What a Long strange trip it’s been.
Two weeks away from work and family can feel like an eternity. Throw in long flights, unfamiliar food and a roommate that likes to talk late at night and it can be a painful experience.
Despite all of this, I had an incredible experience in the Czech Republic. No question coaching Team Ireland had its challenges, but when you get a group of guys together who make a ton of sacrifices to be a part of the team, it makes for a hardworking, fun group that I was honored to lead.
We started with a training camp in Pardubice, about an hour outside Prague. The Pardubice Lacrosse Club was very helpful and the camp was exactly what we needed. A bit if seclusion, a facility that we used 3 times a day and an opportunity to play a couple exhibition games. The players worked very hard as we drilled into them about breakouts, team defense, offense, special teams etc. Our first game against the local Pardubice club was a little disappointing as the players all had a preconceived idea that we would run all over them. The systems we had been working on got thrown out the window as guys wanted to do their own thing. A narrow 9-7 victory and some post game discussion had the boys thinking a little more about what they needed to do the next night against Australia. The focus on the players in pregame compared to the night before was unbelievable. The players that had played on the team in 2007 all wanted some retribution for a 14-8 loss suffered at the hands of the Aussies. It was a great game, back and forth with a number of lead changes and some tough physical play that saw Ireland finally beat another Nation. Bring on the Iroquois!
In a video put together by Irish player Flopsy Walsh, one of our players likened our chances against the Iroquois to lambs being led to slaughter. We all knew going in that our first two games were not going to be pretty, but we wanted to work hard for a full 60 minutes and get better each game. Some of the players were in awe about playing some of the best players in the world and they got a up close look as reigning NLL MVP Jeff Shattler ran all over the place and dominated the game. The US game was much of the same, as Casey Powell and the NLL’s # 1 crease diver; Drew Westervelt took to the air often. Sitting at 0-2, we had the 0-2 Czech Republic up next for a chance at the medal round.
Going in, we had set a couple of goals. First and foremost the first ever win for Team Ireland at the WILC’s. The second goal was a tougher one and that was to make it to the quarter final round. We knew we could accomplish both goals with a win over the host Czech Republic. We also knew that this would be a tough task. The Czech team was primarily players from the Czech Republic, guys that have an organized box league and prefer the indoor game over the field version. They also supplemented their roster with a few NLL players with Czech blood and a former OLA player – Jamie Plunkett, who has
been living in Czech Republic off and on for a number of years playing hockey. With Kurtis Wagar in goal and Kyle Ross and Chet Konezny running transition, the Czechs played a great game against USA and we could see how much they had grown since 2003. I was particularly impressed with Petr Poupe who was by far the best player on that team. We had a team meeting before the Czech game, reviewed video of their games against USA and Iroquois and put a plan in place. Aggressive, tough defense was at the top of the list, the Czechs have some great shooters, but they also play the 2 man game well and we wanted to punish their scorers often. We ended up being TOO aggressive and spent 13 of the first 15 minutes in the penalty box. Despite that we were only down 2-1 after 1 quarter. The big blow came near the end of the first when goalie Mike Cregan injured his knee while making his 17th save in the quarter. Geoff Rainsford played well in relief, but Cregan’s injury decimated the team. Injuries to a couple defenders in the 2nd quarter left us depleted and we saw the respectable 6-1 deficit at half time turn into an 18-5 Czech win.
There was a lot of soul searching in the locker room after the loss to the Czechs. Apologies for poor performance, bad penalties, injuries, you name it, guys all felt like they let the team down. We talked about what went wrong, what we did well and that while we were not going to make it to the medal round, we still had a goal of winning a game at the WILC and that we needed to regroup and refocus to accomplish that task.
We had an off day the next day and the coaching and management staff decided that it would be best to let the players have their own time Wednesday and to cancel practice that we had scheduled. We left the players to see the beautiful city of Prague and to be ready for our game against Slovakia for 7th place.
Ireland Lacrosse did get our first ever win against a scrappy team from Slovakia. Our defense played well and the goaltending from Geoff Rainsford was fantastic and our offense got things going with some great 2 man game sets and a power play that made the right decisions en route to a 10-5 victory. While we came up short the next day against the same Slovakian team, the WILC ended up being a successful tournament for Team Ireland. Players are already talking about 2015 and the potential that the tournament could be held at HSBC arena in Buffalo where the Bandits play has a lot of the guys
excited. Hopefully the FIL will look at a tiered system and we will see some new nations like Finland, Germany, Austria enter for 2015.
I enjoyed the experience so much that I am looking forward to working with a number of the guys again in 2015. There are too many people to thank for the experience, but I should point out a few. National Teams Director, John Cavanaugh made life easy on the coaches. He took care of all of the administration and things ran smoothly. John also helped with Athletic Therapist, Billy Galway to keep the players healthy enough to suit up. The coaches (Dan Leidl, Tom Howe, Geoff Conn) were great and I sincerely hope that all will be available to continue with the program. Two players that have already
said this was their last tournament – Mike Kennedy, a leader and great guy battled hard through injuries that limited his playing time and Lenny Skelly who willingly changed roles because of injuries to other player. Thank you to both of these men. Special thanks to the guys that made this possible with all the work behind the scenes, Sean Gibson, Mike Kennedy, John Frame and Simon Vit.
While there was all sorts of bumps and bruises along the way I’d like to wish speedy recovery to the more injured players; Chris Brennan (pre-tournament), Kris Prior (pre-Tournament), Brendan Gorman and the all the Michaels… Mike Ryan (pre-tournament), Mike Bradshaw, Mike Cregan and Mike McTernan.
In 2007 I was part of Team Canada’s staff and nothing will replace the excitement when we scored in overtime to beat Team Iroquois, but the whole experience I had with the 2 weeks with the Irish National team was amazing and one that I will think about often. Again I am looking forward to seeing this group again in 2015, there are a lot of questions that will need to be answered. Will Brian Gillis have the best flow? Will David Lusby speak with a Dublin accent? Will anyone out work Jake Morris? Will Paul Murran take on Niagara Falls! Only time will tell!
Written by: Jeff Dowling