July 5, 2006
Note: This story first appeared in the September/October 2005 issue of Lacrosse magazine, a member benefit of US Lacrosse. Click here to become a member.
Though their lacrosse paths run somewhat astray of one another, Pat McCabe, Blake Miller and Casey Powell have intersected once before - as representatives of the United States in the 1998 International Lacrosse Federation (ILF) World Championships in Baltimore. There, they engaged in what remains one of the most talked about lacrosse games, a championship final in which the U.S. held off Canada for a 15-14 overtime victory at Homewood Field.
Eight years later, as the three players converge again at the 2006 ILF championships beginning Thursday in Ontario, Canada, each will do so bearing a history of defied odds. In a way, there's a legacy between the three, with Miller bridging the markedly different eras in which McCabe and Powell flourished.
Each player says he has something to prove this time around.
An educated lacrosse public might pooh-pooh at such a notion - They're all-stars for crying out loud! What could they possibly have to prove? But there is some degree of truth to it.
McCabe will be 36, in all likelihood defending players half his age, much like some of his predecessors did in 1998. Miller wants a chance to lead, to inspire more than just goals and ground balls, to disprove the same people who once doubted he would even play in '98. And Powell? He wants to show the world, alongside brothers Ryan and Mike, what he can do when 100 percent healthy, when not hampered by injury like he was in '98.
This is their take, eight years later, on what is still considered the pinnacle of lacrosse.
"These guys, I tell ya," Pat McCabe says in a burly Long Island accent, "they keep gettin' younger."
McCabe says this, of course, realizing that he is not getting any younger. Unlike 1998, which he remembers fondly for its decidedly older club-team flavor, McCabe now prepares for the 2006 ILF championships as the self-proclaimed "elder statesman."
In '98, McCabe shared defensive rights with the likes of old-school longpoles like John DeTomasso, Joe Breschi and Zach Colburn, two of them Hall of Famers. And he missed the boat in 2002, primarily due to his professional lacrosse obligations and his reluctance to circumnavigate the globe with three young children.
But when the opportunity arose for Major League Lacrosse players to engage in ILF competition in 2006, given the relative proximity of Ontario, McCabe figured he had little choice but to take advantage while time permits.
At 36, he is the oldest player representing the U.S., of which just six of 23 players named are over 30. But if you ask Syracuse and U.S. Men's Team head coach John Desko, that's probably what got McCabe on the team in the first place.
When he spoke, all the other players listened," Desko said in the fall. "I wouldn't be surprised to see him as one of the captains."
Desko should know. McCabe was a four-time All-American at for Desko at Syracuse, where he won two NCAA championships and was named the nation's most outstanding defenseman in 1990. That success has translated to the MLL and, previously, the National Lacrosse League. He has played in every MLL all-star game. The U.S. squares off with the MLL All-Stars tomorrow in its final tune-up before the ILF games begin next Thursday.
McCabe's been there. He's done that. And while that combo led some players to decline invitations to try out, McCabe relishes this opportunity his weary legs begged him to turn down. His perspective has changed.
,br> "I tried out for [the 1990] team in '89 and I ran around like crazy. I wanted to check everybody," he says. "There's no point. They have to come to you at some point."
Besides, McCabe argues, the game's technology has advanced so much in the last eight years that it's nearly impossible to check a ball loose, especially since international rules allow for narrower heads. So he's calmed down a bit. He coddles the cage, directs traffic in front of it with an authoritative voice, and will ultimately level any opponent who tries to come near it.
At his age, McCabe figures, he has earned that right.
Defying Limits, Critics
Blake Miller's teammates have a tongue-in-cheek explanation for his infallible physique.
"They call me BALCO Miller," says Miller, whose regimented workouts have him claiming to be in better shape at 33 years old than he was when he was 24. "But I have never taken a drug in my life."
BALCO, of course, has become a household name in professional sports - for all the wrong reasons. The Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative is most known for its role in baseball's ongoing steroid scandal, reportedly providing human growth hormone for major league players to inject in themselves, according to a leaked grand jury testimony.
Miller has become a household name in professional lacrosse - for all the right reasons.
As a young man with a learning disability, his parents sent him to a New England prep school, way off the lacrosse radar. His career then began to take shape as a little-known junior college midfielder at Nassau (N.Y.) Community College, an oversight by many Division I programs - except Hofstra. Miller eventually became an All-American for the Pride (then the Flying Dutchmen), which snatched him from the juco ranks.
Still in 1998, few pegged Miller as a national team candidate. In comments published by Lacrosse magazine, then-U.S. coach Bill Tierney referred to Miller as "probably the least likely to make the team when tryouts began."
But Miller bristled at the constant undercuts, and behind superior conditioning had a most memorable "bubble game," during which the last few players are selected to round out a 23-man roster. On the fourth day of a rigorous combine, Miller scored five goals in a performance reminiscent of the time he took a red-eye from Los Angeles after running the L.A. Marathon - that of the 26.1-mile variety - to play in a game for the Long Island Lacrosse Club the next day.
He should have been exhausted. Instead, he was exhaustive.
"Everybody comes out of the gates firing - it's the guys at the end of the game who keep it going," Miller says, "because I'm not the most talented out there, I'll tell you that now."
Miller rarely takes a shot from more than 10 feet out. His bruising mannerisms on the field whistle through the gap in his front teeth. It might not be pretty, he says, but the ends justify the means. And he gets better with age, evidenced in 2004 when he scored 46 goals and was named the MLL's Offensive Player of the Year with the Philadelphia Barrage. He has 21 goals in eight games for the Long Island Lizards this season.
Says Desko: "I was just impressed that during a four-day tryout, his motor was going the same on the fourth day as it was the first."
That won't change now that he's established, either. Miller says he tried out for the 2006 U.S. Men's Team with the same approach he did in 1998, "like I was nobody." But now that he has returned to the sport's pinnacle, he sees a new opportunity.
"I was still young in '98," says Miller, 33. "I want to take on a bigger role with this team in 2006. I'd like to be more of a leader."
Defying His Name
Come Thursday, distractions will be aplenty for Casey Powell, the most visible of '98 returnees. Some of them will be self-imposed. At his behest, the entire population of Carthage, N.Y. - some 4,000 blue-collar New Yorkers - has been invited to the '06 games to watch its golden Powells represent the U.S. as a threesome for the first time.
"We're going to rent out a big campground," he says, "and invite our whole town to come watch us play and represent us. Open invite, we're going to buy the tickets for them, have a big cookout and celebrate what lacrosse has done not only for us, but the town."
Regardless of how many Carthaginians take Casey up on his offer, he and his brothers are set for scrutiny in Canada - which presents its own claim to lacrosse's greatest filial pair in Paul and Gary Gait.
Few athletes, however, can handle such distractions with the apparent ease that Casey Powell does - even knowing that fans will be salivating over that all-Powell attack.
"Early on in his career, he would want to make things happen so badly, he would force things," Desko says of the former Syracuse All-American. "He's much more comfortable now in any situation."
Powell's time with the U.S. team in '98 was limited by a knee injury which kept him out of the first four games. Mike Powell, on the other hand, scored 27 points during the 2002 games in Perth, Australia - for which professional commitments kept Casey and Ryan Powell stateside.
That leaves Casey Powell with plenty to prove - to himself, to his brothers and to the lacrosse world at large. He sees no better forum in which to punctuate his heralded career.
"I know that when I first started playing lacrosse, my first stick I dyed USA. The dye job didn't work too well," Powell says. "But I remember the first poster I had was a USA/STX Lacrosse poster, and that was the first lacrosse I ever set my sights on. ... There's no specific good time to represent your country. It's always a great time, but I feel like I've got to prove myself all over again."
He's not alone.