September 5, 2012

Team USA's Zink Enters Spotlight with Outlaws

by Phil Shore | LaxMagazine.com

Denver Outlaws veteran attackman Lee Zink dethroned six-time MLL Defensive Player of the Year Brodie Merrill this summer as the pro game's top defenseman. Both will be on the field Saturday for the "Duel in Denver" between Team USA and Canada.
© Rich Barnes

When the U.S. men's national team takes on Canada at the "Duel in Denver" on Saturday, the American roster will be loaded with star players.

Paul Rabil, Ned Crotty, Matt Danowski, Max Seibald, Kyle Harrison and Drew Adams will all suit up for Team USA.

One player everyone, especially John Grant Jr. and the Canadian offense, needs to look out for is 2012 Major League Lacrosse Defensive Player of the Year Lee Zink.

After many professional seasons lurking in anonymity to the common fan, Zink's talents as a defender were finally recognized this season as he dethroned six-time MLL Defensive POY Brodie Merrill.

"It actually doesn't bother me. I just go out there and play," Zink, a nine-year MLL veteran, said of his lack of media attention prior to this year. "I'm not a flashy takeaway defenseman. I'm a position kind of guy. That's the role I'm comfortable in. I can read the defense and lead them. I embrace the role I can succeed in."

When Zink grew up in Darien, Conn., and started his lacrosse career in sixth grade, he knew defense would be his calling card from the beginning.

"It was just one of those sports that was a natural fit," he said. "I played hockey. I played defense in hockey. I felt comfortable in that role."

Today, Zink is known as a great lockdown defenseman in his individual matchups. He often lines up against the best offensive player from the opposition, no matter his role in the offense. He got an early taste of that competition against his twin brother Alex.

"My twin brother started playing lacrosse in seventh grade and he started at attack, so it was kind of a sibling rivalry every day competing against each other in practice," Zink said. "On vacation we always had our sticks and we always had someone to throw around with. It really helped our skills in general."

Lee and Alex, a four-year player at Syracuse, went their separate lacrosse ways once college came around. Lee went to Maryland and had to work his way up from the bottom of the depth chart.

As a freshman he started out as the Terps' backup long-stick midfielder, but by the end of his senior year he was a first-team All-American defenseman, NCAA Division I Defenseman of the Year and a Tewaaraton Award finalist.

He was selected in the first round, fifth overall, in the 2004 MLL Collegiate Draft by the Baltimore (now Chesapeake) Bayhawks. He played in nine games as rookie but in his sophomore season was overshadowed by another defender: Merrill.

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Merrill won the 2005 Rookie of the Year award with the Bayhawks. He and Zink would help the team win the MLL Championship. The following year Zink was traded to Denver and Merrill moved on to the Rochester Rattlers. That season Merrill started his string of six consecutive defender of the year awards, a streak Zink ended just this summer.

As Zink dethrones Merrill as the top long-pole in the game, Merrill will be watching Zink closely from the opposite end of the field at Saturday's Duel as a member of Team Canada.

"[Brodie] can just take over the game with his on-ball defense and transition. He can do it all," Zink said. "I'm not a guy who handles the ball and runs transition. It's not my game. I try to stop the guy with the ball in his stick ... I take it personally if a guy beats me. Even if I'm the slide in the crease I want to be in the right position."

Although Zink has been an All-Star every season since 2007 and was also named to several All-MLL teams, Zink never received much media publicity or recognition for his work prior to this past season.

Zink said what made this season different was several factors, including the approach new Outlaws head coach Jim Stagnitta and his staff brought to the team.

"Part of it was that I was really coached again this year," Zink said. "When you come into the league sometimes people give you the free rein to do whatever you want to do. But they came in and taught the little things that you really haven't worked on in eight years. I felt great. I was in shape. And then we had the team success. It all plays a role. It was a fun year and I look forward to next year already."

The Outlaws defenseman is finally getting the credit and recognition he deserves for the work he's done on the field against some of the best offensive players in the world, no matter their style of play.

And heading into the Duel in Denver, Zink recalls some of his toughest and more memorable outings against specific players that aren't his brother, and that includes the top scoring option for Canada.

John Grant Jr.

"The hardest type of guy in general is someone who is a physical dodger who wants to go to the goal hard," Zink said. "John Grant Jr., when he has the ball and he wants to go to the goal, he can use his strength to get where he wants. Same can be said for [Brendan] Mundorf. That's the hardest type of player to guard."

Ryan Powell

"Smart off-ball players, if they are sitting on the back side of the crease, they are looking to see where I am and can go either way on the crease. A guy like that is Ryan Powell. He put me in a position where I couldn't cover him. It's a team game on defense and you need to be in position to be with him. Smart attackman like him and Ryan Boyle, they are smart offensive guys that put the defenseman in a position where they have to choose to either help the defense or take away that one attack position."

Ned Crotty

"As for this year, one of the big matchups that I was really looking forward to was Ned Crotty. He's young, a speed guy with great stick skills. He's a smart attackman. Hopefully you go into the game as a defenseman and know who you are going against and you can look to play to your strengths not necessarily play to take away his strength."

Tommy Palasek

"[In the 2012 MLL Championship Weekend semifinals] I was mainly guarding Palasek. You kind of go into those games and, especially against a rookie, I've been around the league and understand how the team plays. I understand Long Island; what their strengths were. They excelled at their strength with midfield dodges from Max Seibald and Stephen Peyser. After the first half I went to our defensive coach and said, 'Get the ball to their attack's hands.' We have some great d-sticks. With most of [the Long Island attack] being young guys I think we had an advantage. We took the midfield out of the play. The long poles matched up against their attackmen and once we got comfortable and got a few stops we got confident feeling that we could take over the game [Denver rallied from 10 goals down to beat Long Island 13-12]."

Check back to LaxMagazine.com this week for more coverage ahead of Saturday's "Duel in Denver" and check back this weekend for on-site updates. To see the matchup in person, general admission tickets are priced at $20 and are available at www.uslacrosse.org/duelindenver.


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