July 24, 2012

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Tucker Steps Up as Leader During Run to Gold

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

* U.S. U19 Team Rebounds to Win World Title
* Kavanagh Caps U19 Tournament With MVP Award

Virginia rising sophomore midfielder Ryan Tucker stepped up as an offensive leader, implementing some of the Cavaliers' sets during the U.S. under-19 men's national team's gold medal run in Finland.
© Tero Wester

TURKU, Finland - A lasting image of the U.S. under-19 men's national team's final practice before Saturday's championship game against Canada centers on midfielder Ryan Tucker.

Team USA was running through its offense on a mostly sunny Friday afternoon, and Tucker, dressed in casual shorts, a team shirt and with his right arm in a black sling, nursing an injured shoulder, stood in the center of the defensive zone as six players at a time ran sets around him; sets that Tucker had introduced to them a few days earlier. He held a stick with his off (left) hand and, after a few repetitions, began pointing out directions with the good arm, looking as much like a coach as he could without having the title or whistle.

When the team switched into man-up practice, Tucker, the team's point man from up top throughout the FIL U19 World Championships, even attempted to throw one-handed passes with his uninjured left arm. The terribly inept throws barely made it to their target, and didn't mimic what would happen in the game, but Tucker at the very least wanted to demonstrate correct positioning. If you didn't know he was the son of two coaches already (Johns Hopkins women's coach Janine Tucker and former MLL, NLL and high school coach and three-time Team USA member John Tucker), you could figure it out at this moment. Head coach Tim Flynn and assistant Tom Duquette weighed in as well, but for a player to be involved at practice so prominently was uncanny.

Of all the storylines that emerged during two weeks in Finland, Tucker's rise as an offensive leader was perhaps one of the most significant in the U.S.'s ability to capture a seventh straight gold medal.

When the 23-player roster had its backs against the proverbial wall, after losing a pair of pool play games to the Iroquois Nationals and Canada, and called a players-only meeting that ended up lasting two hours, Tucker was one of the more vocal voices in the room. When it was time to talk Xs and Os on offense, the rising sophomore midfielder for Virginia suggested inserting some of the plays that the Cavaliers ran during his freshman season last spring. The U.S. offense, many felt, had devolved into too much one-on-one play and needed a change. The new plan created more offense out of the midfield, and got attackman open with picks on the crease. Flynn agreed, using a version of Marc Van Arsdale and Dom Starsia's offense from Charlottesville, seven hours ahead in Turku, Finland.

"It was more of the middies generating the play," Tucker said. "Once they got it we would bang it backside .. and try to set a pick backside."

On the field, Tucker performed well as a two-way middie; on offense using his blistering shot to extend defenses (he finished with 12 goals and two assists in six games) and on the other end, often covering opposing players deep into the zone. He was named to the All-World team.

But in the 15-13 pool play loss to the Iroquois, Tucker took a hard hit in front of the crease and was initially diagnosed was a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder. Going forward, he wore the sling during times he wasn't playing in a game. He didn't play in the U.S.'s easy, 22-2 quarterfinal win over Germany, but he could be heard barking from the sideline as the team practiced its new offense on the field during the game. "Swing it! Swing it!" he yelled.

Tucker played the next day in the 12-7 semifinal win against the Iroquois, scoring twice with one assist, but was held out of practice 24 hours later, the team's final go through before the world championship game rematch with Canada, a 10-8 win.

"It was a crazy road to the gold medal," Tucker said afterward on the field. "We lost two games in round play. That had never happened before. The U.S. U19 had never lost before. It was tough losing a game and being 'that team,' but we never thought of it that way. After we lost to the Iroquois, we had a team meeting, players-only, and we figured everything out. That was the main reason that we came together and we really started talking about a family aspect of the team. We're all great players from around the country, but we never really were playing together on the field. Once we were playing as a team, none of these other teams could beat us."

On a team where no offensive player voted a team captain, Tucker was a leader on that end of the field without the title. Even after a 24-6 win over Australia to open pool play, Tucker said the offense was rushing too much and he tried to settle the pace, thus him standing at the top of the zone holding the ball for several seconds. "I was just standing there with the ball at some points," he said. "We needed to just calm down."

Building off a freshman season with Virginia in which Tucker carved out a role on the perennial national championship contender allowed him to carry some weight. In the fall, Tucker was actually slated to be a defensive midfielder, given his unique athleticism for an incoming freshman (listed this season at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds). But coach Dom Starsia and offensive assistant Marc Van Arsdale saw his potential on offense early as well, so he switched to mainly the second offensive midfield for the spring. He went from listening closely to upperclassman defensive middies Chris LaPierre and Bobby Hill to offensive midfielders like Colin Briggs and Rob Emery.

Tucker mostly played a on a second-midfield line with Matt Kugler and Mark Cockerton, but at times he played on the first unit with Briggs and Emery.

"We could see very quickly that Ryan was one of the stronger athletes in his class and on the team," Starsia said. "If he was not going to play on the first offensive midfield, we thought he could help us at the defensive end and in the transition game. He would have been capable of doing that but it became obvious that he could also help us at the offensive end, and you are always looking for guys that can score goals. He is clearly someone who we will consider for the first offensive midfield in 2013 and beyond."

"I do like shooting a lot. It's fun."

-- Ryan Tucker, U.S. U19 and Virginia midfielder

The coaches also loved Tucker's shooting stroke, which Starsia says should come as no surprise given Tucker's bloodlines. Van Arsdale loved that a freshman was taking the high-to-low approach to heart, something Tucker says he focused intently on in practice. He says he may shoot one sidearm shot at a practice, just fooling around, but that's it as far as straying from the fundamental approach. Perhaps that's why he was clocked shooting a Team USA-high 103 miles per hour at a training camp weekend on Long Island this summer. Or why he was clocked at 98 miles per hour in an ESPN game against Syracuse last spring.

"I just like getting in the habit, high to low," Tucker said. "I never want to lose it. I always want my stick to be good and be confident in it. It takes everyday, shooting 50 shots or whatever it is. But I do like shooting a lot. It's fun."

Tucker finished with 13 goals and two assists in 16 games last spring, as he found himself on the field more as the season progressed. He points to a go-ahead goal in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown with Johns Hopkins on March 24 in Charlottesville as a moment he won't forget. He was playing with Briggs and Emery on the first line and put the Cavaliers up 10-9 with 2:44 left before Hopkins tied the game with 44 seconds left and John Ranagan won it in overtime.

"They dodged and I could just run around and find the skip lane," Tucker said of playing with Briggs and Emery. "Briggs had it up top and I was waiting right in the gap. He fed me one more pass and I stuck that shot. It was amazing. That game I got a good amount of time. I just really focused on not making any mistakes. Make the smart play no matter what it was. If I had a shot, I would take or I would pass it, move it around, play really smart, relax and play my game."

Next year, with quarterback Steele Stanwick no longer running the show on offense ("He's able to find any skip lane wherever it is," Tucker said), there is thought that Virginia might shift to more of a midfield-oriented approach. Tucker points to the fact that there are talented attackman in the fold like Matt White, who spelled Stanwick at the point-behind position when Stanwick was injured, and fellow rising sophomore Carl Walrath, who can also play that type of role. Tucker isn't sure exactly the offense will look, but said, "We have a good amount of guys at attack a good amount at midfield, too. A lot of guys are saying it could be midfield-oriented. I think it could be both. It's tough to say."

Whatever the case may be, Tucker will play a big part. He's already showed he knows the Virginia offense well enough to teach it if needed.

"I am confident he will become recognized as one of the top midfielders in the college game very shortly," Starsia said.


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