Lyle, Brodie Battle at Center Stage of Iroquois, Canada Bout
COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – On a turf field in Denver, under the Sunday night lights and in front of a crowd of more than 6,000 at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, Team Canada's Brodie Merrill chased Iroquois attackman Lyle Thompson around for 80 minutes in a matchup that brought the 32-year-old defenseman's mind back 10 years ago, when his college self at Georgetown marked Syracuse superstar Mikey Powell.
Electric dodges, jaw-dropping sizzle and momentum-swinging moments during an Iroquois comeback from a five-goal third-quarter deficit to tie with eight minutes left, put Thompson in the company of a Brodie nemesis who tended to do the same thing back then. They might as well have been in the Carrier Dome.
"It reminded me of matching up with a guy like Mike Powell," said Merrill, the two-time All-World pick and six-time Major League Lacrosse defensive player of the year. "You try to stay in the moment and keep it simple. If you focus too much on being defensive, he's going to expose you. You just want to be aggressive and force him to bad spots. Easier said than done, right?"
If arguably the world's top defensive player says it, it must be true. Merrill and the 21-year-old Thompson were center stage in a heavyweight Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Championship pool play bout that left the crowd buzzing, players emotionally and physically drained and everyone asking for more after Canada held on for a 9-8 win. There might be a rematch in the medal round, if expectations hold. But for now, the memories of Round 1 will resonate as an instant classic.
The decision to move Thompson from midfield to attack in the second half, with Merrill following right along from long-stick midfield to close defense, changed the complexion of the game. The Iroquois, held back by seven first-half penalties, allowed six straight scores and trailed 6-1 at halftime and 8-3 midway through the third quarter. They generally couldn't get much going on offense, with Merrill roaming all over the field and the rest of the Canada defense playing aggressive, too. The switch flipped the script.
"You try to stay in the moment and keep it simple. If you focus too much on being defensive, he's going to expose you."
– Team Canada defenseman Brodie Merrill on Lyle Thompson
Playing with his older brother Miles and budding Syracuse star Randy Staats, Lyle took over and fueled the five-goal flurry, with two of his own including a series of events that will go down in the lacrosse lore.
What was better: A fading away behind-the-back pass to himself, with Merrill draped all over him, which nearly resulted in score? "It just comes natural," Thompson said. "One of the things from playing with your stick all the time. I don't plan it or anything. He was bottom side on me with my stick hanging and I was falling backwards, so I kind of just threw it and got a good shot off."
Or the dodge from point-behind that immediately followed on the restart, capped by the wraparound finishing move Thompson made so popular during a record-breaking year at Albany this season? Iroquois coach Steve Beville leapt off the turf as the ball hit net, and the bench and crowd roared. "I knew he was tired there," Lyle said of Merrill. "And honestly, I was pretty tired. I just went at him and I saw he didn't have a back up crease side, where they were sliding from. I just came around and did the move I've been doing all season."
And suddenly Merrill was now victim of what he had seen on TV plenty of times before.
"It's one of those things where you feel like you're in good position," he said. "When he drops his stick down, you almost feel like you can get a check in. It's a little bit deceptive. You just live with that. You know he's got that capability. You try to limit to easy looks for him. If he can pull those off, then you have to tip your cap to him."
It's the little things that the great ones pick up on. Just as Merrill recognized a little drop of the stick perhaps, Thompson, owner of the NCAA Division I men's single-season record for points with 128 this season, said he tried to avoid doing exactly that during the matchup with a defender he knew and respected. Merrill has covered a who's who of lacrosse's best offensive talents over his career. And as the stars and time aligned, his career has now bridged one once-in-a-generation player, Powell, to another in Thompson.
"In college, I usually like to bait a defender with my stick and hope he goes for it," Thompson said. "At this level, with Team Canada and Team USA, you can't do those types of things. I was just focused on making him work. I think I did. Coaches told me to make him work. He seemed pretty tired at the end of the game. We were trying to attack him."
"Tired," was the exact response from Merrill after the game when asked how he was doing. The tank was empty after darting all over, applying checks and ranging for ground balls. He often bent over to rest his hands on his knees during stops in the action. After Thompson's two-goal run, puncuated by the highlight-reel variety for his third goal of the night, cut the Canada lead to 8-6, Craig Point and Randy Staats scored a pair of extra-man goals, the latter that tied it with 8:19 remaining.
Canada continued to win faceoffs, but the Iroquois picked up the intensity on the wings and ride. Merrill, out of contention on the faceoff unit playing close defense, could only watch as he and Thompson stood just over the restraining line. At some point, the sights of the show convinced Beville that Thompson will play attack the rest of the tournament, and "we'll piecemeal our midfield and do what we have to do," he said. "We just felt it was necessary and it made a huge difference for us." The Iroquois had been running Thompson through the midfield, with plenty of talent available on attack and the coaching staff looking to give Lyle a break at times.
"We kind of expected him to go down and play attack," Merrill said. "My focus changes a little bit more to a defensive role where when I'm up top I can roam a little bit more. I think he's probably a little bit more comfortable down there. He's got good chemistry with those other two attackmen. He's on the field all the time. That definitely changed momentum. I thought they were very good on the ground. That was a big difference. We just prolonged possessions because we couldn't pick up the ball."
Zach Miller dinged a clean look off the pipe, Canada goalie Dillon Ward came up with one of his 10 saves, Jason Noble drew the Thompson assignment for a time as picks were made, and Miles Thompson fed a crashing Jerome "Haina" Thompson driving to the crease, and he just missed on a shot, all within a three-minute stretch after the Iroquois tied the score. Chemistry? Oh, yes. Lyle Thompson could be heard yelling "Randall," voicing Staats' full first name to have him come set a pick.
The fans rose to their feet with a standing ovation after a timeout was called. During it, Thompson, who arrived at Albany three years ago as a shy, reserved, talk-to-you-if-you-talk-to-me type, asserted himself in the huddle.
"I was feeling it," he said. "I got a couple looks dodging from X and I just told everybody kind of where they were sliding from and what to look for, when I'm dodging from X and when I come to my left side, basically what we do at Albany, what to look for and where to be."
But he never got another chance. On the possession out of the timeout, an errant pass went to the midfield line and the Iroquois were called for a push. With 19.4 seconds left, Jeremy Noble took advantage of a slipping defender and fed Curtis Dickson for the go-ahead goal for Canada. It was their only goal in the last 29 minutes.
Geoff Snider won the ensuing faceoff on procedure – he won 12 of 19 overall – and after a restart in the waning seconds was marred by two unnecessary roughness penalties and three unsportsmanlike conducts spread among three Iroquois and two Canadians, time ran out, and the ball never made it back to Lyle Thompson's stick, or anyone else's.
"I didn't get a chance to go at him one last time," Lyle said of facing Brodie.
Who knows what would have happened then?
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