Jesse and Jake Bernhardt were outliers. In a state that worshipped football and, to a lesser extent, baseball, the Bernhardt brothers excelled at lacrosse.
Granted, they had a head start on training. Their father, Jim Bernhardt, brought to Florida some of his old bucket helmets and leather gloves from his days with Hofstra lacrosse for Jake and Jesse to use.
Still, the Orlando natives had no league in which to play nor formal training. Except for three days every summer. That's when then-Loyola coach Dave Cottle held a lacrosse camp at a local park. Cottle's camp ignited the Bernhardts' love for lacrosse, a sport relatively unknown to most in the Sunshine State. They went on to star for Cottle and then John Tillman at Maryland. Both now play in Major League Lacrosse.
"There really wasn't a lot going on when we started playing," Jesse Bernhardt said. "Before us, there really weren't too many guys that played lacrosse."
Jake (left) and Jesse Bernhardt suited for Team USA at US Lacrosse's Grand Opening Weekend, playing against each other in an inter-squad scrimmage.
Now, more than a decade later, Jake and Jesse Bernhardt are helping bring the sport of lacrosse back to their home state. This time, they'll be playing together for Team USA at this weekend's Spring Premiere at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. — just two hours from where they first learned the game.
Jesse Bernhardt, the Chesapeake Bayhawks defenseman, and Jake Bernhardt, the Ohio Machine midfielder, will suit up together for Team USA for the first time after squaring off as foes in a Blue-White exhibition at the US Lacrosse Grand Opening in September.
"It's an unbelievable experience and opportunity that we were both presented with," Jake Bernhardt said. "It's something you look forward to. It's even more special to play in your home state. We're pretty fortunate with where we've gone with the sport. Some people say that we represent the sport in our state. We just hope that we represent it well."
The Bernhardts will have family and friends present to watch them face Notre Dame on Sunday. It's just the third event for Team USA since its current coaching staff — led by Duke coach John Danowski — took over. It will provide a chance for players to showcase their skills ahead of next summer's 2018 FIL World Championship in Manchester, England.
Jesse Bernhardt is one of eight players on the Spring Premiere roster that competed in the 2014 FIL World Championship, a tournament that saw Team USA fall to Canada in the championship game.
"They are both sons of a coach, which certainly gives them an advantage in the athletic world," said Danowski, who worked with Jim Bernhardt when the latter was an assistant football coach at Hofstra. "They are both coaches, as well. They are both blue-collar guys, and I love that about them."
Together for the first time as Team USA members; Jesse and Jake Bernhardt hope they have become trailblazers. Their younger brother, Jared, was the MVP of the 2016 U19 World Championships after leading Team USA to the title last summer. Jim Bernhardt sees Spring Premiere as another chance to grow the sport in Florida.
"I hope that the young guys get a chance to see that this is what real lacrosse looks like," Jim Bernhardt said. "This is what it sounds like. These are the best players in the world playing against one of the teams that is one of the best in the NCAA. As a lacrosse fan, I'm like, 'Are you kidding me?'"
Denver's Trevor Baptiste, who's entering his junior year under coach Bill Tierney, will join Team USA for the first time at Spring Premiere. (Trevor Brown)
One year ago, Trevor Baptiste faced off against Greg Gurenlian and the rest of Team USA at Spring Premiere as a member of the Denver Pioneers. This weekend, he'll have his first shot as a member of Team USA.
Baptiste, who finished fourth in the nation with a 69.4 save percentage, gets his first call-up as a junior in college. He'll join Brendan Fowler (Charlotte Hounds) and Joe Nardella (Boston Cannons) and will work against a familiar foe in Notre Dame's P.J. Finley, who he won 12 of 21 faceoffs against Baptiste when the Irish played Denver last season.
Gurenlian is unavailable for the Spring Premiere, thus creating the roster spot for Baptiste, whom Gurenlian trained at the Faceoff Academy. Danowski made sure to ask Pioneers coach Bill Tierney before adding Baptiste to the U.S. roster.
"I'm kind of wary on using college players before their seasons," Danowski said. "I don't like them to do that. Coach Tierney was actually very encouraging and wanted to give him his shot. It's an opportunity to give another individual a chance to become part of the team."
First-time Team USA members. Baptiste, Ryan Brown (Charlotte Hounds), Josh Hawkins (Boston Cannons), Dominique Alexander (Ohio Machine), Jack Kelly (Denver Outlaws), Matt Kavanagh (Denver Outlaws) and Mike Ehrhardt (Charlotte Hounds) are all making their national team debuts.
Medals won between the veterans on the Spring Premiere roster. However, only two players — Ned Crotty and Paul Rabil — were members of the 2010 gold-medal-winning team.
Average save percentage of Team USA goalies John Galloway and Jack Kelly, who boasted the top two percentages in Major League Lacrosse last season.
Points scored by Team USA's midfield and attack during the 2016 MLL season. Leading the way is attackman Rob Pannell, who broke the league's single-season record with 74 points for the New York Lizards.
Days between Sunday's Spring Premiere matchup with Notre Dame and next year's FIL World Championship. Danowski and his staff will use that time to evaluate players before formal tryouts and roster decisions.
Single-day tickets to Team USA Spring Premiere, held Jan. 14-15 at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., are $8 and $15 for the entire weekend if purchased in advance. Discounted tickets for groups of 10 or more are also available. To purchase tickets, please visit www.uslacrosse.org/springpremiere.