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July 14, 2014

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Emotionally Charged Israel Advances in World Games

by Matt DaSilva | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — If Israel were any other team, people would be talking about its sparkling 4-0 start in its inaugural Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Championship, scoring at least 17 goals in each game and advancing in the bracket Monday with an 18-9 victory over Ireland. They would be talking about Israel's potential to play all the way into the championship bracket, maybe even earn a future spot in the heralded Blue Division.

If Israel were any other team, people would be talking about Lee Coppersmith's five-goal outburst Monday, Ben Smith's multiple long-stick goals or Ari Sussman's slick moves.

But Israel is not just any team. And the circumstances surrounding this team are anything but normal.

Twelve of the team's 23 players live in Israel, a country currently under siege by Hamas and Islamic jihadist rockets ranging farther than ever before into its heartland. Several players, as part of their paths to citizenship, have served or will serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), which has launched more than 1,400 air strikes in Gaza.

Tensions rose in June when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped while hitchhiking in the West Bank and killed. Within days, Israel arrested more than 300 Palestinians, many of them members of Hamas.

Hamas warned Israel it had "opened up the gates of hell" with its actions.

Lee Coppersmith scored five goals Monday in unbeaten Israel's 18-9 win over Ireland. (Scott McCall Photography)

Israeli national team coach Bill Beroza fought back tears talking about it Monday.

"Just thinking about the guys and their families, that's all," Beroza said. "They've got family over there. And we had more people over here prior to the championship starting as part of the tryout process. And they actually headed home because of their families and their safety. So yeah, we're concerned."

Twenty Israel Lacrosse Association interns from the U.S. currently work at the lacrosse embassy in Tel Aviv.

"They're in the warzone. They've stayed, and their parents have let them stay. They're in harm's way, potentially," Beroza said. "Two days ago there was a 17-year-old boy that was seriously injured in Ashkelon — a missile fired from Gaza, from Hamas. We've got two boys on our festival team that are here trying to learn the sport, a 15- and 16-year-old boy, and they're from Ashkelon. They know people there, families. It's something we talk about every day and something we pray for."

Israel's training schedule leading up to the world championship included a stint in Boulder, Colo., earlier this month. A few protestors showed up to jeer them, said Reuven Dressler, the team's 41-year-old goalie and an orthodox Jew.

"Pretty pathetic. I only feel stronger when I see such idiots," Dressler said. "They were doing some sort of, 'Stop the killing,' as if we're the ones firing the missiles at these Arabs. They're very confused people. Unfortunately there's no talking sense to them. They're welcome to come out. I'd love to see them. We'll play on the field. They'll see how we respond."

Commerce City has provided friendlier confines for Israel, which has received much support during its games and has impressed observers with its play on the field. Israel will play Germany, also undefeated after beating the Czech Republic 9-5 on Monday, at 8 a.m. Tuesday. The winner of that game will advance to the championship bracket, with quarterfinals Wednesday.

For some Israeli players, the games are a distraction from news of the conflict back home. For others, there's no such thing as a distraction. Scott Neiss, executive director of the ILA, issued a statement before the event saying "our hearts are not here with us in Denver," because of the unrest.

"My friends are sitting in bomb shelters," Dressler said. "Everybody has to be strong."


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