October 6, 2013

Picture Becomes Clearer for Team USA at Play for Parkinson's

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive

Rob Pannell was paired on attack with different combinations of Garrett Thul, Marcus Holman, Eric Law and Drew Westervelt, making for some interesting lineups.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Gallery of white/blue scrimmage by John Strohsacker

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- The 52-member U.S. men's national training team gathered in the Washington, D.C., area this weekend for their first training session since surviving cuts at a three-day try out about a month ago.

They practiced Friday night and on Saturday, as part of the annual Play for Parkinson's event at Episcopal (Va.) High School, played split-squad scrimmages against Division I teams Towson and Loyola and then played each other.

Once again, as has been the case at other Team USA evaluation events, it was an incredible collection of talent for head coach Richie Meade (Furman), and assistants Kevin Cassese (Lehigh), Dave Pietramala (Johns Hopkins) and Jeff Tambroni (Penn State) to analyze. And for fans and media, too.

Here are observations, reaction and a look at what's next for the training group as we inch closer to the 2014 Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Championship, hosted by US Lacrosse July 10-14 at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Denver.

What happened

The 52-player roster was split into two squads, one of 24 (Team USA White) and the other 25 (Team USA Blue). The difference in size accounted for three injured players who didn't play but watched on the sideline: two-time Major League Lacrosse MVP Paul Rabil, who is recovering from surgery to torn abdominals; 2012 MLL MVP Brendan Mundorf, who is recovering from sports hernia surgery, and midfielder Matt Mackrides (wrist).

Saturday was a warm day, 88 degrees and sunny with games played a pair of turf fields at Episcopal's sprawling campus.

In the first Team USA-involved game of the day (see the report on the four Division I men's college teams that participated at Play for Parkinson's here), Team USA White trounced Towson by an unofficial 26-4 score in a four-quarter, 20-minute running period game. The Tigers had just finished a hard-fought scrimmage against Richmond right before they were tasked with taking on the U.S. group.

Team USA Blue beat Loyola 17-6 in a more competitive contest. The Greyhounds likewise turned around a played a U.S. squad immediately following a scrimmage with Georgetown. Loyola also faced the U.S. without senior defenseman Joe Fletcher, the lone collegian to make the U.S. men's national training team.

In the final game of the day, Team USA White beat Team USA Blue 8-1 in a shortened scrimmage (two halves with 20-minute running clock).

"The goal was to just watch everybody play," Meade said. "Both groups played pretty well today. It was a chance to watch guys play together. It's always subjective. White kind of got in a groove offensively, and the Blue guys maybe played a little bit better defensively as a team."

Observations and reactions

Mammoth attack

There were tons of combinations on attack, midfield and defense to parse throughout the day, but some of the most exciting were on the Team USA White attack.

In the Towson scrimmage, the starting unit was NCAA Division I all-time leading scorer Rob Pannell, 2013 Tewaaraton Award finalist Marcus Holman and MLL rookie of the year Eric Law. The trio, who all finished their final college seasons in May, at times glided around the goal as if together on one string and seemed to have pretty good chemistry. When this group was together, imposing shooters Garrett Thul and Drew Westervelt ran through the midfield on separate lines. They were effectively fourth attackmen working more in the middle of the field.

Later in the Towson game, Holman played a quarterback role with Thul, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound lefty who finished his senior season at Army last year, on one wing and Westervelt, a 6-foot-4, 205-pound righty MLL veteran, on another. Thul's bull dodging and finishing ability coupled with Westervelt's shooting ability, and a more than capable quarterback, was something to behold. Offensive assistant Tambroni often could be heard yelling at attackmen to "work with him," meaning set up two-man games no matter the combination. At one point, Thul set a pick for Westervelt near goal-line extended. It might have been the biggest combined pick ever.

Then the U.S. staff turned the quarterback/mammoth finisher combination up another notch in USA White-USA Blue scrimmage. In the first half, Pannell was the quarterback with Thul and Westervelt as his attack partners. Westervelt scored twice, Thul once and Pannell had two assists, one to Westervelt and the other to midfielder Drew Snider. In the second half, Holman scored twice, Law once and Thul capped the 8-1 win.

Thul scored five goals against Towson, the last one assisted by Westervelt. Pannell had two goals and four assists and Holman and Westervelt each had three goals and an assist. Law had two and one.

"That was fun," Pannell said when asked about playing with Thul and Westervelt. "I love playing that quarterback role. That's what I've always kind of been in an offense. That's kind of what I see myself being. To have a big lefty and a big righty on the side of me, that lets me just operate behind the cage and makes my job very easy."

Steele Stanwick, Matt Danowski and Kevin Leveille comprised the primary attack for Team USA Blue with Ryan Young in the mix as well in a quarterback role.

Defensive learning

For all the scoring just talked about, Meade was impressed with Team USA's defense. Pietramala worked closely with this group all day, providing direction and watching to see the response.

The wily vets, Michael Evans, Lee Zink and Mitch Belisle, haven't lost any of their wily-ness, but some young guys impressed too. Former Army stud Brendan Buckley, for example, responded well to direct attention from Pietramala in man-down situations against Towson. He was told to correct some positioning after allowing one man-down goal, and did so immediately less than a minute later in another. Buckley also had a brilliant, textbook, stick check in the Blue-White scrimmage that led to a transition goal.

Tucker Durkin, the former Johns Hopkins defenseman who was in the running for MLL rookie of the year with the Hamilton Nationals, communicated well and fought hard for ground balls, as normal.

"Defensively, we're pretty good," Meade said.

Crotty in the midfield

2010 Tewaaraton Award winner Ned Crotty, who played an attack role for Team USA at the 2010 world championship and has done the same with MLL's Rochester Rattlers, played almost exclusively at midfield aside from a quick run at attack in the second half of the Blue-White scrimmage. He scored twice from the midfield against Loyola and dodged strong throughout. Crotty was sick for tryouts over Labor Day weekend and didn't make the trip then to Baltimore, but was moved on by the U.S. staff through cuts anyway. It was easy to see why.

"It was a different look, coming in from the box, which was nice," Crotty said. "I've been going against a pole for the last couple years. To get a short-stick is a nice change of pace."

Crotty played on a midfield line against Loyola with three-time Team USA member Matt Striebel and David Lawson, an MLL rookie from Duke. Other midfield combinations from throughout the day included but were not limited to: JoJo Marasco, Max Seibald and Drew Snider; Westervelt, Kyle Harrison, Steven Brooks; and Thul, Harrison and Brooks.

The goalies

They are four of the best in the world, and it's hard to go wrong selecting any two of them for the final 23-player roster for Denver. Drew Adams continues to display an effective even-keeled nature, John Galloway's communication and ball-stopping is great (and he started a transition goal with a soft behind-the-pack pass to a breaking midfielder), Kip Turner made a pair of back-to-back point-blank stops in the Blue-White scrimmage and Jesse Schwartzman is the reigning MLL goalie of the year.

The faceoffs...

... are kind of hard to judge. Towson was no threat for Greg Gurenlian and Anthony Kelly, a pair of physically imposing MLL veterans. That disadvantage showed up in the final score. Loyola's Blake Burkhart provided a stiffer test, but still Mike Poppleton and Chris Eck were largely successful. Poppleton stood out for kick-starting quick strike scoring plays off faceoff wins, working well with long poles on the wings to make that happen. This position could mostly about matching up well with Canada's potential faceoff man, Geoff Snider.

What's your specialty?

The specialty long-stick midfield and short-stick midfield spots were tough to get a grasp on, but short-stick Matt Abbott continues to show his exceptional versatility. He saw some runs on offensive midfield in the Towson scrimmage with Harrison and Brooks. Long-stick midfielders Brian Farrell and Kyle Hartzell had two goals each with Farrell scoring Team USA Blue's only score in the final game.

Odds and ends

Lawson and Kevin Buchanan scored two goals apiece against Loyola in different ways. Lawson showed his strong outside shooting ability and Buchanan his versatility. Buchanan is listed a midfielder, but can play anywhere. He caught a Stanwick pass in tight space on the crease and put it home. ... Fletcher on playing against his college team, Loyola: "That was weird seeing coach [Charley] Toomey and coach [Matt] Dwan on the other side. After the first one or two runs, it was like practice, almost."

What's next?

The same 52-player group will next meet up Oct. 18-20 in Downingtown, Pa., for a practice weekend. Meade is looking forward to working with the team in that setting, as opposed to the tryouts and scrimmages that have dominated the process leading to the 2014 world championship thus far. The team will have a Friday night session, two Saturday sessions with a film session, and a Sunday morning session.

"There's no conclusions yet," Meade said. "We probably have to switch the groups around, do a lot more technical stuff when we get to [Downingtown]; just get better at what we're trying to do. Not just put it in and play it up and down in a scrimmage, but drill it against each other."

The team will then travel to Champion Challenge, the annual US Lacrosse event, in January at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The 23-player roster that will compete for gold will be named after that event.

"The picture is starting to become clearer," Meade said. "If we had done this traditionally and picked everybody after tryouts, I don't know that would have been the right way to do it. Having another chance to practice with guys and having another chance to play, it's going to be a pretty thorough process."

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