July 23, 2012

Kavanagh Caps U19 World Tournament With MVP Award

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

* The Avengers: U.S. U19 Team Rebounds to Win World Title
* Tucker Steps Up as Leader During Run to Gold

Future Notre Dame attackman Matt Kavanagh averaged nearly five points per game during the 2012 FIL U19 World Championships in Finland, including four points each in the semifinals and final.
© Tero Wester

TURKU, Finland – Matt Kavanagh was presented with a painting by a local artist who doubles as the Finnish men's national team goalie on Saturday, a marker of the MVP award Kavanagh earned while racking up 19 points and 15 assists for the U.S. under-19 men's national gold medal-winning team during two weeks in Finland.

Kavanagh's mother kissed him and cried as Kavanagh walked toward his teammates after accepting the award and taking a posed picture. It was a nice moment. But maybe, just maybe, the player portrayed in the painting could have been left-handed, instead of right?

The lefty Kavanagh showed off his array of skills, general offensive talent, toughness and determination during the U.S. U19 team's championship run. Even when things were looking bleak for the U.S. – with two pool play losses to Canada and the Iroquois Nationals – Kavanagh still managed to shine, scoring four goals with two assists in the Iroquois loss and two goals, two assists versus Canada. And during the mini-redemption tour against those same teams in the semifinals and finals, Kavanagh was no doubt still an integral part.

The small, no more than 5-foot-8, future Notre Dame attackman nicknamed "Kavanaughty," averaged 4.85 points per game in Finland, including two goals and two assists each in the 12-7 semifinal win against the Iroquois and 10-8 victory over Canada for the gold medal. He was remarkably consistent, scoring no fewer than two goals and two assists and no more than four goals in any of the seven tournament games.

Kavanagh often set up shop on the right wing and either took on a bigger defenseman to the cage himself, or dished a pass to the center of the field to a cutter or someone on the crease. He showed the ability to create his own shot and that of others. With a background in youth hockey growing up on Long Island, playing it until his junior year of high school, some of his goals looked downright Canadian-influenced. This is what the U.S. offense looked like for much of the early part of the tournament.

But before the medal rounds, with the offense also at times looking stagnant – "A lot of individual play, not a lot of team play," Kavanagh said – and, more importantly, a feeling among the players for a need to change if they were to win gold, the philosophy and Kavanagh's role adjusted. He was still the go-to guy, but was moved around in front of the crease at times. It changed after a players-only meeting following the heart-breaking pool play loss to the Iroquois. Among other topics discussed in the meeting that Tuesday night, midfielder Ryan Tucker, a rising sophomore at Virginia, put in plays from the Cavaliers' offense. The coaching staff went with it.

"We totally changed the offense," Kavanagh said. "Dodging down the alleys for the middies, swinging it around, picks on the crease ... It was slow-moving offense before, getting stuck in someone's stick, doing whatever we wanted."

Kavanagh was on the finishing end of those screens on the crease for one goal in the semifinal win and another in the championship game.

"We were taking a lot of pressure off him because a lot of the times the coaches were saying 'Give the ball to Kav and let him dodge,'" Tucker said. "We were [now] dodging and getting him the ball and trying to get him open for a time-and-room shot. When he got it, he hit it. You put that kid in any position and he's going to make a play."

Off the field, Kavanagh can be quiet and reserved. But in the heat of battle he can exchange on-field chirps with opponents. His relentless effort – sometimes being beat on by larger, bulkier defenseman – coupled with that feistiness (the Irish in him maybe?) and attitude earned his teammates' and coaches' respect. His nickname, often shortened to just plain "'Naughty," had no problems sticking.

"He's a great, great player, maybe a greater person," USA coach Tim Flynn said. "One of the silent leaders on this team and sometimes not so silent. Just an amazing talent and heart, and somebody who is fearless and plays the game the way it's supposed to be played."

So where did he come from? A Rockville Centre, N.Y., native, Kavanagh attended Chaminade (N.Y.) High, the Catholic school power on Long Island. He played club hockey in Long Beach until the winter of his junior year (he also lost two teeth while playing the sport at Madison Square Garden), before he had a breakout junior lacrosse season at Chaminade in which he was the Flyers' leading scorer.

"Some teams started talking to me," he said, and he committed to Notre Dame after that junior season, which ended with a CHSAA loss to rival St. Anthony's in the final.

He focused only on lacrosse as a senior, then took a post-graduate year this season at Hotchkiss School in Connecticut. There, he played attack and even some midfield and helped on faceoffs for a team that finished with an 8-7 record. In Team USA's first exhibition game last November against a group of Texas all-stars, Kavanagh had six goals and three assists. He was the leading scorer throughout exhibition play with the U.S. this summer and continued that trend in Finland. Next up? Notre Dame.

"If I was the coach at Notre Dame, I would put him on the field right away," Tucker said. "That kid has everything you want in a player; an unbelievable heart. He will literally do anything for the team, and anything to win. I've never seen a player like that. He could have a broken arm and still play. He sells out for every ground ball. He will beat every defender in the country, in the world. The MVP honors for Matt Kavanagh are well-deserved and right on."

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