Four years ago, naysayers said Nick Myers picked the wrong team.
Exhibition losses to the Hill Academy (Ontario) and Canada only emboldened them.
It seems silly to think about that now. Not only did the 2016 U.S. U19 men’s team sweep its way its eighth consecutive world championship — punctuated by an epic late-game comeback to beat Canada in the gold medal game — but also 19 of the 23 players who represented Team USA that year would go on to become college All-Americans.
Future Tewaaraton finalists like Jared Bernhardt and Michael Sowers headlined the U.S. attack. Dox Aitken and Ryan Conrad were horses out of the midfield. Mac O’Keefe could shoot from anywhere on the field. Heck, Bryan Costabile was a defensive midfielder on that team.
Alas, Myers pointedly remarked last week before the second round of tryouts for the 2020 team, “I’m the coach that cut Grant Ament.”
“You can lose a world championship this weekend. Right now, I look at this weekend as, there’s a championship at stake if we make the wrong decisions,” Myers said. “You think they’re anxious? Think about the coach that has to watch these guys play.”
For Myers, hindsight is 20-20. Or, more appropriately, 2020.
US Lacrosse tweaked its selection process for the 2016 U.S. U19 men’s team after a shaky showing in 2012, when Team USA had to overcome its first-ever losses in the preliminary round (to Canada and the Iroquois) en route to the gold medal. Myers, the head coach at Ohio State, was the first college coach to take the helm of a U19 program that had theretofore been led exclusively by high school coaches.
“We made so many changes to this four years ago. And now we’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re just refining,” he said. “It doesn’t make the decisions any easier.”
Myers’ brother, Lafayette head coach Pat Myers, is back as the offensive coordinator. Andrew Stimmel, recently named the head coach at Marquette, is the defensive coordinator. Stan Ross, under whom Myers cut his teeth as an assistant at Butler, focuses on goalies and faceoffs. Ross and assistant general manager Tony Resch — coaches at Oxbridge (Fla.) and La Salle (Pa.), respectively — provide the same high school perspective that Chuck Ruebling (Delbarton, N.J.) brought to the 2016 staff.
Countless more college and high school coaches were a part of the process that culled 104 players from a pool of nearly 300 applicants for the first round of tryouts in June. Fifty advanced to the second round, which culminated in a live-streamed Blue-White exhibition last Sunday at US Lacrosse headquarters in Sparks, Md.
Two days later, Myers and company announced the 32-player roster that will comprise the 2020 U.S. U19 training team. The group will reconvene for training camp at Ohio State in November, with additional events planned in the buildup to next summer’s world championship in Limerick, Ireland.
Looking at the 32, here are five factors to consider:
1. Experience matters.
Of the 32 players selected, only seven are from the high school Class of 2020. The remaining 25 players will have had exposure to college coaches, facilities, strength and conditioning specialists, scout and film sessions, etc.
Going back to the 2016 blueprint, Myers mentioned defenseman Dylan Johnson and attackman Simon Mathias, who were added as injury replacements a month before the world championship following sensational freshman seasons at Denver and Penn, respectively. It was Mathias who threaded the pass to Conrad cutting through the Canadian defense for that game-winning goal.
“[He] really took over in that moment,” Myers said. “The big moment.”
Even so, Myers added, the defensive end is where the year of college experience makes the biggest difference. Sutton Boland (Victor, N.Y.), Quentin Matsui (Eden Prairie, Minn.) and Ryan Schriber (Wilton, Conn.) all showed well as sit-down cover guys who won’t yield positioning by throwing checks — the “feet and fist” approach valued by the coaching staff. Those traits should only improve with those three players competing for a year in the Big Ten (Boland at Penn State and Schriber at Michigan) and ACC (Matsui at Virginia).
On the offensive side, Lehigh’s Cole Kirst, the lone rising college sophomore of the group, demonstrated the benefit of NCAA experience with a goal and two assists in the Sunday scrimmage.
2. But so do size and skill.
Among the seven high schoolers are the consensus national player of the year in attackman Brennan O’Neill (St. Anthony’s, N.Y.) and the guy Inside Lacrosse ranks right behind him in the Class of 2020 in Brendan Grimes (Boys’ Latin, Md.).
The U.S. coaches love the potential of this lefty-lefty overload to create mismatches on their side of a half-field offense. O’Neill is 6-foot-2, 230 pounds. Grimes is 6-foot-3, 190 pounds. Both can carry the ball, stretch the field with their outside shooting and finish inside. Grimes projects more as a midfielder for Team USA.
The coaching staff was impressed particularly by O’Neill’s willingness to be coached despite the considerable hype with which he entered camp.
“He was humble. He was thankful to be here. And he loved getting coached. There was no bravado. That was really refreshing, not knowing come in what to expect, having heard a lot about him,” Myers said. “He’s as advertised — a very skilled, left-handed player.”
O’Neill had his hands full, however, with McDonogh (Md.) defenseman Jackson Bonitz, another 2020 who made the 32. Bonitz, a linebacker who originally intended to play football in college before pursuing the lacrosse path, bodied up O’Neill well in both camps and showed exceptional speed chasing down the ball during the Blue-White game.
You won’t find many complaints about the other 2020s in the group, including 6-foot-3, 200-pound midfielder Cole Herbert — a two-sport star at Calvert Hall (Md.) drawing real Division I football interest as a wide receiver. The other young guns are attackman Daniel Kelly and faceoff specialist Jake Naso, teammates of Herbert and O’Neill at Calvert Hall and St. Anthony’s, respectively, as well as Cole Krauss, a 6-foot-2 defenseman out of Delbarton (N.J.).
3. We need more dogs.
Former Coastal Carolina football coach David Bennett made this phrase famous with his Internet-breaking rant from 2011.
At Ohio State, Myers calls them “sled dogs,” the defensive midfielders who will be isolated repeatedly by opponents. They can create a considerable advantage if they hold their ground in the half-field defense and help generate transition offense.
“Those are the guys that win you championships,” Myers said.
But with just 23 players allowed in international competition — and given the likelihood that the U.S. will take two goalies and two faceoff men to Ireland — specialists are at a premium. And everyone, even the attackmen, becomes a dog when he crosses the midfield line.
In 2016, Team USA rotated its red, white and blue lines at midfield throughout the preliminaries. When it came to be crunch time, the Americans rode the red and white lines on offense and leaned heavily on its blue line of Costabile, Austin Sims and Terry Lindsay to thwart the Canadians.
Graham Bundy Jr. (MICDS, Mo.) Patrick Hackler (Skaneateles, N.Y.) and Jack Monfort (Syosset, N.Y.) were all top-scoring midfielders on their high school teams. In this setting, however, they’re dogs.
“In every case, there’s a grit about them,” Myers said.
Bundy, in particular, embraced the dirty-work role, going as far to clean up the locker room after each training camp session. It goes a long way when an offensive talent like Bundy, a two-time US Lacrosse All-American and the only player in Missouri high school lacrosse history to score more than 400 points, exhibits a blue-collar mentality.
Myers tabbed Bundy and Jake Caputo (Middle Creek, N.C.) as team leaders for White and Blue, respectively, last weekend. They each responded with two goals in Sunday’s exhibition. Caputo, the son of longtime Duke assistant Ron Caputo, exhibits many of the same qualities Myers saw in Aitken and Conrad four years ago — offense, defense, wings and ground balls all over.
4. Look at the slash line.
Versatility matters just as much in the half-field as it does between the 30s.
In the international game, you need attackmen who are comfortable coming out of the box and midfielders who can invert and dodge from the wings. Look at the impact guys like Ned Crotty, Matt Danowski and Mike Leveille have had as attackmen playing midfield on U.S. senior teams. On the 2016 U.S. U19 team, Bernhardt and O’Keefe could flip-flop to exploit short sticks.
Grimes and Kelly, as well as Emmett Barger (St. Anne’s Belfield, Va.) can all play the role of midfielder-slash-attackman.
5. It’s all about buy-in.
Myers’ approach isn’t for everyone. He’s as prepared and meticulous as any coach who has ever donned the USA shield. That becomes magnified when dealing exclusively with teenage athletes.
“At the end of the day, the [international game] is a structured game,” Myers said. “It’s not a shot clock. It’s not an up and down. It’s not a PLL game. It’s a controlled half-field lacrosse style. You may not like it. That’s just what it is. We have to build a team that is prepared to do this.”
Four years ago, Myers said he butted heads with Conrad, benching the star midfielder after a careless turnover and penalty in the exhibition loss to the Hill Academy. It was an eye-opening experience for the consensus No. 1 recruit in the country, one he shared with the current U19 hopefuls last Saturday and which helped prepare him for a college career in which he overcame an ACL injury to lead Virginia to a national championship as a senior.
Myers said he remains close with Conrad and the rest of the gold medal-winning 2016 U.S. U19 team today, frequently exchanging text messages and seeking each other out in handshake lines after their college games.
“All you can do as a coach is share your experiences and do your best to evaluate the hearts of these young men. Because they’re all exceptional,” Myers said. “Who do I want to spend 10 days overseas with? You don’t have time. You don’t have months together like we have back at our universities. You have four weekends. We try to look at these times we have together as training camps, not cutdowns. We’re going to make some tough decisions.”
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