Israel Tops Japan for 7th on Cusp of Blue Division
COMMERCE CITY, Colo. - Though it was the highest placement game on Friday's slate and a battle for seventh place amongst a record FIL World Championship field of 38, the contest between Israel and Japan was a bit of a bitter pill for both teams to take. Both missed a spot in Saturday's fifth place game – and the 2018 championship tournament's Blue Division, if the six-team top tier format in place since 2006 remains – by the slimmest of margins in overtime losses on Thursday.
Israel took a 15-10 victory in the finale on the strength of a 5-0 third quarter and more in the early fourth, opening a lead of as many as seven goals before Japan narrowed the final margin to five. But the team – stacked with dual American-Israel citizens and no shortage of collegiate talent – was a 9-8 loss against Australia away from the semifinals the round before its overtime loss to England, missing both chances to secure a top six finish in heartbreaking fashion.
"We really wanted to play for a medal, but unfortunately it didn't work out that way," said Matthew Cherry, an attackman who was a Division III All-American at Dickinson and has since emigrated to Israel. Cherry will begin his compulsory service with the Israeli Defense Force starting in a month.
|Gallery: Israel 15, Japan 10|
|Israel finished its first FIL World Championship with a 6-2 mark. Japan went 2-6, with both barely missing Blue Division status for 2018 as the tournament is currently structured. (Scott McCall)|
"Playing Blue Division teams these past few days (Israel took on Australia, England and Japan in a row after rolling to a dominating 5-0 record in pool and play-in action) was a good challenge and great for our program. Now we think we can compete with the best and we want to be there – and for the next four years we get to prepare and hopefully be there in 2018."
Japan, a fixture in the Blue Division since 2006 after a fifth place finish in the 2002 event in Perth, Australia, has to make the long trip home knowing they will be back in the lower tier in Manchester, England in 2018 – unless the structure of the tournament is changed by the FIL in the next few years.
"I think we've proven that we can put up a good fight in the Blue Division, but as the championship progressed, we just had our physical and mental reserves wear down," Japan head coach Yoshihiro Okubo said.
Those reserves appeared tapped after the first half on Friday as Israel pulled away for the win. In the end, Ari Sussman notched five goals for Israel, while Kyle Bergman (3G, 2A) and Cherry (2A) played strong as the team outshot Japan 58-35. Japan got three goals out of Wataru Tsugu and Mikisune Sekine and 15 saves from Keisuke Ando, but it just wasn't enough after the grind of eight games in as many days – which opened with consecutive matches against eventual semifinalists Australia, Iroquois, United States and Canada.
Japan won two in a row over England (in overtime) and then New Zealand after that brutal stretch, but fell 10-9 in two overtimes to Scotland and limped into Friday's game knowing that no result would change their fate.
"We know that we're an improved team [from 2010], but so has everybody else," Okubu said. "Because of our size and the format, it was tough for us. We just got worn out at the end."
While Japan returns home having to cope with falling out of the top tier by the slimmest of margins, there is a silver lining for Israel. This was their first time at the tournament, and they did better than almost all other teams. With a home league in its infancy that they are hoping to build upon to bring more Israeli-born players into the fold, rather than the majority of American-born but dual passport-holding players as currently stands, this finish leaves a good foundation to build upon.
"It was special to take kids [from the nascent Israel leagues] here and have them see top-level lacrosse on this kind of stage," Cherry said. "Hopefully we got back and we can get more players to get excited and start playing the game."
As for the criticism leveled at the team for being so built on a foundation of Jewish-American collegiate-experienced players? The general reaction was one of indifference – they were playing completely within the boundaries of FIL rules, after all. And as Israel Lacrosse executive director Scott Neiss has been keen to point out, their mission is to bring American Jewish players to Israel to both help build the organization and teach kids in the country the game, leading more men like Cherry to make a home in the country as well.
"Israel is a unique country, just 66 years old," Cherry said. "To become a citizen and live there and become a part of the culture is pretty special. Every man on this roster feels this way and are citizens of the country. People can say what they want, but when it comes down to it, we represent more than just Israel – we represent the Jewish people, and that's important to the country and its people."
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