January 26, 2012

National Teams, College's Best Meet at Champion Challenge

by Matt Forman | LaxMagazine.com

Team USA goalie Devon Wills, also an assistant coach at USC, will have a chance to see the elite programs of Northwestern, Maryland and Syracuse that the Trojans aspire to be this weekend at Champion Challenge.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

The wait is over. The unofficial start to the spring lacrosse season is finally upon us.

This weekend the U.S. men's national senior team faces Denver, while the U.S. women's national senior team takes on Northwestern and Maryland at the 2012 Champion Challenge, a US Lacrosse event held Friday-Sunday at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The event showcases elite college programs against the best players in the world, all on one stage.

If you've been counting down the days to college lacrosse since last May, or waiting for your fill of Team USA, tear the proverbial final page off your calendar. Get your computers ready, prepare your TVs, and set your DVRs. (Or if you're within driving distance, hop in the car.) Starting at 11 a.m. Sunday, the U.S. Women's Team's matchup against defending NCAA national champion Northwestern will be aired live on ESPN3, and it will be followed by the U.S. Men's Team's contest against NCAA semifinalist Denver at 1:30 p.m. Both games will be re-aired Sunday beginning at 10 p.m. on ESPNU.

It doesn't get much better than this.

"I'm really looking forward to the seventh annual Champion Challenge," said US Lacrosse Director of National Teams Nathaniel Badder. "In addition to some beautiful weather, this event always provides a tremendous platform to showcase the best players in the world. This year's event is bigger and better than ever before with more teams, more games and more local involvement than ever before. It is really going to be a great weekend of lacrosse, and to have the featured games streamed live on ESPN3 and aired that evening on ESPNU is just incredible. We're very grateful to our hosts at Disney and ESPN Wide World of Sports, as well as to our great partners like Champion, for all that they have done to help make this event what it is today."

For the college programs, Champion Challenge provides a final exhibition tune-up and test before their seasons kick off in February. Other teams in attendance will include Notre Dame's men's team, Jacksonville's men's team and Syracuse's women's team.

Champion Challenge serves as an all-encompassing training opportunity for Team USA. For the women's national team, it's the final gathering before the 38-player 2011-12 squad, led by coach Ricky Fried (Georgetown), before the roster is trimmed to 24 in preparation for a summer competition tour in Oshawa, Canada, host of the 2013 Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Cup. England's women's national team is also participating in Champion Challenge.

"There's a lot of similar styles that Northwestern plays that a lot of these international teams play and want to play. Maryland is the same way. For us, it's great preparation, and they're going to be good games," said USC assistant coach and All-World goalie Devon Wills, who has participated in every Champion Challenge since its inception in 2006. "This year it's a very good lineup. When Lindsey Munday and I are training [at USC], it's constantly like, 'What's Northwestern doing right now? What's Maryland doing right now?' It's a big thing for us. It's a great test. We're excited. We're fired up."

And for the men's national team, Richie Meade will get his first official look at possible players for his squad that hopes to defend its title at the 2014 FIL World Championship since being named the 12th head coach in the history of the senior team program in December. Lehigh men's coach Kevin Cassese will coach this U.S. team, with Meade looking on as an observer.

"It's going to be a good opportunity for us to see some of the guys that have the potential to play on the U.S. men's national team, playing against outside competition. Everything right now is evaluation. Everybody is under evaluation," said Meade, the former national coach of the year (2004) who compiled a 162-120 (.585) record in his 21 years at Navy and the University of Baltimore. "We'll be looking at attitude, watching the guys play, and their performance. Some of the intangible things are going to be important — how they interact with each other, physically how they play, what kind of commitment they have, what kind of shape they're in."

In addition to a full slate of exhibition games, the national teams will also host instructional clinics for youth and high school players in grades 3-12 on Saturday, and the U.S. women's team coaching staff will offer a clinic for local coaches to learn "The Team USA Way."

Whether you'll be in Florida or watching on TV, be sure to follow all of the Champion Challenge action at LaxMagazine.com. The Lacrosse Magazine staff will take you inside all the action at the ESPN Wide World of Sports, providing a live blog, game stories and more.

And if you're on the Twitter machine, be sure to follow @USLacrosse and @LacrosseMag for instant updates.

Weekend Watch: NLL Week 4

While college lacrosse is just about to get underway, the National Lacrosse League rolls on to Week 4 with the season's first six-game weekend slate. Friday's double-dip features the Rochester Knighthawks visiting the Toronto Rock (7 p.m. EST) and the Philadelphia Wings traveling to Buffalo for a date (7:30 p.m.) with the Bandits.

Saturday's schedule stacks up like this:

Buffalo at Minnesota, 8 p.m.
Rochester at Colorado, 9 p.m.
Toronto at Calgary, 9 p.m.
Edmonton at Washington, 10:30 p.m.

Some storylines to watch: Can John Grant Jr., with 30 points in three games, keep up his ridiculous scoring pace? How long will Colorado (3-0), with two-time reigning Offensive Player of the Week John Grant, and Buffalo (2-0), and the timeless Mat Giles, remain unbeaten? After following up a double-digit loss with a thrilling 10-9 overtime victory, which Philadelphia Wings team will we see?

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