COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Team USA had its cowboy hat, passed around to a team-determined player of the game. Canada's version was a light blue denim jean jacket, formerly owned by the late goalie Chris Sanderson.
Dillon Ward, playing in his first-ever Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Championship, wore it off the field and into the locker room, after being named tournament MVP with a 63.3 save percentage, capped by a 10-stop performance in Canada's 8-5 win over the U.S. in the gold medal game Saturday night.
"It's Chris Sanderson's," Ward said with a beaming simile, wearing the tightly fitting garment while walking in the room.
Intangibles were all over the place for Canada at this year's world championship. The memories of Sanderson and Kyle Miller, two former goalies who passed away within the last three years from cancer, since playing for Team Canada in 2010, were on the forefront of everyone's minds, and the front and back of their practice pennies. They wore reversible red-and-whites with Sanderson's jersey No. 17 on the front and Miller's No. 35 on the back, an idea hatched by Team Canada general manager Dave Huntley.
|Canada head coach Randy Mearns kept his No. 51 warm-up shirt - honoring Tucker Williams, the son of NLL star Shawn Williams of the Buffalo Bandits who is currently undergoing treatment for Burkitt's Lymphoma - on throughout the game. (Scott McCall)|
Sanderson's wife sent the jean jacket to one of the team's four captains, Brodie Merrill, the now three-time All-World defenseman, to have it handed out after every game of the tournament.
Members of the Canada coaching staff came out for warmups at Dick's Sporting Goods Park wearing jerseys with the No. 51 on the back, to honor another Canadian, Tucker Williams, the eight-year-old son of Buffalo Bandits player Shawn Williams. Tucker has Burkitt's lymphoma, which had been in remission but returned about a month ago, and Mearns said afterward the team plans to present the jerseys to the Williams family.
Canada also won despite injury issues. Regular starting defenseman Jason Noble (high ankle sprain) didn't play at all in the final after missing most of Canada's 12-6 win over the Iroquois Nationals in the semifinal. Attackman Curtis Dickson, after a pair of hard hits, left the game for good early in the second half, favoring his arm and bounded up and down the sideline with nervous energy as time ticked away in the fourth quarter.
"We just had to stay to the game plan," Canada coach Randy Mearns said. "[Faceoff man] Geoff Snider and our wing play off the faceoffs was phenomenal. It was 18-8 for us on ground balls in the first half. When we needed to get the ball, our guys were getting the ball. We had a lot of heart. We played Canadian lacrosse, tough-nosed, get the ball and grind it out."
Canada learned John Grant Jr. was withdrawing from competition a week before opening ceremonies so they scrambled to adjust early on in the games. After the 10-7 opening loss to Team USA, they shuffled the deck and moved Jeremy Noble to attack. Midfielder Kevin Crowley, largely quiet throughout the tournament with three goals heading into Saturday, scored five in the final, as many as the U.S. did as a team.
"The big cat came purring today," Mearns said of Crowley, the reigning Major League Lacrosse MVP who was dealt from the Florida Launch to the Chesapeake Bayhawks early in the tournament. "That was beautiful. He was a presence. It's every little piece. We went and said, 'What's a team that can go win a gold medal and be considered the best team ever?' You start looking at all these little pieces and you need to juggle it.
"The picture is still the same but all of sudden John Grant Jr. is going to withdraw so we need to figure that out," Mearns said. "Championship game, Curtis Dickson, halfway through, he's out. Jason Noble with the ankle sprain. Now we're down to five poles. He was gamer. He was ready to go in. It's all those things. When it comes together, you feel like the old-school A-team. When a plan comes together, and it did. It's Saturday, July 19 and we're world champions."
This isn't to say the U.S. didn't have its intangibles as well. Right before the game, the U.S. staff adhered an Army flag to a shaft, to create the fifth of five flags the team would carry out onto the field for the championship game. There had been military tones with the U.S. throughout the year-plus tryout process and during the tournament under former Navy head coach Richie Meade. "Awesome," Meade said pregame, looking at the Army flag.
Team USA faceoff men Chris Eck and Greg Gurenlian, owners of the team's US Award after the semifinal win against Australia, carried the stars and bars out in front, as had been custom for the team throughout the tournament, followed by Garrett Thul, who will start more Army training in Fort Benning, Ga. In a few weeks, carrying the Army flag, Mitch Belisle carrying a Navy flag, Max Seibald with a Marines flag and Lee Zink with an Air Force banner. It was a player-driven order and representation.
|The U.S. Men's players came out with the American flag as well as one from each of the four branches of the military before the contest against Canada. (Scott McCall)|
"It's like everything else: We have a mission to do, and we're a day away from it," Meade said at Team USA's final practice before the gold medal game on early Friday evening at the University of Denver. "It's a two-year process. There's a lot on the line. We want to be at our best [Saturday] night. That's what the whole thing has been about."
Mearns agreed and said Canada ended up finding itself throughout the tournament. Many Canadian players said after the opening night loss to the U.S. that the group was just starting to find its identity, and said they would be better next time around. On the eve of the tournament opener, Canada defensive coordinator Taylor Wray worked on installing zone defense schemes, but they didn't use them ten days ago as much as they did in Saturday's final, forcing outside shots from U.S. midfielders that often missed the mark or were controlled by Ward, the 6-foot-5 netminder who wore a shorter man's jacket after collecting a gold medal. Ward also came up with big second-half stops, most notably on a Paul Rabil chance from the wing created off a hard ride by the U.S., and it attempted to rally.
"You put a lot of time and work and effort and planning, this process is a long time," Mearns said. "Then you get to the tournament and it's a grind. It's 80-minute games. You want to try to be peaking at the right moment. The guys did a hell of a job."
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