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The Iroquois Nationals’ Winning Lacrosse Philosophy

The will to win is a fundamentally dark impulse that becomes virtuous only when properly restrained

Armin Rosen
July 17, 2018
Tracy Rector/Iroquois Nationals
Tracy Rector/Iroquois Nationals
Tracy Rector/Iroquois Nationals
Tracy Rector/Iroquois Nationals

Austin Staats isn’t the most skilled or the most famous player on the Iroquois Nationals roster (that would be Lyle Thompson, who might be the entire sport’s most skilled and most famous player) but a team with championship hopes would be utterly lost without someone like him. Staats isn’t usually the largest or the fastest man on the field, but when he’s in the game almost nothing happens without his involvement. He plays close to the goal while on attack and close to the ball while on defense, and as a result he ends up absorbing blows on behalf of teammates dispersed to less trafficked sections of the pitch: Against England, Staats crumpled to the ground after taking a hard check feet away from the goal, left the game, and then scored a hat-track after quickly waiting out the pain. Against Australia, he delivered a hard stiff-arm to create a passing lane for the first Iroquois goal, a strike that cut into an ominous 3-0 Australia lead. When the Iroquois broke a frustrating scoring drought midway through the second quarter against Canada, Staats was the one whipping the bench into a frenzy. “Fuckin right, let’s roll now, let’s roll. Nine-hundred miles to finish this quarter, 900 miles!” During the game’s tense second half, Staats ran off-field cradling his left arm: “I think I broke my wrist—pulled my wrist right out,” he said in whisper so intense that the words landed like a medical diagnosis. After the game, Staats, a player at Onondaga Community College who is talked about as a future first overall pick in the indoor National Lacrosse League draft, told me that for a few moments he’d lost all feeling in his left forearm. As the numbness subsided, he balled his fingers into a fist and wore a look of disbelief that he wasn’t actually hurt. Naturally he was was back in the game a couple minutes later. “A team always needs a hype man,” Staats said after the game. “And not much can keep me from playing.”

“Well obviously he’s a tough guy, right?,” Iroquois coach Mark Burnam said when I asked him about Staats. “Rather than put ice on it he says: Tape it up, I’m going back in. He did it the other night, goes back. I think it fuels his fire.”

If every squad needs an Austin Staats-type player ushering his teammates towards that far outer limit of competitive intensity, then the Austin Staatses also need something to remind them of the danger lying beyond the frontier (notable examples of athletes without this knowledge include Ron Artest and—though as a Capitals fan I sort of hate to admit it—Dale Hunter). The Iroquois have a philosophy of lacrosse attuned to a reality sports fans tend to forget: The will to win is a fundamentally dark impulse that becomes virtuous only when properly restrained. The Iroquois refer to lacrosse as a “medicine game,” something that Chase Scanlan, who at 18 is the youngest player on the team, explained to me this way: “You’re supposed to have a clear mind. You’re not supposed to be mad. It’s for the Creator—you’re entertaining the Creator. You’re not supposed to be high or drunk. Its respect of the game. … It helps heal people that might not be as strong mentally or physically. It brings joy to people, and so long as it keeps doing that the game will keep strong and will keep what it’s originally about.” Scanlan is an occasional face-off man, and a lacrosse face-off looks like something between a sword fight and a wrestling match—yet another one of the sport’s nuclear-type collisions of aggression and control. The indoor lacrosse that Iroquois play from their early teens is said to be notably rougher than the high-level field game.

Late in the Australia match, with the Iroquois leading 12-8, Jeremy Thompson dived for a loose ball, producing one of those moments where lacrosse goes from being reminiscent of ballet to literally being groups of men whacking each other with poles inside of a dust cloud. An Aussie player hacked at his right forearm. Flags flew as the shoving commenced, and then halted when the Aussies—although not, I should note, the Iroquois—streaked onto the field. “See a difference—See a difference!” one Iroquois coach bellowed towards the line judge. “You definitely would’ve given us a penalty if we’d left!”

After some confusion the sentences were handed down: Two minutes for Thompson, who was now pressing an ice pack to his swelling forearm, one minute for the Aussie who’d poled him. “I’m talking science, science!,” Burnam explained to one official, motioning towards his ailing player. “That doesn’t happen after!” “Would anything have happened if I hadn’t done anything?” Thompson wondered aloud—would the Aussie have been penalized at all if he hadn’t retaliated a little?

“Fuckin goon,” one teammate said to Thompson by way of congratulations, fist-bumping him in the penalty box. Soon, Thompson himself was pleading for his coaches to let the whole matter drop so that the game could finally resume. “Could someone put tape on his mouth? Come on,” Thompson joked, eager for his time in the chair to begin and end. And then from somewhere behind him, on the Iroquois bench: “The refs have been against us our whole fuckin lives. Fuck ‘em.”

The 16-9 win over Australia game wasn’t perfect—for the second victory in a row, the Iroquois were down 3-0 early and the Aussies skip-pass game had streaks of success against the Iroquois defense. But the Iroquois improved in the second half, keeping their energy up against an aggressive, fast-paced team Aussie squad.

The Monday night game against Canada was perhaps the first significant test of what this team is and can be. The US match was played under bizarre circumstances and just a few hours after the Iroquois arrived in Israel. England and Australia are a couple of the world’s best teams, but they also aren’t gold medal contenders. The Canadians are the defending champs, a team stocked with players who have competed both with and against top Iroquois at the professional level and a squad that the Iroquois program has never beaten before. I observed to team general manager Scott Burnam that their winless record against Canada meant that any matchup between the two has the potential to be historic. “Every time we step on the field we make history,” he replied. “That’s the difference between us and the other teams.”

Canada made history of their own, too. “That’s an amazing, amazing performance by Dillon Ward,” Staats said of the Canadian goalie. “We should’ve buried them early in the first but he made those big saves, so he got his team the win.” Burnam’s diagnosis of the team’s 10-5 defeat was simple: “We just ran into a goal that was unbelievable.” Defense coordinator Lars Tiffany: “That might have been the greatest goaltending performance I’ve ever seen.”

The Canadian defense kept the Iroquois away from high-percentage areas around the crease even during a series of methodical early possessions. When Lyle Thompson reached his usual shooting lane in the middle slot Ward proved a looming colossus in net, crowding every inch of real estate and forcing Thompson to look to his teammates on the wing. Ward made just a single mistake all night, vacating the goal on a loose ball that Thompson recovered in a Siberian corner of the backfield before teleporting the ball to a teammate parked in front of an empty net. But a goalie can be forgiven a single mistake on a night when they deflect over 25 shots, which is an absurd number in contemporary field lacrosse. Had the Iroquois converted on either of the shots that hit the post during a first quarter in which they failed to score, it could have become a much different game.

Instead, by the second half, it settled into a mutually unsatisfying stalemates. Despite a three-to-four goal cushion, Canada was getting badly outshot and had long spells without finding the net. “We’re not sharp enough, we’re not communicating enough, we’re not intense enough!” a Canadian coach yelled to his sideline, before lapsing back to lacrosse-speak: “YELLOW, YELLOW!” In the fourth quarter, the Canadians decided not to risk their five-goal lead and took full advantage of international lacrosse’s lack of a shot clock or stall rule. As Canada bled out the remaining time, a debate burbled among the interns, youth players, and lacrosse bureaucrats gathered around the scorer’s table: “Classic Canadian patience.” “That’s not patience, man. That’s pussy shit.” “Intelligence.” “That’s not intelligence.” “Don’t hate the player, hate the game. The rules let it happen.” “It’s cheap and it’s bullshit.” “It’s smart, but it’s pussy shit.”

It is nearly impossible to counter these late-game icing tactics, which result from a quirk of the international rules that absolutely everyone hates. A team either has to play aggressive defense against the stall, risking a penalty—or it has to play really aggressive defense and crush an opposing attacker badly enough to make the opposition play scared or otherwise reassess the wisdom of running the stall. Of course, the refs want to do everything in their power to prevent the latter option from looking too attractive. Late in the game, the Iroquois got whistled on soft-ish penalties while trying to break another two-minute Canadian game of catch. “You’re rewarding stalling when you call a ticky-tacky push like that!” yelled Tiffany, who usually has the bearing of a Starfleet captain. “I love chess,” quipped a player on the Iroquois bench. Really it was more like golf—although who can argue with the results?

In a sense there actually is one way to break the stall, which is not to be losing by five in the final ten minutes of a critical game. Mark Burnam believes his team showed it beat Canada if it doesn’t run up against a sublime, all-time goaltending performance—Monday’s contest was a few bounces away from having a much more exciting ending. “People better realize just because we lost that game doesn’t mean anything to us. That’s just a matter of just getting the next one done. And we will.”

Yesterday’s game between England and Australia—in which Australia overcame a late two-goal deficit thanks to a brilliant sequence in which the Aussies converted on a penalty, won the ensuing face-off, and somehow managed to hold the ball for nearly five straight minutes late in the 4th—has been the best match of the tournament that I’ve attended so far. England won a late penalty, but then narrowly failed to get the tying goal after regaining possession with seven seconds left on the clock. The loss effectively eliminated England from medal contention despite the team’s strong showing against Canada and the Iroquois. For a newcomer to the game, everything wonderful about lacrosse was packed into that final quarter, although this offered no solace to the defeated. I was standing on the England sideline as time expired, and promptly wrote in my notebook: “England can’t believe it ended like this.”

The Iroquois are now 2-2 going into their final group matchup against Scotland at 11:45 a.m. EST, a game that will be broadcast on ESPN+. They are currently on pace to earn an automatic spot in the tournament quarterfinal. Israel, which won an 11-8 thriller against the Philippines on Monday, will play Ireland with a spot in the quarterfinals on the line at 2 p.m. EST, also on ESPN+.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.