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Israel and the Iroquois Earn Their Shot at Lacrosse History

As the world championship draws closer to an end

Armin Rosen
July 19, 2018
Roger Davis/Federation of International Lacrosse
The Israeli Lacrosse team in actionRoger Davis/Federation of International Lacrosse
Roger Davis/Federation of International Lacrosse
The Israeli Lacrosse team in actionRoger Davis/Federation of International Lacrosse

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During the week of the Lacrosse World Championships, Mark Burnam becomes the only coach on earth who hears a recording of himself singing his team’s national anthem before every game. “I remember the day we said we need a national anthem,” remembered Burnam, who played on the Iroquois Nationals since before they were even a member of the Federation of International Lacrosse. Shortly after graduating from Syracuse he was part of an Iroquois team that competed when lacrosse was included as a demonstration sport at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles: “We picked a bunch of guys who could make it, we went to LA, we played at the Coliseum with 30,000 people in front of us.” In 1987, the Iroquois Nationals overcame FIL’s concerns about the program’s readiness and were accepted as a full member, marking the first time in history that an international athletic governing body granted an indigenous group a status on par with nation-states. But the Iroquois are not a state entity in the strictest sense and are not even a single nation: The Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora are spread across semi-autonomous enclaves which are mostly located in upstate New York and Ontario but are also several hours’ driving from one another. Like a flag or a passport—two things the Iroquois also have—a national anthem helps create a baseline of national identity on both the psychic and legalistic level. But again, the Iroquois aren’t a nation-state, and in the runup to the World Championship in 1990 their lacrosse team had to figure out what their anthem should even sound like.

They decided on a deep, solemn chant over a slow and almost arrhythmic drumbeat. The chorus ends and a single singer takes over, his voice climbing and falling without resolving into a clear melody. During the anthem, the Iroquois players dance out whatever last-second stiffness is still lingering in their limbs and look as if their bodies are only barely handling the moment—although there is one player who always clutches his collar and stares at the ground while standing absolutely still. The voices belong to the members of that 1990 team, as well as to Oren Lyons, the Onondaga faith-keeper and former Syracuse goalie who co-founded the program. Iroquois players are listening to the people responsible for the team’s existence before they run onto the field. “We went into a makeshift studio, sung that with a drum and a rattle,” Burnam recalled. The words, which are in an Iroquois language, mention lacrosse itself. “We’re singing praise to our nation and our people in it, we pray to our creator and hope he’s happy with the game we play.”

Lacrosse coaches are screamers, but the yelling duties are meticulously divided on the Iroquois team. Executive director Ansley Jemison runs the substitution box, calling out which midfield line is up next and shouting occasional instructions. Offensive coordinator Scott Marr, the head coach at Albany University, is the bad cop to defensive coordinator and University of Virginia head coach Lars Tiffany’s good cop, although the roles shift or converge depending on what they see on the field. In the second half of the Iroquois quarter-final win against Puerto Rico, opposing forward Kevin McNally, who’d tallied a hat trick in the first ten minutes of the game went to the ground after taking a love tap from an Iroquois defender. Was it a dive? The Iroquois sideline and just about every other observer I consulted sure thought so. “That’s a FIFA move!,” Tiffany roared, soccer comparisons being one lacrosse’s most stinging insults. Marr, for whom McNally had played Albany, yelled like the alleged flop had been a personal rebuke to his coaching skills. “You flopped like a soccer player. That’s embarrassing, Kevin. You’re better than that!” When Iroquois and Peurto Rico players posed for a photo at midfield after the game, Marr and McNally stood next to each other and beamed like the old friends that they were.

Although both of his assistants are NCAA bosses Burnam coaches at the prep level. He leads the program at IMG Academy, a Florida boarding school and one of the sport’s top pipelines to Division I and the pros. Burnam has short red hair and a permanent almost-grin that disarms both officials and his own players: I’ve seen coaches teeter on the edge of murderousness this tournament, but Burnam has never been one of them. He’s a talker in a yeller’s game. During timeouts, his voice conveys mild disappointment unsoured with impatience—come on guys, he seems to say. You’re capable of getting this right and I’m going to watch you get it right: “See how we run to X right away?” he instructed his offense after a scoreless first quarter against Puerto Rico on Wednesday night, the fifth game in a row in which the Iroquois surrendered the first three goals. “We don’t run to X until someone dodges. Listen to what I say.”

They did listen, too. It took yet another first quarter where they fell behind 3-0—but they listened. The possessions actually did get more methodical, although the method behind the offensive highlight of the half, and maybe of the entire tournament, was knowable only to Lyle Thompson. With his team down 3-2 midway through the second quarter, Thompson held the ball at the top of the restraining line, darted all the way to X, scanned for a pass, decided to round back towards the point, and then settled into a man-to-man matchup with his back to the goal for all of about a half of a second before juking into an impossibly low-angle shot that rocketed past a thick screen of defenders. “I was just getting to a spot I like to get to,” Thompson remembered of his circuit around the entire offensive zone. “I had some options so I just kept to the corner and got my hands free and took a shot.” Like many athletic masterpieces the sequence happened quickly yet slowly—in total, Thompson held the ball for an eternal 20 seconds, during which he’d cast Puerto Rico into a defensive confusion from which they’d never reemerge. Later in the game, Thompson ran a hidden-ball trick in which he and Tehoka Nanticoke mimed passes to one another, causing the goalie to look roughly an entire galaxy’s-length away from Nanticoke’s close-range shot. Austin Staats and Kyle Jackson would both get hat-tricks, fireballing from point-blank and owning the high-percentage spaces around the goal even with Puerto Rican sticks clanging off their helmets and elbow-pads.

The Iroquois are packed with offensive stars who primarily play indoor lacrosse, which has a shot clock. They are fun to watch because they’re don’t stop shooting. On every possession their attackers are narrowing the geometry of the playing field, crashing in from the wings, dodging from X to the slot, and peeling off of picks and screens. But this style of play becomes a liability in a long tournament, and they have now played six games in seven days. “The second half hopefully won’t be as much of a track meet if we can get up on them here,” Jemison said with the score tied a few minutes from halftime. “Gotta keep the legs fresh.”

Players claim they can’t really feel the fatigue. “The games feel like they’re getting shorter,” Johnson Jimseron told me after they’d vanquished Puerto Rico. It’s hard to tell you’re even that tired, Jimerson claimed—”we’re all going pretty hard.” Thompson admitted to me that his muscles were getting a little sore. “But it’s nothing I’ve never felt, you know…I train myself hard enough where I’m used to this feeling.”

The eventual 14-7 win against Puerto Rico sets up a Thursday night rematch with Canada, who scored a 10-5 win over the Iroquois in the group stage on the strength of Dillon Ward’s astonishing goaltending performance. If the Iroquois win tonight, it will be the biggest moment in the program’s history and the kind of game that will have a nickname ten years from now. Every lacrosse world championship match has been between the US and Canada, a duopoly that’s basically without parallel in any other team sport. An Iroquois win would be a watershed moment for all of lacrosse—proof to the Israels and Puerto Ricos of the world (never mind the Australias and Englands) that the sport’s two giants aren’t invincible.

The Israelis, meanwhile, played in the later of the night’s two quarter-finals matches, facing Australia with a spot in a semifinal against the US on the line. In just a few short years, Israel went from having virtually no lacrosse culture to fielding one of the five to ten best national teams on earth. As Howard Borkan, a lawyer, former Cornell lacrosse player, Cornell lacrosse color analyst, Israel lacrosse general manager, and member of the FIL board explained to me during a first half where Israel jumped out to a 4-1 lead, 19 of Israel’s 23 players have Israeli citizenship—the roster includes a former IDF paratrooper. The FIL rules allow for a limited number of non-citizen slots for players whose heritage is still somehow tied to the country they want to compete for, and on the Israeli team one of them is filled by Max Seibald, a former winner of the Tewaaraton Award for the top player in college lacrosse (although it turns out his grandparents on his father’s side actually lived in Netanya and actually got married there). The team held all of their tryouts in Israel, which meant than even stars of Sebald’s status had to hop on a plane.

As Borkan explained, lacrosse was always more Jewish than it looked. “Lacrosse has been played in traditionally Jewish-American areas in Long Island and Maryland,” he said—Sebald isn’t the only Jew to win the Tewaaraton. Like nearly everything else in Israeli culture and society, lacrosse was a Jewish thing that former diasporans brought with them. Jewish players moved to Israel, and American lacrosse advocates like Borkan supported the sport’s development in the Jewish state. Creating a foothold wasn’t all that hard. “Israelis get it,” Borkan says. “It’s a physical game and it fits in with the israeli culture. It’s aggressive.” Today, there’s a nationwide league, thousands of youth players, and a competitive national team with “B’YACHAD-KAVOD-MISHPACHA” spelled in Hebrew lettering across the back of its helmets. The team’s logo is a lion of Judah holding a lacrosse stick.

Wednesday night’s game was the most raucous of the entire tournament. The Aussies have rolled deep all week—they have had the largest and loudest cheering section of any of the away teams, toting inflatable kangaroos and singing Waltzing Matilda late in close games. The Israeli cheering section was packed with youth players in their mid-teens—they blew on noisemakers and broke out into an Eyal Golan song late in the fourth. Australia scored a 9-6 win, although Israel’s partisans would claim that the refs ignored an ejection-worthy headbutt from an Australian player and botched a late offsides call. If Israel beats Puerto Rico in the consolation bracket, they’ll have clinched a top-6 finish and made it into the prestigious Blue Group for the 2022 world championship, joining the US, Canada, Australia, the Iroquois.

We’re almost at the end, folks. The Iroquois face off against Canada at 11 AM EST on ESPNU. Australia plays the US at 2 PM EST on ESPNU, looking to avenge the 19-1 drubbing the Americans handed them during the group stage. These games are both on actual TV, so you really don’t have an excuse. The losers play for the bronze medal on Friday. The winners meet at Netanya Stadium on Shabbat morning.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.

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