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‘You’re Given a Stick at Birth. You’re Buried With Your Stick.’

The Iroquois Nationals fight their way through the World Lacrosse Championship in Israel

Armin Rosen
July 16, 2018
Tracy Rector/Iroquois Nationals
Jeremy Thompson of the Iroquois Nationals in trainingTracy Rector/Iroquois Nationals
Tracy Rector/Iroquois Nationals
Jeremy Thompson of the Iroquois Nationals in trainingTracy Rector/Iroquois Nationals

Tehoka Nanticoke scored the earliest goal he can remember when he was “3 or 4” years old, in a peanuts division game in Welland, Ontario. “I remember coming off the bench, getting the ball, coming across the crease—backhand,” he recalled on Friday night, a few minutes after the Iroquois Nationals had wrapped up their first and only practice of the World Lacrosse Championships at Netanya’s Wingate Institute. In Onondaga, Akwesasne, Six Nations and the other islands of Iroquois life remaining in the Northeast, young people are given sticks before they can even walk—Chase Scanlan, a rising freshman at Loyola and at 18 the youngest member on the team, told me he was playing full-floor box lacrosse from the age of 3. “There’s lots of magic in these sticks. The wooden ones anyway,” Iroquois general manager Scott Burnam explained just as that Friday night practice kicked off. “You’re given a stick at birth. You’re buried with your stick.”

In Iroquois communities, lacrosse is present at both the beginning and the absolute end of earthly consciousness, with the sport creating a through-line for the entirety of a person’s life. That’s how it’s been so far for Nanticoke, who grew up in Six Nations, Ontario and is now a 20-year-old rising sophomore at the University of Albany and perhaps the top underclassmen in NCAA lacrosse. He remembers the advice an older brother imparted during his peanuts days (again, the age of 4, roughly), in which his sibling “taught me to do what I had to do to get the ball in the net. I was doing backhands that young—I was doing everything. My first one-hand, between-the-legs-goal was in 2008. I was 10, it was against Burlington [Ontario], Kyle Hebert, the Stony Brook goalie. I remember it was on him.” This was meant as a description and not as a boast: I asked Nanticoke whether there was ever a moment in early youth when he realized he was a better player than everyone else around him. “I don’t go and look at myself like that,” he said.

On the field, Nanticoke is both fleet-footed and boulder-like. He’s cat burglar and battering ram, crashing through defenders and then salvoing shots before anyone on either team has adequately processed what’s happening. On the sidelines, he’s one of the few beacons of calm in a sport whose soundtrack is largely yelling based. Coaches and players scream in code: “HOT HOT HOT HOT! BALL BALL! BERMUDA PEACHES! Make ‘em roll back!” everyone bellowed at each other during a defensive drill on Friday night. The next day, moments before the opening face-off against England, Nanticoke poured baby powder down the entire length of his stick to reduce the feeling of recoil caused when the ball slams into its pocket. “Soft, soft,” he said, spinning the stick in his hands, “like you’re catching an egg every time.”

That Saturday night contest with England was what sports fans would recognize as a classic trap game: The Iroquois were the more talented squad, and just about everyone thinks they’re capable of beating the U.S. or Canada if they put a complete game together. But they had barely played as a team and were coming off a loss to the U.S. where they had faded badly in the second half; meanwhile, England had surprised many observers (or at least the ones I met on the shuttle bus to the Wingate) with their gutsy defensive performance against Canada the night before, grinding out a 12-6 loss after surrendering the first six goals to the defending champs. “This’ll be our second scrimmage,” head coach Mark Burnam said before the opening faceoff. “They’re a very athletic team, and looked like a much better team than people probably expected. … Their goalie played really really well, very active,” Burnam added about the Canada game, which he attended with the rest of the Iroquois coaching staff. “Not too many goalies run the length of the field two times in a row.”

In recent years, lacrosse has undergone a similar tactical revolution as basketball: No one stands still for more than a second or two, and few players are stuck in a set role. Teams routinely run “skip” passes where players will sail the ball across a row of defensemen without the typical kick-out to the top of the offensive zone. They’ll run “slips,” a move imported from indoor lacrosse where an attacker will set a pick and then cut quickly towards the goal as the ball-carrier streaks forward, speeding the off-ball player into easier scoring position. Everyone is expected to handle the ball, shoot, and pick up defenders. Lars Tiffany, head coach at the University of Virginia and the Iroquois’ defensive coordinator, says he breaks his UVA squad into six miniteams so that every player can get experience handing the ball— “We keep standings,” he added.

The dizzying speed of the modern game creates problems for everyone. Matches often come down to battles over loose balls, turnover opportunities, and faceoffs (unlike in soccer and football, possession doesn’t automatically change over after each goal). In a tournament where teams play as many as seven games over eight days, a fast attacking squad like the Iroquois might be speeding towards their absolute physical limit, with defeat following not long after. “If you’re an up-tempo team relying on fast breaks to score goals you’re asking for superhuman efforts,” says Tiffany.

The past knock on Iroquois teams, as one spectator at the Iroquois-England game delicately put it, is that they “traditionally don’t have great conditioning on the backend.” This is partly a matter of style: Faster teams risk fading late in just about any sport (trust me, I’m a Washington Capitals fan). It’s also a function of a resource imbalance. The Iroquois have several of the best players in the world, but they are are still essentially a pickup team drawing from and representing a dispersed community of tens of thousands of people, rather than a wealthy or powerful fixed geographic entity of tens of millions of people. Armed with a formidable national infrastructure, the U.S. and Canadian teams have spent two years engineering themselves to defeat one another; in contrast, the Iroquois program doesn’t have much of a practical ability to convene practices, run a training camp, or scout their opposition. There is a belief, both among the team and lacrosse devotees who fantasize an end to the U.S.-Canada duopoly, that this year’s Iroquois Nationals are different. The coaching staff is acutely aware of the inherent difficulties of getting their particular style to work at this particular tournament—almost all of their defensemen are under the age of 23, for starters. This world championships is “a chance for them to say fuck, we’re here, we’re new, let’s do this,” that same spectator added.

On Saturday, the Iroquois’ problems were on the front end. England ran a fierce counterattack after Nanticoke rattled a shot off the crossbar, converted on a power play, and then beat the Iroquois in transition after a bad turnover. It was 3-0 England before the mandatory 10-minute water break. Even in the midst of a minicollapse, Mark Burnam never seems the least big inclined to begin tearing into his own players, and appears to be on the verge of smiling even when the pressure is on: “Let’s take it easy out there,” he softly advised during the timeout. “You’re getting all rattled. We gotta get these ground balls.”

As if by magic it became an entirely different game. Lyle Thompson whirled into the goalie’s blind spot; a possession or two later his brother Miles Thompson fired a no-look over-the-shoulder pass to a streaking Randy Staats. The goals came in an avalanche: The offense operated telepathically, the ball zipping from the wing, to X, to the slot, to the top of the offensive zone, and then back to the wing faster than a human mind could process its location. Nanticoke would barrel into the low slot with comet-like velocity; at one point, Lyle Thompson windmilled his stick over a defender, as if the pocket were magically vacuuming the ball into place. When Thompson has the ball, it’s never obvious what he’s going to do with it. He could spin into multiple defenders, carving out a shooting lane whose existence only he had prophesied. Just as often he bounces back to the top of the zone as teammates dash between positions.

The toll that the Iroquois onslaught exacts is psychological as well as physical: England couldn’t keep up with the lightning ball movement, or anticipate where or how the attack would develop. Worse still, the aggression of those opening minutes dissipated. Whatever competitive demon possessed the English team had traveled from one end of the sideline to the other: Johnson Jimerson laid down a body shot off of a faceoff that earned him a minute in the penalty box but produced one of those subtle but palpable psychic shifts that clarifies who is fearing who (Later on, Austin Staats would crumble to the ground after taking a hard check in front of the goal—only to score a hat trick after re-entering the game). England failed to convert on a crucial two-man advantage when the score was still within a couple goals, as Iroquois defenders whose players are accustomed to facing odd-man situations common in indoor lacrosse formed a tight shield around their goal crease (in international lacrosse, a goal does not end a man-up situation: In hockey terms, every penalty, which is usually one-minute long, is treated a major penalty). By halftime, the score was 12-5, with the Staats, Nanticoke, and the Thompsons reducing their opponents to a team of foosball players.

The sidelines gradually became packed with seemingly the entire tournament. Coaches from the Luxembourg and Uganda squads schmoozed; a Japanese player mimed a shooting motion while conferring with one of his teammates—they were all there to see what these crop of Iroquois could do. Earlier that day, Hamas and friends had hurled around 200 rockets and mortars into Israel, sparking a series of limited Israeli strikes, although these events had barely penetrated the awareness of players and fans in Netanya: “The only non-lacrosse news people are talking about is Shabbat because things are closed,” someone told me while we were standing in line for pizza.

By the end of the third quarter the sky was the orange of a ripe peach, and though you couldn’t see the Mediterranean it was still possible to sense its presence, or to convince yourself you could smell the salt in the wind. Soon Shabbat was over, and at the other end of the field an Iroquois player had miraculously held onto the ball after being slammed into the hard turf. “He held onto that?” an onlooker screamed, pumping his fist towards the distant flash of violence. “Fuck me, that was awesome!” The Iroquois walked off the field with an 18-7 win against an impressive England side.

After Sunday night’s 16-9 win against Australia, the Iroquois Nationals are now 2-1 in their Blue Division games (the top six countries in the world play in the same round-robin group, with the top two qualifying for the semifinals and No. 3 and No. 4 teams automatically making it to the quarters). Israel, meanwhile, faces off against a tough Philippines team in their first playoff match on Monday afternoon. The U.S. and Canada played an 11-10 classic that started during halftime of the World Cup final, a thrilling preview of what almost everyone believes will be the gold medal game. On Monday, the Iroquois play Canada at 9 p.m. Israel time and 2 p.m. EST in a game that will be televised on ESPNU, and recapped here at Tablet in some form or another. More on all of this, or at least some of this, in tomorrow’s post.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.