July 13, 2012

Zoppo's 'Different Road' to U.S. U19 Captaincy

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | USA Opens With Win

U.S. under-19 men's national team midfielder Rob Zoppo, one of three players voted team captain, was an unheralded high school recruit who was an unknown to head coach Tim Flynn before tryouts. Zoppo has battled injuries and position switches throughout his career, but says his confidence is at an all-time high now.
© Tero Wester

TURKU, Finland -- Rob Zoppo said it himself: "This is a lot to write. It's a lot to say. It's been a different road."

The U.S. under-19 men's national team's relatively unknown tri-captain wasn't a headline high school recruit like many of the other 22 players on Team USA.

He didn't load up the stat sheet with goals and assists at Calvert Hall (Md.). He didn't commit to Towson University until the August before his high school senior year.

The untrained eye could overlook him, but in some ways it's amazing that he wasn't more widely noticed before. He can play virtually every position on the field and has been blessed with natural speed and athleticism. He's an old-school two-way midfielder. And he's also worked at it. These attributes have eventually been noticed by coach after coach, at several different stops during a lacrosse career that could best be described as an obstacle course given some of Zoppo's injury issues.

A different road, indeed.

Zoppo gets offended if you call him a defensive midfielder, although he is an effective one and can often be seen self-clearing the ball across midfield with Team USA.

"I'm an athletic midfielder," Zoppo said a few hours before the U.S. opened U19 World Championship play with a 24-6 win against Australia on Friday night in Finland. "I can play anywhere on the field. It's just my defensive abilities take away from my offensive runs sometimes, so I don't get to score as many goals as I think I could."

Zoppo actually scored a goal and had an assist in Team USA's first game Friday. "Definitely good to get your name in the stat book," he said with a smile afterward. He also had one of his trademark single-man, centerfield clears, even as goalie Zach Oliveri yelled for Zoppo to pass the ball. Instead, he split two Australian riders and sprinted downfield.

Zoppo, a Baltimore native, started off as a d-middie at Calvert Hall, where he got cut on the final day of tryouts for the high school varsity team as a sophomore and where he thought he would be cut again as a junior because he just didn't know how he fit in. In short, he lacked confidence, something that plagued him since being one of the youngest, and smaller athletes in his grade, despite also being one of the fastest. He tried out for the Calvert Hall's junior varsity football team as a 13-year-old, 5-foot-6, 120-pound freshman.

In lacrosse, he never played the summer club circuit. He wanted to play college football and played wide receiver for Calvert Hall and focused his efforts there. But he had a watershed lacrosse season his junior year, when he, in fact, did make the team. But he was right about not being sure what position he would play. The coaches gave him a long-stick for about two days, but then he was put on the offensive midfield by assistant coach Torre Kasemayer, who told Zoppo he had the athleticism, stick work and shooting ability to play offense. He shouldn't be a long pole or a defensive middie.

"I started gradually playing offense," Zoppo said. "My junior year, we were ranked No. 2 in the country, and we had so many guys going D-I. Eventually, I broke into the second-line midfield and started progressing. I started scoring a few goals here and there. By the end of the year, I started doing pretty well. My coaches started getting some emails."

Then-Towson coach Tony Seaman first saw Zoppo on the lacrosse field while recruiting Calvert Hall's Sean McGuire, who also ended up being an attackman with the Tigers. Seaman was among the first to email Calvert Hall head coach Bryan Kelly.

"I was very impressed with his overall athleticism," Seaman said by email this week. "Over the next two years I was amazed at no matter what position Coach Kelly asked him to play, be it midfield or attack, how well he adjusted to the position and his teammates. Coaches love players who can be coached, who adjust to new and different roles within the team and those characteristics really stood out watching the development of Rob."

So, Towson, where his parents both attended, noticed him early, but then after his junior season, Zoppo caught the attention of other recruiters after making the Under Armour Underclassmen Baltimore team (he played as a short-stick midfielder), the Maryland Freestate team and the adidas All-American games. Although playing in those events helped raise his profile – other Division I schools came knocking and Zoppo made visits to Maryland, Loyola and Ohio State – he also injured his back in the latter event.

He didn't know it until he visited the doctor weeks later, but he had two stress fractures in his lower back (F5) vertebra. He only visited the doctor after the pain became too much during Calvert Hall's first football game that season. He missed the rest of the season and didn't do much physical activity until January while focusing on rehab and resting the back to get ready for lacrosse.

Doctors said over-tightened hamstrings and muscles in the groin area contributed to the back issues. "They said when I rotated that's what caused the cracking in my back. So I worked on strengthening my core, and loosening my hamstrings to take pressure off. I went through my whole senior [lacrosse] season with that. I had a really up and down season. I ended up playing attack, which I wasn't comfortable with but I tried to play it. It gave me more experience playing on the crease and more stick work. We had so much talent my senior year. We started out No. 5 in the country, but we had a lot of injuries and we just didn't put it together. We ended up not even making the playoffs my senior year. It was a rough time in my sports career, my senior year.

"Going into fall ball at Towson, I had no idea what I was going to do playing college ball, if I was going to be successful or not," Zoppo said. "I did some rehab and eventually, right before fall ball, it just started going away. I didn't feel pain anymore. I didn't feel tight anymore. I didn't know if that was going to be temporary or not, but to this day, I haven't had any back pain from that injury."

But if it wasn't one thing, it was another. He played through the fall his freshman year at Towson as a two-way midfielder and the coaching staff told him to expect to contribute. But a few weeks before the Tigers' Feb. 19 season-opener against Johns Hopkins, Zoppo suffered a dislocated shoulder. He was out eight weeks and the staff and Zoppo agreed for him to take a medical redshirt.

It was a setback, but the time off the field also had its advantages. Zoppo worked out four days a week, added 15 pounds and said he got stronger, and even faster. Seaman encouraged him to try out for the U19 team that summer.

Even though he was one of the "college guys," and supposedly older and more experienced, Zoppo wasn't on many radars heading into four days worth of tryouts last July at UMBC in hot, sticky and humid Baltimore. Zoppo didn't know what to expect. He hadn't played in a game since his last at Calvert Hall more than a year earlier. He tried out with 122 others with some hesitation.

"I was getting more athletic, but lacrosse-wise I still didn't understand what kind of player I was," he said. "I don't think anybody knew who I was, except the kids that I had played with: Stephen Kelly [Calvert Hall (Md.)] and Ryan Tucker [Gilman/Towson (Md.)] and some of the kids from Calvert Hall trying out. I always believed in myself but I was not a highly-touted recruit at the time."

The tryout process was run blindly with no names, just numbers to identify players for an evaluation board of 20 coaches from 15 different states. Asked if he had any idea who Zoppo was heading into tryouts, USA head coach Tim Flynn said simply, "No."

Assistant coach Jack Crawford did. He's the head coach at Calvert Hall's archrival, Baltimore MIAA power Loyola-Blakefield. Crawford was also the coach of the Under Armour Baltimore underclassman team of which Zoppo was a part. That's where Crawford played him at short-stick midfield, the position he's playing for Team USA.

"He does a lot of things well that often go unnoticed by the untrained eye: ground balls, clearing, riding, being able to carry the ball in transition and create offense, being able to get back defensively in transition and not allow teams to exploit those opportunities," Crawford said. "He's what a lot of lacrosse people would call, a real 'between the lines' midfielder.

"He's the classic example of a guy who was overlooked by a lot of schools because he's not flashy. He doesn't do a lot of things that are easily noticed by people unless you watch him over and over again. When you do watch him more than once, you realize this guy can do a lot of things that are extremely important to the success of the team."

Flynn and the selectors also wanted to identify players that were willing to sacrifice individual accolades for the good of the team, they said.

"The time and the heat and the toughness of the tryouts brought out everything that he brings to a group," Flynn said. "We said 'We want that with us.' He's one of those guys that is always there for you."

Zoppo started getting calls and texts while on the beach with friends in Ocean City, Md., informing him he made the team. He still didn't believe it until someone sent him a picture of the roster. He said Saturday that making the team was the highlight of his athletic career. He and Harvard attackman Danny Eipp were the two players with college experience to do it.

"I've always been told I had potential, but anybody can have potential. It's not until you bring out that potential that people notice you."

-- U.S. U19 tri-captain Rob Zoppo

Zoppo said his confidence grew ahead of his redshirt freshman season at Towson this spring. He scored two goals in each of his first two collegiate games, and then, as he has so often during his career, moved around the field to defensive midfield after injuries to teammates necessitated it. He ended up being that two-way midfielder, although you wouldn't know his importance by his official 2012 stat line: 14 games, nine goals, two assists and eight ground balls.

"I've always been told I had potential, but anybody can have potential. It's not until you bring out that potential that people notice you," Zoppo said. "I think I have a lot more to offer. I think I just scratched the surface this year."

Now, not only he is on the U.S. team, but last weekend before the team flew to Finland, Zoppo was voted as one of three team captains by his peers at training camp at Bryant University in Rhode Island. Oliveri, a rising redshirt freshman goalie for UMass, and Harvard defenseman Stephen Jahelka, two more highly touted high school recruits from Long Island, are the other captains.

"I've never been a real vocal guy, but I try to let my actions speak for themselves, on and off the field," Zoppo said.

His one game day ritual? Praying. His advice? "Be confident as a player and do not worry about recruiting rankings." His focus on before a game? "I eat well and stay hydrated the day of a game and mentally prepare by reading scouting reports or watching film."

"It's not an accident he got elected captain of the team," Crawford said. "That's being elected by your peers, and when your peers happen to be the best lacrosse players in the country, that pretty much says it all."

And Zoppo was right, that was a lot to say.

Follow LaxMagazine.com/teamusa/u19men and LaxMagazine.com editor Corey McLaughlin on Twitter @Corey_McL for updates throughout the FIL U19 World Championships. Team USA faces Canada in pool play at noon EST on Saturday.

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