June 16, 2014

Team USA's Matchup Nightmare

An imposing physical presence on the field, can Garrett Thul help Team USA intimidate its opponents at this summer's FIL World Championships? (Scott McCall) 

Garrett Thul's size isn't the only thing keeping rival coaches awake at night—or keeping him in the running for Team USA

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

Garrett Thul stands 6-foot-4, weighs 240 pounds and always was the big kid, so it really came as no surprise that when Army recruited him to play lacrosse and be a cadet at West Point, coaches didn't know if he was a defenseman or an attackman.

They weren't the only ones.

Thul played long-pole defense for his summer club team growing up, but attack for his high school in New Jersey. Eventually, he decided scoring goals was more fun than taking the ball away from someone else.

He hasn't stopped scoring since.

By the end of his freshman year at Army, where Thul helped the Black Knights upset second-seeded Syracuse in the Carrier Dome in a 2010 NCAA tournament first-round game, the scouting report was out. Teams threw zone looks at him. Thul said defenders slid as soon as he got the ball, even if he wasn't dodging yet.

Over the next three years, it didn't matter what teams did. They could not stop Thul, who finished as Army's career leader with 163 goals while starting every game in four years. As a senior, he won the Lt. Ray Enners Memorial Award as the team's top offensive player, and the Jack Emmer "Nutcracker" Award as its most physical — for the third straight season.

Army coach Joe Alberici said Thul is the most physical player he's ever coached in nine seasons at West Point, and for nine seasons before that as a Duke assistant. Team USA offensive coordinator Jeff Tambroni just calls Thul different, and an animal, both in the best ways possible.

"He's what we would consider a difference-maker," said Tambroni, who coached against Army when he was at Cornell, which defeated the Black Knights in the 2010 NCAA quarterfinals. "It was so difficult with him because of his size, because of his strength and his range. If you leave him alone from anywhere inside of 17-18 yards, if he puts it on cage, it's got a really good chance of going in. And if you're going to start stretching out that much, everybody else on the team becomes that much better.

"As a flat out bull-dodger, he's a load for any defenseman to have to handle because he's athletic, strong and fearless going to the goal. It takes about 1.5 guys to stop him. We certainly dedicated a lot more attention to him the second time around. If you've got one guy on him, you're going to have a long day, for sure."

Thul's matchup-nightmare status has translated to the Team USA fold, where he is among seven attack candidates, and 30 players overall, in the running for the final 23-man roster for the Federation of International (FIL) World Championship July 10-19 in Commerce City, Colo.

Tickets are available now for the FIL World Championships, which run from July 10-19th in Commerce City, Co. Come watch the best in the world battle for gold on U.S. soil for the first time since 1998!

During an initial round of tryouts in the heat of last summer, Thul led all players with eight goals. He impressed again throughout several fall evaluation events, and then was named MVP of the highly scrutinized Blue-White intra-squad game at Champion Challenge in January.

Throughout, Thul has played with the attitude that he needs to show he's more than just a big left-handed goal-scorer— that he can be versatile, something the Team USA coaching staff has placed a premium on. Tambroni said Thul has impressed the U.S. staff with his work to be a complementary player with or without the ball and ability to learn new schemes. He also did it as a rookie with Major League Lacrosse's Canadian-influenced Hamilton Nationals (now Florida Launch) and indoors with the National Lacrosse League's Philadelphia Wings. Thul said he's worked well in the evaluation process with ball-carrying types like Rob Pannell, Marcus Holman and Steele Stanwick.

"A lot of people see 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds and they're thinking slow, but I went out there and I was just flying around to show them I'm fast and strong," Thul said. "The other thing I wanted to show is that I could score in a lot of different ways. I'm not an outside shooter, I'm not a dodger, not an inside finisher. I'm all those things, and all those things off-ball, too. One of my concerns going into tryouts is that I wasn't an off-ball guy. In order to make this team, that was something that I had to focus on."

Thul is an Army officer, currently serving as an athletic intern for the Army lacrosse program, helping with administrative duties and coaching the prep school team until August, when he'll head off to infantry training in Fort Benning, Ga. Normally, athletic interns at Army are allowed just six-month terms, but after Thul made it through Team USA tryouts last summer and realized a spot in Denver was possible, he started calling generals and colonels in an attempt to have his time extended through the world championship. It worked.

"The only other people that get to do what I'm doing, training for their sport, are Olympic athletes and people who compete at the national level when they are in the Army," Thul said.

So why Army? Through a family connection, Thul always saw Mike Kamon, a 2003 West Point graduate who played lacrosse at Army, as a role model. Kamon was the son of a college fraternity brother of Thul's father, and the latter would attend games at West Point in New York with Garrett growing up. Kamon gave Thul his first sticks when he was in second grade in Tewksbury, N.J.

By the time he was in high school, Thul was recruited by Army, Navy, Delaware, Bucknell, Towson and Fairfield to play lacrosse. Navy was his second choice. Thul also played linebacker and tight end on his high school football team and considered playing football at Army as well.

After this summer, Thul will head off to training and must serve three years in an infantry unit before he pursues his long-term goal of becoming an Army Ranger.

"He doesn't have to do anything more to make me proud," Alberici said. "But if he was able to be on that final 23, to have an Army soldier, a future Ranger wearing the red, white and blue, and representing his country in another way out of the Army fatigues, that would be a real proud moment for our program, this institution."

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