June 23, 2014

Fundamentally Sound, "Fletch" Rolls for Team USA

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Lambrecht Archive

Unassuming off the field, "Fletch" brings a lot to the table as a defenseman, becoming the only then-collegian to make the Team USA 30-man roster after January's Champion Challenge. (John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com)

Over the past two years, recent Loyola University graduate Joe Fletcher has been increasingly impossible to ignore in lacrosse circles, although the shy, studious, accomplished Fletcher sincerely wishes people would not make a fuss over him.

Talk to his coaches and teammates at Loyola, and you hear about the anti-star that personifies "Fletch."

You hear about the accounting major who has lined up a job in risk assurance at PricewaterhouseCoopers. It's the same guy who can be found studying by his locker, devouring a Harry Potter book or writing a paper on his laptop while riding team bus in the front seat — helmet on.

You hear about how Fletcher has to be reminded it's not necessary to pick up lacrosse equipment after a game at Ridley Athletic Complex. You hear about the incredibly consistent defender, the guy with the awkward, hunched-over, 6-feet-2 frame that negates the opponent's top dodging and quarterbacking threat with numbing regularity.

It's the same guy who would rather change the subject than acknowledge how good he clearly is.

"Joe oozes confidence without a hint of arrogance. He's so grounded," Loyola head coach Charley Toomey said. "He came up to me after the Colgate game [a 10-8 win in late March] and apologized for missing a ground ball. I mean, what do you say to that?"

"Talent aside — and Joe's got a ton of it — he's the most humble kid I've ever coached," added Matt Dwan, Loyola's defensive coordinator. "In three years, we haven't slid to [help] him [on defense]. But when you give him a compliment, he looks at his shoes."

"If I was Joe, I'd be telling people I was one of the best," added Pat Laconi, the Greyhounds' senior defensive midfielder. "Joe won't do it."

No, that is definitely not how "Fletch" rolls. In a postgame press conference this spring, after he had spent two hours hounding Army's John Glesener into 2-for-22 shooting with masterful positioning and stick work, Fletcher spent 10 uncomfortable minutes deflecting questions about his pivotal performance in Loyola's 7-6 win.

"I'm the last person to care about recognition. I don't like [being interviewed]. I'm a nerd," said Fletcher, who fidgeted with a pen throughout a polite chat with a reporter before a Greyhounds practice.

"Luckily, lacrosse was the last sport I got good at," he added. "I've been very lucky to be part of the [defensive] units I've had [at Loyola]. It's been so much fun. These guys are like my best friends."

Fletcher, a formerly unknown defenseman from Syracuse — unknown, at least, outside the insulated world of West Genesee High School in Camillus, N.Y. — might be the most unassuming force the Division I game has produced in recent years. Loyola's coaches wonder if he's the best ever to wear a Greyhounds uniform.

Since the spring of 2012, when he emerged as a sophomore shutdown piece for an 18-1 team that brought Loyola its only national title in any Division I sport, Fletcher has grown in stature.

He earned first-team All-America honors last year for the Greyhounds, who lost an overtime thriller in the NCAA tournament's first round to eventual champion Duke. This spring, he earned a second first-team All-America nod, the USILA's Schmeisser Award as the top defender in men's DI, and was a Tewaaraton Award finalist, a rarity for a 'pure' defenseman, rather than an offensive-minded LSM type.

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In January, Fletcher became the highest Major League Lacrosse draft pick ever from Loyola, when the New York Lizards selected him at No. 3. In February, Fletcher further validated his growing place in the sport.

When the U.S. men's national team announced its 30-man roster for this summer's FIL World Championship, following a tryout process that spanned seven months and included 98 players, the list included Fletcher.

Although Team USA will be pared down to a 23-man active roster following a June training camp, the lone collegiate player with a chance to play in Denver was the lanky, cover man and ground ball machine who wore No. 17 for the Greyhounds.

"What's interesting about the college guys is at the first tryout, they tend to struggle with the pace of the game. That wasn't the case with Joe," said Denver Outlaws defenseman Lee Zink, another Team USA finalist. "I'm sure Fletcher never gets dodged, but people try to dodge you right away up here. Joe really embraced the challenge. His style — play position first — and all of the fundamentals were there."

Zink wasn't the only one who noticed.

"[Fletcher] is so long that he's only one step or a step and a half from a full recovery," added Outlaws goalie Jesse Schwartzman, one of three on the 30-man roster. "It really doesn't look like he's trying too hard. When you first look, he doesn't make you think he's a stud defender."

"Joe doesn't look very athletic and he doesn't carry himself in a boastful way," said Dave Pietramala, the head coach at Johns Hopkins who is running the defense for Team USA under head coach Richie Meade.

"What caught my attention was his knowledge of the game, the way he works off the ball, the way he can split [and cover] two guys on the back side to buy time for another defender to recover. There's no flash to him whatsoever. But in no way does he look out of place."

That wasn't always the case with Fletcher, who is the classic example of the hidden gem and late bloomer.

Growing up in Syracuse, Fletcher excelled in basketball and soccer. He was introduced to lacrosse at age six at Shove Park, which remains a haven for lacrosse players of all ages and levels.

His father, Chris Fletcher, spent his formative years playing in that same park, before becoming a close defenseman at West Genesee. Joe still returns there to work lacrosse camps in the summer.

"Joe never liked attention. He just wanted to be one of the guys on the team," Chris Fletcher said. "But somewhere along the line, he became very competitive in sports and his schoolwork."

Joe said a turning point came in the seventh grade, when he got cut after trying out for his middle-school basketball team. Besides the embarrassment he felt at not joining his buddies on the squad, his parents gave him a dose of reality to consider.

"I was sobbing after I got cut. I wanted them to feel sorry for me, and they did the opposite," Fletcher said. "They said I hadn't worked enough at it, and they were right. I hadn't shot a ball for three weeks. It was probably one of the best things they ever did for me."

By the time he had reached his freshman year at West Genesee, Fletcher had become maniacally devoted to lacrosse, spending hours playing wall ball or pickup. It was no accident that he was one of only two sophomores to make the varsity team that won a state championship.

Fletcher was a mainstay on defense for his last two years, gifted at scooping ground balls, causing turnovers and harassing shooters by crowding their hands. By the time Loyola began recruiting him as a senior — Greyhounds assistants Dan Chemotti and Steve Vaikness are West Genesee alums — Fletcher had been recruited by Cornell, Penn and Drexel.

At about 170 pounds and not in the best shape, Fletcher was not the most eye-catching specimen when he arrived at Loyola. He spent most of that first fall in 2010 focused on his conditioning. But his stick work was so slick, Fletcher wound up on the man-down unit as the fourth defenseman.

"Joe did not have the best look — lanky, quiet, high helmet, not a lot of swagger. But he was sneaky," recalled former Greyhounds long-stick midfielder Scott Ratliff. "He'd push a ground ball around somebody and clear it himself or knock down a pass or D-up a veteran attackman. Two or three weeks into the fall, I remember saying this kid could be something special."

By 2012, Fletcher was producing daily highlights in practice and had seized the role as the Greyhounds' shutdown man, a role he punctuated by erasing Denver's Eric Law, Notre Dame's Conor Doyle and Maryland's Owen Blye in the final three games of Loyola's historic year.

And trust Loyola senior attackman Justin Ward when he verifies that Fletcher remains his worst nightmare to contend with on the field.

"Joe always finds a way to disrupt you. There are no wild checks. He just tries to make you take the worst shot you can take. He's always there, in your way," Ward said. "He's got the greatest work ethic of any guy I've ever been around. Unfortunately, I'm the guy who goes up against him every day in practice. It's beyond frustrating."

A version of this article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Lacrosse Magazine. Start your subscription by joining US Lacrosse today!

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