then-30-man U.S. team on the campus of Ohio State, where Nick Myers coaches, in November. Kight works with coaches and players on the Buckeyes football team and Olympic sports.
His R-factor training preaches an E+R=O formula, for “Event + Response = Outcome,” in life and work situations.
“We’re doing our job, and we’ll continue to do our job,” Team USA and Johns Hopkins rising sophomore defenseman Foley said at one point during the tournament, reciting one of the phrases drilled in everyone’s mind.
“With 23 different guys and all these different experiences and programs, it’s given us, as a USA brotherhood, some consistency, something that we can go back to, and a word bank for us to speak to each other,” Nick Myers said, with “above the line,” for a proper response being one of them. “That’s the challenge, chasing the blueprint, the best version of who we are.”
There was the overarching tone and then the Xs and Os of it. The defense plays with its feet first, meaning good position and no takeaway checks, and communicates through its crease and adjacent slide packages dictated by the situation. On offense, it meant sharing the ball in its 1-3-2 motion offense, and when working big-little picks, and against a zone defense.
“You just rely on your experience and your leadership,” said U.S. midfielder Ryan Conrad, a rising sophomore at Virginia. “If you do that and you really stick to the game plan, you can really overcome any deficit. That’s what we were able to do.”
Penn’s Alex Roesner scored the first two goals of the second half, the second in behind-the-back fashion crashing the right alley. Henningsen, who as a freshman took faceoffs for Maryland in the NCAA title game less than two months earlier, won four straight draws against Ohio State-bound Justin Inacio to help the U.S. cut the lead to 11-8 at the end of the third quarter.
What makes the comeback all the more remarkable is that the U.S. did not score through almost the first 10 minutes of the fourth quarter and trailed 12-9 after Canadian long-stick midfielder Ryland Rees (Stony Brook) scored with 10:42 left, off a ground ball on an initial faceoff win on the wing by Conrad. Inacio won the ensuing faceoff.
Time for Plan B.
“We went through situations and scenarios, one of which was, ‘If we are losing, we have to be ready to go out and kind of press,'” Nick Myers said. “We thought we did a pretty good job with our short sticks of denying, not allowing them to hold and cycle the ball, which didn’t change the tempo, but definitely created a little bit more scoring. At the end of the day, we had a contingency plan that we needed to go to.”
Willie Klan, who is transferring to Syracuse after one season at Ohio State, made five fourth-quarter stops, denying as the Canadians had chances to perhaps put the game away on a pair of inside finishes.
Kelly, a North Carolina rising sophomore and U.S. co-captain with Princeton’s Austin Sims, scored against the Canadian zone to make it 12-10. Henningsen win. Simon Mathias, the reigning Ivy League Co-Rookie of the Year at Penn, buzzed a skip feed to Mac O’Keefe for another goal. 12-11.
Henningsen win. Bernhardt zinger from the left alley against the zone. All tied with 2:34 left. Henningsen win.
Timeout or not? With possession, Myers and his brother/assistant coach discussed the option and decided notto halt play. Canada was in man-to-man, and big brother didn’t want to risk giving it a chance to bump back to the pesky, packed-in zone. The Canadians, meanwhile, elected not to press out.
Whatever would happen, it marked the end of a journey that began with a tryout of more than 100 players during a steamy three days in Baltimore in July 2015. Players were identified only by by last names scribbled in marker on masking tape on their helmet lids. “Toughness wanted,” was the message. A few players threw up during conditioning runs.
“The first key we said over a year ago: Discipline,” Toner would reiterate ahead of the gold medal game. “Play with feet and fists; play with seven; stay out of the penalty box.”
An intrasquad scrimmage came came a month later. Then in November, a 16-11 loss at the hands of The Hill Academy (Ontario) on Nick Myers’ home turf at Ohio State. “Remember what people were saying about you after that!” Myers said in Coquitlam during one meeting as motivation.
And another scrimmage a few months after that in January, a disheartening overtime loss to the closest resemblance of their U19 counterparts from Canada that they faced for gold. “I say we’re looking to go 2-2 against them,” Myers told the team once the expected gold medal matchup was set. Several rounds of roster cuts occurred along the way, to comprise the final 23-man roster.
Finally, after a training camp in June at the US Lacrosse headquarters in Sparks, Md., the weekend after NCAA championship weekend, did this group of the finest lacrosse players in the country feel like a team.
One that could start the wave together during a pre-tournament training camp in Seattle over Fourth of July weekend, a trip that included a visit to Safeco Field for a Mariners-Orioles game.
One that, after sharing so much time and space across the border in Canada, could verbally jostle without fear of offending. “We were No. 1 in the country my junior year!” “You never won any state championships!”
Roommates could challenge each other in Pokemon Go battles and the multiplayer Settlers of Catan board game. Backup goalie Phil Goss timed starter and his roommate, Klan, each time he took an ice bath in their room, drawn by Team USA strength and conditioning coach Jay Dyer. Near the end, a spontaneous game of, “What’s what’s the worst part of sharing a room with (fill in the blank)?” broke out.
The under-19 hijinks offered levity during what was a finely-managed schedule throughout the 10 days that mostly included meals, meetings, recovery between games, and nightly bed checks around 10 p.m.
“From a fan side, people think we wake up, get on the bus and go to the game, but it’s not that at all,” Klan said. “We wake up, 8:30 breakfast, an hour meeting on the scout, talk about players’ hands, defenses, offenses, clears, then back to our room for an hour, then back over the scout and eat. Then an hour walkthrough in the afternoon.”
Kelly, who logged big minutes for national champion North Carolina as a freshman, injured his ankle in the fourth quarter of the U.S.’s semifinal win over Australia and played in the final with an extra tape job on his foot.
During the final team breakfast of a nearly two-week stay in Canada, he recounted the path — the weekends away from family and friends that the players missed and the messages from outsiders he received doubting their ability along the way that he saved on his iPhone.
“People out there don’t know what we’ve we’ve done,” Kelly said in Green Timber 1. “People out there don’t know what we’ve become. I think that’s why we’re we’re going to win the gold today.”
With time ticking down, the final play call echoed from the sideline: “Buffalo! Buffalo!”
As in wing. Pat Myers installed the set exactly one week earlier after a preliminary round game against Australia.
“We wanted to be able to have options from a point-of-attack standpoint,” Myers said. “We got short sticks on Sowers, Simon [Mathias] and Bernhardt, guys like that. We just wanted to be able to organize ourselves a little bit.”
Bernhardt had already subbed in from the sideline. The youngest of the three Florida-native brothers who, like Jesse and Jake, will play at Maryland, dodged from the left wing and drew a double team by way of a short-stick slide on the crease. He swung it behind to Mathias, who tossed a backside pass to a cutting Conrad on the crease for a quick-stick goal to put the U.S. ahead. 13-12 with eight seconds left. Wow.
Shades of January, anyone? That’s when Canada’s Inacio won a faceoff in the waning seconds of a scrimmage against the U.S. at Team USA Spring Premiere in Bradenton, Fla., then flung a half-field toss to Ryan Lanchbury for an unlikely goal that forced overtime. Canada won it in the extra time 14-13 after outscoring the U.S. 5-1 in the fourth quarter.
Inacio won the last faceoff of regulation of the gold medal game, too — “Those eight seconds were really scary,” Klan said, “because of what happened [in January]” — but couldn’t couldn’t connect on a downfield pass after winning it clean. The ball went out of bounds, time expired and the U.S. started to celebrate an incredible comeback victory.
“Just like we drew it up!” a few screamed afterward.
In jest, of course. But maybe the raucous finish was part of The Blueprint, after all. Event plus response equaled outcome.
Above the line.