May 28, 2011

Czech Republic Enjoys Best-Ever FIL Finish

by Neil Stevens |

Czech Republic players acknowledge the home crowd Saturday after their fourth-place finish in the FIL World Indoor Championships in Prague.

© Larry Palumbo

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- The host Czech Republic finished fourth in the world indoor lacrosse tournament and its Canadian goalie, Kurtis Wagar of Whitby, Ontario, loved every minute of it.

''It was probably the best experience of my life,'' Wagar said.

The Czech team fell 16-7 to the United States in the bronze medal game Saturday, and local fans wouldn't stop with chants and cheers for the players when it ended.

''It's a lot different than back home, but the passion and the intensity is the same,'' Wagar said. ''I can hardly understand what some of the guys on the team are saying, but I loved it. This is the best they've ever done, and hopefully four years from now, we can do even better.''

The sport is growing here by leaps and bounds, and the national team had never before played a medal-round game.

Head coach Jim Veltman, the former captain of the NLL's Toronto Rock who accepted an invite to coach the Czech team at the tournament, had four Canadians at his disposal.

Besides Wagar, who was the backup with the NLL's Philadelphia Wings this year, the others were: Kyle Ross of New Westminister, B.C., who won an NLL pro title with the Toronto Rock on May 15; Chet Koneczny of Owen Sound, Ont., who most recently played in the NLL with the Washington Stealth; and Jamie Plunkett of Peterborough, Ont. Wagar, Ross and Koneczny were eligible through ancestry, while Plunkett made residency requirements because he's played pro hockey in the Czech Republic for the last three years.

''I'm familiar with the people here and I even play a bit of lacrosse here, too, in the Czech league,'' Plunkett said. ''It's a great experience.

''It's a totally different experience for a lacrosse player. The crowd is singing, and if people watch soccer on TV, maybe they can relate to that. No matter what the score is, the crowd doesn't give up on us. They support us 100 percent, and after the game they have banners thanking us. It's an amazing experience.''

The Czech team had finished third in its round-robin pool by virtue of an 18-5 win over Ireland, which earned it a quarterfinals game. It then upset England 12-7 to advance to the semifinals for the first time.

Veltman didn't use any of the Canadians in a 19-6 semifinal loss to the Iroquois Nationals. He wanted them well rested for the medal-round game, and he also wanted to give as many Czechs as possible a chance to play in the tournament.

''We decided to go with an all-Czech lineup to see exactly where Czech lacrosse is at,'' Veltman said.

Exactly where would that be?

''I think it's very good,'' he said. ''There's more potential to tap.

''It's details of the game they're forgetting. Other than that, you can see the effort is there and they have enough talent to do things that other big-three country players can do. They've just got to keep on working at it. It's nice to have the Canadians on the team to develop and learn. At the same time, they need to know how far along they are on their own.''

In the game for bronze, Casey Powell, Drew Westervelt, Sean Morris and Bill McGlone scored three goals each, Brian Langtry two and Kevin Buchanan and Brendan Mundorf one each for the United States.

The Americans held quarter leads of 3-2, 7-5 and 12-6.

It was a chippy battle with the Czechs staying close for one half, thanks in large part to Wagar, but unable to cope with the U.S. attack in the second half.

Plunkett scored three goals and was ejected after he dropped his gloves with seven minutes left and punched Jack Reid. Petr Poupe scored twice and Jiri Kostal and Radek Skala once each.

''It's a different experience, that's for sure,'' Ross said. ''Not only are you coming over here to play and perform, you're trying to help teach and grow the game.

''Every practice was kind of like taking it back to maybe even minor lacrosse. But these [Czech] guys are like sponges. They soak it up. It's rewarding to watch the Czech players grow, even in this short period of time.''

Veltman said he has thoroughly enjoyed coaching the Czechs.

''It's been fantastic,'' he said. ''I know from being with them four years ago just how much this means to them, how much they care about box lacrosse.

''I think we're a good match. I love the game, too, and I love to coach and teach. To me, it's a good relationship. Four years from now, who knows where I'll be and who knows where they'll be?''

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