June 19, 2012

Getting to Know U.S. Under-19 Throwback Midfielders

by Joel Censer and Lane Errington | LaxMagazine.com

With the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) Under-19 World Championship coming up July 12-21 in Turku, Finland, Lacrosse Magazine is taking a closer look at the U.S. U19 squad that will compete for a seventh straight gold medal.

Today: Team USA's midfield group. Check back to LaxMagazine.com the next three Tuesdays for previews of USA's attack, defense and goaltending.

On today's lacrosse field midfielders often gravitate — or are confined — to one end. You play offense or you play defense. You face off or you grab a long pole to play the wing.

But before you declare the two-way, 60-minute midfielder extinct, consider the 2012 U.S. Under-19 men's national team. The nation's 23 best players come from all corners of the country and in all shapes and sizes. Some played high school lacrosse this spring, while others have a season or two of college lacrosse under their belts.

But talk with them and their coaches, and common traits start to emerge, especially among the midfielders. You won't see any of them make a beeline to the substitution box after a split dodge or a change in possession. Instead, this carefully selected unit consists of versatile, jack-of-all-trades types who can score goals, but who are also athletic and tough enough to scrap between the lines and play defense. Seven of 10 Team USA midfielders even have experience on faceoffs.

"With the way we want to play, if other teams have guys who are strictly offensive players and our offensive players can stay on, it gives us an advantage," said U.S. head coach Tim Flynn, an assistant on the 2008 team that won its sixth consecutive gold medal. "It's a good way to play the game."

The nature of Team USA tryouts — held over four grueling days in July 2011 at UMBC — had a way of drawing attention to these hard-nosed throwbacks willing to commit to both sides of the field. Temperatures reached 100 degrees on the turf. They played one scrimmage without long-stick midfielders.

"The coaches were looking for players who wanted to get ground balls and leave it all out on the field," said U.S. midfielder Brent Armstrong, who just finished a standout prep career at St. Stephen's & St. Agnes (Va.) School. "Guys who could fit into roles and aren't afraid to get dirty and play blue-collar lacrosse."

Ryan Tucker is the offensive headliner. The son of three-time former Team USA member John Tucker, Ryan will wear jersey number two, the same number his father wore in the 1986, 1990 and 1994 senior world championships. A Baltimore native, Tucker scored 13 goals as a freshman second-line midfielder at Virginia, where he showcased a blistering shot with the range to extend defenses.

Another versatile threat will be Harvard sophomore Sean Mahon, who is as effective in half-field offensive sets he is on faceoffs. Robby Zoppo ran on the Towson midfield as a redshirt freshman this spring and has a nice shot on the run. Matt Florence, a Kent Denver (Colo.) High product who will attend Virginia in the fall, is another end-to-end athlete who adds a left-handed presence.

Three North Carolina recruits round out the rest of the offensive midfield — Armstrong, who was originally recruited as a faceoff man; Steve Pontrello, an electric dodger from St. Augustine Prep (N.J.); and Mike Tagliaferri, who handles much of the offensive load at San Ramon Valley High in Northern California. Tagliaferri was also a key two-way player for the San Ramon football team that made it all the way to the North Coast Division I championship game, where it lost to national power De La Salle.

"There's a certain attitude on the midfield that's in line with Coach Flynn," Tagliaferri said.

Gritty midfielders who want to push tempo could be a huge boon for the U.S. in the international game, which features quicker restarts. They could also be a distinguishing factor against Canada and the Iroquois – two teams with a plethora of box players who are savvy around the goal but may not have the same athleticism between the 30s.

Tyler Barbarich (Delaware) and Charlie Raffa (Maryland), who will be the primary faceoff options, gained valuable experience facing off at the collegiate level this season. Young gun Stephen Kelly, a rising senior at Calvert Hall (Md.) and another North Carolina recruit, has lightning-quick hands to spell them.

As for Tucker, he seems willing to do whatever he can to help the team find gold in Turku. Whether that means finding space for a time-and-room set shot, guarding a Canadian on a pick-and-roll or even rolling up his sleeves and taking a faceoff as he did during his prep years at Gilman (Md.) School, he's honored to compete for his country.

"To put on the USA jersey is something I've never experienced," Tucker said. "As much respect as I have for [my father's] number, to wear it for our national team is a dream for me."

A version of this article appears in the June issue of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse. Don't get the mag? Join US Lacrosse and its 400,000-plus members today to start your subscription. Follow the U.S. U19 team at laxmagazine.com/teamusa/u19men. The team plays a group of Eastern Pennsylvania all-stars in Radnor, Pa., on Saturday.


comments powered by Disqus