July 19, 2012

U.S. U19 Men Win Rematch With Iroquois

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Live Blog Replay

TURKU, Finland – When it was over, the U.S. under-19 men's national team followed captains Zach Oliveri and Stephen Jahelka in two lines and walked from their victorious bench area across the field toward a gathering of parents and friends.

Oliveri and Jahelka each held American flags on their shoulders as the sea of clapping, hollering supporters parted. The determined bunch made its way to the locker room to celebrate a 12-7 semifinal win over the Iroquois Nationals on Thursday at the FIL U19 World Championships. The first stop on its recently created redemption tour was made. Now?

Team USA went on a 4-0 run in the first six minutes of the second half and closed out the Iroquois Nationals, 12-7, to advance to Saturday's FIL U19 World Championship game against Canada.
© Tero Wester

"One more!" Oliveri yelled repeatedly. "One more!"

The U.S. road a wave of emotion, five goals from Steven Pontrello and all-out effort on faceoffs and ground balls to down the Iroquois, just two days after losing to them in pool play. The win sets up another rematch with a team that has already beaten the U.S. here: Canada, in the championship game at 4 p.m. (9 a.m. ET) on Saturday.

In front of another raucous, packed venue in Finland and an estimated 1,200 spectators on Thursday night, the U.S. put together the type of game it's built to play. Tied at 5 at the half, Pontrello opened the third quarter with three straight goals from the midfield as the U.S. built a 9-5 lead just 5:46 into the second half after Connor Buczek tacked on another score.

The run came during a stretch in which Tyler Barbarich and Charlie Raffa combined to win seven straight faceoffs, sometimes clean and, if not, with help from the wings. The U.S. won 16 of 22 draws for the game. Barbarich went 9-for-12 and Raffa went 7-for-10.

"Everything was real intense. Ground balls everywhere. I think we easily won 70-percent of the ground balls," Raffa said. "This is why we got picked for this team. At the tryouts, every kid hustled to every ground ball. Tonight showed why we got picked for this team. That's what helped us win the game today."

Though the possession numbers are impressive, it wasn't without a challenge. At times, the ball knocked around the middle of the field for a span of 20 seconds, bouncing off multiple sticks and players from both sides before being controlled.

"There were some classic, classic long ground balls," USA coach Tim Flynn said. "We got some of them and they got some of them. It's the absolute way the game is meant to be played."

Long-stick midfielder and faceoff winger Greg Danseglio was often in the middle of it all. At times he played long pole and others at close defense. Short-stick midfielder Sean Mahon's game shows up in the box score as a one-assist effort, but he was a presence on both ends of the field. Ground ball statistics were not officially kept.

"We just had to be tough," Danseglio said. "The faceoff guys, the wing guys, everybody on the field really bended their back, did the work and really scooped through that ground ball. If we didn't win the ground ball battle we were not winning that game. Everyone was a part of it. Everyone made a key play here and there."

After allowing 15 goals to the Iroquois in the pool play loss on Tuesday, the U.S. allowed just two second-half goals and none in the fourth quarter, ending the game on an 8-3 run starting with 9:45 left in the first half on Ryan Tucker's second man-up goal. Tucker had two goals and an assist.

"We lost it between the restraining lines, as far as picking up ground balls and controlling the ball," Iroquois coach Freeman "Boss" Bucktooth said. "We fought hard, but we just couldn't pick up the ground balls. You can't score when you don't have the ball. They did a very good job. Their faceoff and midfield lines did a great job controlling the ball at the faceoff. That's what it boils down to. We couldn't get it in our sticks and when did guys were trying to do a little too much."

And Team USA peppered the goal with shots on its offensive end. Iroquois goalie Warren Hill finished with 15

saves, including four in the first quarter. Matt Kavanagh had two goals and two assists and Buczek notched two goals and a helper. Randy Staats led the Iroquois with three goals and one assist.

"We totally are becoming a lot more unselfish with the ball, and sometimes even too unselfish," said U.S. attackman Kyle Keenan, who had one goal. "We're getting the ball moving and getting the looks we need."

Pontrello, the North Carolina-bound midfielder who had been largely quiet in the tournament until Thursday, broke out in a big way. The Iroquois (3-2) led 3-0 with 8:20 left in the first quarter, but the U.S. (4-2) scored three times in the final six minutes of the opening quarter to tie it. It was 5-5 at halftime, before Pontrello's burst.

"We stuck to our offense," Pontrello said. "We got a little rattled in the first, the big stage and everything, but we settled down. We all just trusted each other. Team offense is the best. Not just one guy individually."

The U.S. started with the ball, man-up, for the second half after an Iroquois penalty as the first half ended. Pontrello scored on the extra-man from the left wing, shooting low on Hill, who got a piece of the shot but it still went in. Pontrello's next goal was assisted by Buczek on the left side and the third was face dodge in the left alley with a shot to the high, right corner.

"He was dodging guys, stepping into seams," Keenan said. "We got the defense rotating and he was on the end of a couple, stepping in for rips."

Before the game, the U.S. showed signs of team unity that they haven't previously. During pregame warmups, about 20 minutes before the opening faceoff, the team spontaneously gathered on the far side of the field away from the spectator area that would later be packed to capacity. Raffa provided a passionate speech and relayed a toned down version after the game.

"We didn't come all the way to Finland to win a first round game against Germany," he said. "We didn't come for second or third place in this tournament. We came for the gold medal."

When the team walked across the field to hear the national anthems of the U.S. and Iroquois, the 23 players, coaches and staff all held hands as they marched from the bench area to the near side. That hadn't happened in any of the previous five games.

This, all coming after the team held a players-only, two-hour long meeting on Tuesday night, a few hours after losing to the Iroquois in the pool play game. That was the first loss by a U.S. field team ever to an Iroquois group in international competition, at any level. "It was devastating," Keenan said.

"We locked it in tight," Danseglio said. "We had one mindset and we really focused: defense, offense, new plays. We were just focused."

Or, as Flynn said afterward on Thursday: "We've come together as a team."

The U.S. has trailed in earlier games in this tournament and in an exhibition against a group of Philadelphia all-stars, and has overcome the deficits only to come up short in the fourth quarter or overtime periods. Not this time.

"It was awesome to finally finish a game," Raffa said. "We came back, lost to Philly. We came back, lost to Canada. Came back, lost to the Iroquois. We finally got one in the books. Now we need to bring this momentum with us."

"The kids did an awesome job today," Flynn said. "The kids are together, motivated and they're a lot of fun to be around. I've been saying all along it's a great group of kids. Adversity doesn't built character, adversity reveals it. These kids have great character, a great parental support group. You can see why they're such great kids. Tonight was a great game to watch. Stand back and watch them play hard, watch them play together."

Now there's one more. Just as Oliveri yelled and the rest of the team thought.

Federation of International Lacrosse U19 World Championships

USA 3 2 5 2 - 12
IRQ 3 2 2 0 - 7

Goals: USA – Pontrello 5, Kavanagh 2, Tucker 2, Buczek 1, Keenan 1, Leonard 1; IRQ – Staats 3, B. Bomberry 1, Miller 1, Oakes 1, Thompson 1
Assists: USA – Kavanagh 2, Buczek 1, Leonard 1, Mahon 1, Tucker 1; IRQ – J. Powless 1, Staats 1, Tarbell 1, Thompson 1
Saves: USA – Oliveri 4, Turri 4; IRQ – Hill 15
Faceoffs: USA - 16 of 22, Barbarich 9 of 12, Raffa 7 of 10; IRQ - 6 of 22, Q. Powless 4 of 12, Miller 1 of 5, Harris 1 of 3, Thompson 0 of 2

Check back to LaxMagazine.com for live coverage of the championship game at 4 p.m. (9 a.m. ET) on Saturday. Follow LaxMagazine.com/teamusa/u19men and LaxMagazine.com editor Corey McLaughlin on Twitter @Corey_McL for updates throughout the FIL U19 World Championships.

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