TURKU, Finland – After all the individual awards and medals were handed out, finally the public address announcer at the center of the field asked for the U.S. under-19 men’s national team captains to approach and take the trophy that signaled their 2012 FIL U19 World Championship game win.
Except the three captains didn’t go. The entire 23-player roster did.
My how the times did change since arrival in Finland two weeks ago. A team that now self-admits it was being selfish on offense, uncommunicative on defense and not up to par between the lines, turned around its fortunes after a pair of pool play losses to the Iroquois Nationals and Canada earlier in the tournament.
“”The two games we lost, we knew we could have won. It was a matter of fine-tuning our offense and defense and doing the little things on the field that we did.”
Team USA Attackman
Team USA avenged each of those defeats – the first two for any U.S. U19 team since sanctioned U19 international competition began – in the medal rounds, downing the Iroquois in the semifinals, followed by a 10-8 win over Canada in front of a capacity crowd of 1,200 on Saturday.
“It was quite an effort,” Team USA coach Tim Flynn said. “We had a little phrase after the game, ‘From the outhouse to the penthouse.’ They became a family off the field. They learned how to play well together. They really put everything together in the last two games.”
Like it did in the semifinal win Thursday, the U.S. dominated the middle of the field in the championship, winning 17 of 22 faceoffs as a team. Charlie Raffa won 10 and Tyler Barbarich seven while attackman Matt Kavanagh, named tournament MVP after finishing the competition with 19 goals and 15 assists (4.85 points per game), scored two goals and had two assists in the final. The defense held Canada scoreless during the second quarter, in which the U.S. scored four times to go ahead 6-2 while winning 7 of 8 draws.
“We played our game today,” short-stick midfielder and co-captain Rob Zoppo said. “We finally showed people what we’re about. We have 23 of the most talented guys in the country. We put it all together today.”
FIL 2012 U19 World Championship – Gold Medal Game
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Canada scored three straight to open the second half and cut the U.S. lead to 6-5, but the U.S. scored three of the next four to make it 9-6 heading into the fourth quarter. Kavanagh, Connor Buczek and Ryan Tucker scored during the run.
Mike Tagliaferri made it 10-7 with 3:17 to go before Canada’s Wes Berg tacked on the last goal of the game with nine seconds to go.
Throughout it all, the U.S. hawked ground balls in the middle of the field. If Raffa or Barbarich didn’t win a faceoff clean, their wingmen backed them up. Official ground ball stats were not kept but Flynn noticed the advantage.
“When we put this team together, a lot of people said we took the wrong kids,” he said. “We knew what we were doing. We knew we had two, if not four or five of the best faceoff guys in the country. We had guys who stuck with it in a hot tryout. They got the tough ground balls all of that weekend. That’s why they made the team and the proved it here today. I’ll take these 23 kids and I’ll go play anybody.”
Close defenseman Rob Enright and long-stick midfielder Tanner Ottenbreit often drew the assignments of covering Canada’s most potent threats, Berg and midfielder Chad Tutton, in the U.S.’s man-to-man defense.
“We tried to do some different things in anticipation of that,” Canada coach Taylor Wray said. “Some of that worked, some of it didn’t. Most of the credit goes to them. Any time you run into some adversity along the way, it goes one of two ways: It either breaks a team apart or in most cases it brings a team together. They were more together maybe then they were in the first game. They did a great job.”
Adversity struck in the form of dropping the two pool play games. The U.S. needed to play its first quarterfinal game in tournament history against Germany. Then came rematches with the two teams that beat them.
The turning point? A two-hour long, players-only meeting. Seated in a college-style, stadium-seating lecture hall, the players filled the first two rows of the room at their dorm complex from about 9-11 p.m. the Tuesday night after the 15-13 loss to the Iroquois – the first ever by any U.S. field team to an Iroquois team.
For more than an hour the U.S. players talked out any problems they had with one another, on-field tensions that had built up since the team began training in earnest this summer. California native Tagliaferri talked about having only slept in his bed for three nights this summer while training with team and that he didn’t want the effort and time invested to go to waste. Raffa spoke about how he didn’t come to Finland to beat Germany or win a silver medal. His experience reaching the national title game as a freshman at Maryland carried weight. Goalie Justin Turri said there’s one ball for 23 guys, not everyone will get the touches they want but make them mean something when you do. It went on and on.
Then the team broke down Xs and Os, and talked about what they could possibly do on the field to improve. Tucker, a rising sophomore at Virginia, even described a few plays from the Cavaliers’ offense. The defense talked about communicating better and invert defense, which was a weakness against the Iroquois. The players discussed an in-bounds play called “Schreiber” named for current Princeton and former St. Anthony’s (N.Y.) midfielder Tom Schreiber, who many had played with or against in high school on Long Island. Buczek said “talk is cheap,” and they needed to translate this talk to the field. They scored on the in-bounds play against Canada.
Flynn waited around the dorm complex and worried of what may be happening in the room – “if anyone was getting bloody,” he said – but when the players emerged he was assured they were better for it. “We all knew we needed to do it,” Kavanagh said. And Flynn even kept the offense they devised.
“We rejected a couple things they wanted to do,” Flynn said, “but we actually ran that offense. Then there was more energy in everything. The closeness of the group made this happen.”
“That really turned it around,” said defenseman and co-captain Stephen Jahelka said.
Three nights later, after its championship matchup was set with Canada, the team got together one more time, to watch the movie “Miracle,” the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team that won gold, upsetting the favored Soviet Union along the way. It resonated with them.
“We watched USA Hockey battle through adversity,” said Zoppo, whose idea it was to watch the film. “We felt the same the thing. We felt it suited our road to our victory today.”
In the final, Zach Oliveri made five first-half saves and Kyle Turri made four in the second half while Canada goalie Brennan Donville finished with 10.
After Berg scored the goal in the final 10 seconds, the U.S. gained control on the ensuing faceoff. Defenseman Greg Danseglio scooped a ground ball near the top of the box and tossed it harmlessly to the middle of the field, and the celebration was on. The U.S. kept alive its streak of winning every gold medal (seven) since this title was first contested in 1988. The Iroquois finished third after a 18-1 win over England earlier Saturday.
Kavanagh, Tucker and Jahelka were named to the All-World team. Kavanagh was named most outstanding attackman, Warren Hill (Iroquois) was named most outstanding goalie, Lyle Thompson (Iroquois) was named most outstanding midfielder and Canada’s Danny MacDermott was the tournament’s most outstanding defender.
“The two games we lost, we knew we could have won,” Kavanagh said. “It was a matter of fine-tuning our offense and defense and doing the little things on the field that we did.”
Standing on the field immediately prior to the team accepting the championship trophy, assistant coach Tom Rotanz said, unprovoked: “Someday they’ll make a movie about this: ‘The Avengers,’ or maybe ‘Miracle on Turf.'”\
Attack: Reilly O’Connor (Canada), Seth Oakes (Iroquois), Matt Kavanagh (USA)
Midfield: Jesse King (Canada), Lyle Thompson (Iroquois), Ryan Tucker (USA)
Defense: Leo Stouros (Canada), Danny MacDermott (Canada), Stephen Jahelka (USA)
Goalie: Warren Hill (Iroquois)
Most Outstanding Player Awards
Attack: Matt Kavanagh (USA)
Midfield: Lyle Thompson (Iroquois)
Defense: Danny MacDermott (Canada)
Goalie: Warren Hill (Iroquois)
Most Valuable Player:Matt Kavanagh (USA)
© 2012 US Lacrosse / Tero Wester
See all the photos at Tero Wester’s FIL U19 World Lacrosse Championship 2012 Gallery