January 25, 2014

Champion Challenge Notes: USA Learning Curve

By Corey McLaughlin and Sean Burns | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Coaches like Penn State's Jeff Tambroni have been working all weekend with the U.S. Men on the schemes that will be in play for the FIL World Championships in Denver this summer. (John Strohsacker)

Related: Gallery: U.S. Men's Practice | Gallery: U.S. Women's Practice | Gallery: Syracuse vs. Stetson | Stage Set for Final Evaluation Weekend

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — While this weekend and Sunday's Blue-White scrimmage may serve as the final chance for U.S. men's national team hopefuls to show their stuff, the atmosphere around the first two practices has been much more cerebral than antagonistic.

Rather than going full-bore to put on a scoring display and impress, the team is working on learning plays and preparing as a unit for the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Championship this summer, where Team USA hopes to defend its gold earned in 2010.

"It's always good to be able to practice, because you have the chance to stop things and teach," head coach Richie Meade said Saturday. "Tomorrow['s Blue-White scrimmage] is about going out and playing, but I look at it as this group here is the U.S. team — we just have to pick 23 of them [for the final roster].

"The guys here that get to represent their country, it'll mean that much more to them because they'll know how hard everybody worked just to get to this point. I think they've done a wonderful job."

After Sunday's scrimmage, the tryout pool will be trimmed to 30 on Feb. 5. Those players will participate in training camp at a site to be determined in Connecticut and be part of the MLL All-Star Game when Team USA faces an MLL All-Star team. The U.S. team will then be trimmed to the 23-man roster and also have a two-day camp at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., in the days before the FIL World Championship, July 10-19, in Denver.

"Everyone's doing their best because this weekend is a whirlwind pace," midfielder and 2010 Best and Fairest (MVP) for the gold medalist Americans Paul Rabil said. "This is a good time to listen and employ things that we want to do as a team, because everybody's already been able to put in a pretty complete body of work [for the coaching staff evaluation].

That isn't to say that the on-field work hasn't been impressive. With 51 of the top men's lacrosse athletes in the game vying for that next cut to 30, there's no shortage of sharp passes, blistering shots, and frustration if things don't work out on a shift.

Both practices have followed a similar format, with a lengthy dynamic stretch and loosening led by strength and conditioning coach Jay Dyer opening things up. The teams then split up into offense and defense, with Attack and middies working on schemes with assistant Jeff Tambroni and the defense, d-mids and goalies on the other end of the field with assistant Dave Pietramala. On Saturday morning, the team also came together and worked on full-field clearing, with the emphasis on transferring the clear into the settled offensive set.

Garrett Thul dodges to the net at Friday night's Team USA men's practice at ESPN's Wide World of Sports complex. (John Strohsacker)

Then, they play full-team lacrosse, split into the White and Blue rosters that will take the field on Sunday afternoon, broadcast live on ESPN3 at 1:30 p.m. ET and replayed at 10:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU.

"It's a group of some of the best players in the world, and it's great to see everybody able to compete," attackman Brendan Mundorf said. "It's also great because you still see everybody having fun with each other on and off the field, too."

Injury Updates

While Greg Gurenlian announced his withdrawal from the team pool just before the weekend due to injury, Rabil — who missed much of the early team work due to surgery performed in the off-season following the initial tryout — looked and felt good in practice, running on the first line for the White team along with Matt Streibel and JoJo Marasco.

Mundorf, who also had surgery in the fall, was able to get on the field and run drills, but sat for the live portion of practices. "Having missed the last round of play, it's great to be able to get down here with the guys, line up for drills, and get some work in," the 2010 All-World selection said.

Uniform Team for Meade

Richie Meade, with his Navy background, wants Team USA to look uniform, from the clothes they wear under their practice jerseys to what they wear off the field during team activities to the way the players line up their bags along the sideline during practices or games.

During a mid-practice speech Saturday morning during practice, the topic wasn't X's and O's, but the fact that while most players were wearing identical gear for the day, some of them weren't, such as different colored shirts beneath their jerseys. They almost got it right, he said.

"You don't almost land on an aircraft carrier," Meade said. "You either land, or crash and sink."

At the end of practice, players were advised to come to an agreement on what colored shirts they would wear later in the afternoon, in part, for media responsibilities for ESPN.

And on Friday night, Meade halted pre-practice stretching that players were undergoing under the guidance of strength and conditioning coach Jay Dyer.

"Look at the bags," Meade yelled after blowing a whistle. Players looked to the sideline, to find their red, white and blue bags not lined up in uniform, and some of them were on the grass, rather than a concrete slab behind the bench. Players sprinted to fix the mistake, with players quickly coordinating whether to have "blue out," or "red out," meaning that color side of the bag facing the field.

U.S. Women's Focus on Speed

Team speed was the name of the game in Friday's U.S. Women's practice. (John Strohsacker)

The U.S. Women also practiced on Friday and Saturday evening, preparing for showdowns with the preseason No. 1 and No. 2 NCAA Women's teams, North Carolina (Sunday) and Maryland (Saturday evening).

Coach Ricky Fried was clear on one thing for his charges: they're the fastest women's team out there, and that's how they need to play. The key, he said during a break in Friday's practice, is for the team to realize how much they're capable of dominating other teams if they can force them to play at the Team USA pace, rather than the pace they're accustomed to.

He was pleased with his team's effort and intensity, but indicated that they needed to improve their clearing and passing (though, since the team is rightfully known for its stifling ride, one can assume that they won't often find a tougher opponent to clear on than themselves).

DeLuca on hand

Ben DeLuca, who was fired as Cornell head coach in November, is on hand at Champion Challenge with the U.S. men as a volunteer scouting consultant. He's been warming up the goalies and directing traffic around the substitution box when Team USA broke into full-field scrimmages during a pair of two-hour practices Friday night and Saturday morning.

Breaking Down Fences

More than a few light moments were had during the U.S. men's practices as one side of the field had a waist-high plastic fence on both sides of the field behind the goals. On one side, it was behind a short protective net. On the other – it wasn't.

By unofficial count, eight fence posts have fallen victim to blistering shots, leaving shattered pieces on the grass here at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex behind the south end line. Each busted post was greeted by a cheer from the players on the bench, because why not?

Versatility Paying Off?

With Gurenlian out of the mix and only three faceoff specialists here this weekend, Stephen Peyser took quite a few draws in addition to his 'assigned' duties as a short-stick defensive midfielder, a nod to his similar role with the 2010 World Championship team.

FIL drug testing

As has been common in competition years, members of Team USA were scheduled for random drug testing Saturday afternoon by the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL).

Syracuse's injury bug

The Syracuse women beat Stetson 25-0, Friday night in the Orange's second game of the season, but they lost senior midfielder Bridget Daley to a broken foot in the process. She was literally carried off the field, fireman style, by Syracuse coach Gary Gait after the injury. "I was just trying to help," Gait said. Daley said she'll have surgery next week and hope to return for post-season.

Gait also said his daughter, Taylor, a Syracuse sophomore, tore her ACL last week and will miss the season. She was injured for the season last year as well, after surgery to repair a meniscus injury, so she has yet to play a game in her college career, meaning Gait has yet to coach her in one.

The Orange, ranked third in the preseason by Lacrosse Magazine, is 2-0 already this season, being the only NCAA team to play even one game, both of them in Florida. Syracuse beat Jacksonville, 21-7, on Tuesday.

Learning Process for 'Fletch'

The final collegiate player in the running for the final team, Loyola's Joe Fletcher looked solid in both practices, making a nice strip and scooping the loose ball for the clear himself at one point and receiving the congratulations of several surrounding players.

"It's so cool [to be at Champion Challenge], a lot of these guys are players I watched before I was in college, and I'm obviously learning so much with coach Dave Pietramala and DeLuca. Talking is the biggest thing – defense is really about having a conversation. You're listening and communicating and that's what helps you grow as a player."

North Carolina preps for Team USA

The defending champion Tar Heel women practiced for about two hours Saturday in preparation for a pair of scrimmages Sunday against the U.S. women's national team. Team USA faces North Carolina at 11 a.m. ET in game broadcast live on ESPN3.com and replayed at , and plays the Tar Heels against at 1:30 p.m.

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