New Years Day. The one day a year that everyone in the world can claim to be on the horizon of their best selves. This includes those who have to scrape themselves off the couch after a rough night bidding farewell to the year passing.
New Year’s Eve and the subsequent New Year’s Day are often held sacred by people of all faiths, backgrounds, nationalities, and so on as a day that they won’t work and pretty much don’t do anything they don’t want to do.
Would you like to give up time with your friends and family to go play some lacrosse in Poland on New Year’s day? Spend your precious days off traveling to a foreign place to play some exhibition games? I know first hand that there are more “no” replies than those who put their hand up.
We’ll Backtrack a Bit
Israel Lacrosse’s Winter Service Trip of 50 Jewish-American high school students took place over the course of December 22nd through January 2nd. The trip consisted of touring Israel culturally, as well as giving back by donating equipment and, more importantly, time, growing the game and teaching Israeli youth about this amazing game.
The eleven-day tour would come to a close in Poland, where the Polish National Team would assemble to take on the Winter Service Trip players representing Israel. Israel Lacrosse Director, good friend, and suspected alien invader, Scott Neiss, asked me if I could help find a third team to play against on January 1. I looked at him like he’s crazy, and then I said “sure.”
No team could commit. Can’t blame them. Lacrosse eats up a lot of personal time and I can speak from experience that skipping family Christmas parties for lacrosse will more than slightly irk Mom and Dad.
I relayed back to Scott that there was 0.00% chance an entire team would be able to commit. Yet, wanting to not underdeliver, I set to task arranging the Euro Stars.
Euro Stars: Pretty Much What It Sounds Like
The Euro Stars ended up being comprised of players from Germany, Poland, Hungary, Scotland, and the Czech Republic. Two guys from one club, five girls from another. A pair from Hungary. One by one and two by two I filled a roster.
Touring with the Israel Winter Service Trip was phenomenal. I could simply not have had the same experience exploring Israel had it not been for my being invited to tag along as a chaperone/coach/gopher with the tour.
Throughout the trip, I would hear kids speculating as to the strength of their opposition on New Year’s Day. Some underestimated, some overestimated, with the majority admitting they had no clue what to expect.
The reciprocal was true as well.
The Euro Stars had no idea what to expect from Poland or Israel… actually, come to think about it, they didn’t have a clue what they could even expect from their own mystery teammates. I had a general approximation, because I “knew” the players I had coming and/or their backgrounds.
The Good Old Polish
The Polish National Team is one of my favorites. I’ve spoken about the WST kids and the Euro Stars, and now I feel the need to give due credit to one of my favorite national programs. I’ve met the guys at tournaments and so on, but we really hung out quite a bit at the European Championships in GOODOODLLLOLO, Hungary in 2016.
We went to the world-famous bath houses. We broke bread, did the Polish-power-squat thing all over Budapest (get as low as possible, keep heels on ground. Go ahead, Dad. I know you’re reading this and I know you’re going to try it.) and I was on the opposite sideline cheering for the boys in all their games.
The Poland-Russia rivalry ended up being an amazing game complete with heated moments, big plays, lead changes, and eventually a Polish victory.
We have history. I traveled to Poland in 2016 prior and hung out with the Grom guys from Warsaw. They also have the greatest lacrosse photography in Europe, Shutterlax (for whom the outline of my person is the logo. #1 crowning achievement to date), comes out of Poland as well.
Point being, I like the Polish, and I was looking forward to playing against friends again.
Last minute cancellations, additions, and a hysterical Czech-Irish exit (ask me in person) had my Euro Stars rosters ending up at 16 men and 15 women.
Read: PERFECT numbers for a chilly day with two full games. Plenty of subs to get a quick breather, but not so many that you’d stand on the sidelines for too long and get cold.
Oh yeah… the FIRST GAME OF 2018!
Keep in mind, I was in state school for five years getting a recreation degree. By my math, the VERY FIRST GAME OF 2018 took place at 09:30 CET on the morning of January 1. I’m aware the Australians hosted Japan, New Zealand, and Hong Kong in the Southern Crosse Tournament, but that didn’t start until January 3rd (sweet lord, I know too much about this stuff). There could have been games in North America, but no one was starting at 03:30 EST, believe that.
The Polish Women’s National Team and the Euro Stars kicked off the first game of 2018. Roughly just three minutes in, LCC/Czech National Team player Kate Hlavasova scored the first goal IN THE WORLD of 2018. That’s pretty cool, I don’t care who you are.
Euro Stars went on to win, 11-8, in a great game against the Polska Women.
Now, for the Dudes!
Next up, the same matchup would take place, but with the boys. Israel Lacrosse’s Jonah Biblowitz was touring with the Winter Service Trip as a chaperone, and due to my Czech-Irish exit the night before, I had a roster opening. You can’t come all the way around the world and NOT play a game. I threw the kid a bone and let him play with us. Maybe a minute in, he scored the first MEN’S goal in the world of 2018. I called for the ball, gave it to the kid, all signed up and certified by the European Lacrosse Federation’s VP of Men’s Lacrosse, it’s a pretty cool trophy.
The Euro Stars went on to win by one goal in a THRILLER. The Polish boys would not relent and almost forced an overtime, but we were able to score a late one with a minute or so left. From there, the clock did the rest of the work for us. This was the second-best game of the day.
The next game was the best, if you’re asking me.
And I’m Going to Tell You About It
The high school girls representing Israel and the lady Euro Stars became the highlight of the day. In the first half, Israel had no answer for the goaltending prowess and scoring ability of the Euro Stars. The first half left the Stars with a sizable lead.
The second half warranted a goalie change. When I was assembling this team, the first goaltender I found for the girls was 15-year-old Karolina playing for the local Krakow Queens. When I got word the Czech National Team goalie would also be joining us, I decided that it’s only fair to split time, regardless of score. Maybe it isn’t the best coaching move, but it’s the best human move.
I won’t credit Israel’s comeback in the second half to my goalie change. That isn’t fair to Karolina (who made roughly 8 saves), nor is it fair to the improved effort put forth by Israel.
Yet, I was torn on the sideline. Girls I had been traveling and coaching over the past ten days were on one sideline, and the team I had assembled was on the other. Coaching your team versus your crew… interesting dichotomy. I hope I’m using that word correctly.
A bad (read: horrendous) coaching move on my part and some turnovers gave Israel some late opportunities, and as a result we ended in a tie. Now, in FIL Women’s lacrosse, you end in ties. I don’t care who’s reading this: THAT. IS. STUPID!
I have a grand and growing respect for women’s lacrosse, its rules, and the wonderful people behind its growth, but ties are just plain wrong.
Sports don’t end in ties. That’s a soccer thing.
Scott and I bartered with the officials, who explained that we were on a strict schedule that had to be upheld to get all the games in. We got a two-minute extension and were awarded the sudden-death (yes, sudden-death) overtime that we wanted.
We almost ended up with a god-awful tie anyways. Israel’s Jordan Kaner made two AMAZING (read: AMAAZZINNGG) saves in overtime. Possession was traded between the Euro Stars and Israel a number of times – each change bringing elation to one bench and utter horror to the other.
The third save by Kaner did not happen. The Euro Stars women capped off a 2-0 day with the overtime win. Part of me wanted this victory for the Israel WST girls, as they’d never forget the win, but the flip side of that coin is that 15-year-old Karolina and other young women from all over Europe now had a win over an American-born-and-raised team. I think that this memory will be pivotal in propelling these ladies to further their own efforts of improving, as well as the bigger picture of growing the women’s game in Europe.
Slightly Odd, Slightly Awesome
Then it was time for the Euro boys to square off with the Israeli boys. I played, and if I hadn’t known, I would’ve told you I was playing against college-aged players. I don’t know what they’re putting in the water in America (nobody does), but these kids were big, and they were fast.
Israel came out hot, and it took my team a solid quarter to figure out which way was up. We snuck a goal in edgewise, but we didn’t really match up well with American-style play by college bound players with years and years more experience than any of our players.
So, I pulled some trickery. Some hidden ball trickery. And a nifty inbounds play (top secret… ask me in person and I’ll blurt it out) resulted in a rejuvenating goal for the Euro Stars. Israel Men’s National Team Head Coach Bill Beroza (awesome guy) stepped in and played for the Euro Stars as well, adding a goal in the game that both sidelines celebrated.
I don’t know the final score, that recreation degree didn’t include counting that high. I really don’t think it was THAT egregious of a difference between the lines, but Israel was scoring goals when they had the ball and we really weren’t. I guess that’s how that works. Science.
Giving the Travelers a Good Experience
Both Israeli teams would go on to beat the Polish National Teams as well. The Polish men put up a better fight than the Euro Stars did to start the game, but the end result was similar. The Israeli girls had a chip on their shoulder. The very thought of going 0-2 was motivation enough to come out on fire against the Polish women, earning a favorable and comfortable lead for the Lady Israelis.
Dinner was served in the warmth of the gym, and that’s where the REAL cool stuff happened. Players from all three teams traded gear and clothing, everyone wanting what everyone else had. I will proudly state that the Euro Stars pinnies had some serious trade stock. Demand definitely outnumbered supply.
One of the coolest things I saw was when I walked into my team’s locker room (never typed THAT sentence before…). On the bench, and on the floor, sat five or six Israel Winter Service Trip players, and they were busy stringing up a dozen or so heads for the Brno Ravens faction of my Euro Stars team. This is the SERVICE in Winter Service Trip.
Bad sticks often find their ways into hands and onto the fields in Europe. Sometimes they’re all that’s available. Just the simple service of spending 25-30 minutes of stringing up a head for a new friend can mean all the difference to a player, who can now spend less time worrying about throwing a pass away and can now spend more concentration learning the game.
The Polish boys who had played in the Israel Premier Lacrosse League this past summer hung out with their former teammates, talking about memories of games, and when/where they would play together next.
We All Won in Poland
This was a resounding success in my book. The Polish got to play a home game against high level American talent, as well as European opponents in a very evenly matched game, giving them that all-important experience in close games.
Israel got to see what European lacrosse looks like (in Europe), as well as meet and befriend European lacrosse players. Who knows where these friendships will go from here. I don’t. See, that’s one of my favorite parts of this “job.” It’s all about watching friendships and relationships come full circle all over the world.
My Euro Stars got to play on a fun team of good people and also made some new friends. I think I’ll be taking the Euro Stars to additional tournaments as well, including the FIL Men’s World Lacrosse Championships festival tournament this July in Israel (if you’re interested, hit me up!).
I was playing with friends from all over Europe, against kids I’ve been traveling and mentoring for ten days, and against one of my favorite national teams in the world. I love it. Everyone benefitted from this day. Nobody got rich. There was no trophy. It wasn’t a tournament. It was the Krakow New Years Challenge.
We need more dates like this. I’m a little tied up with my current endeavor, working with Israel Lacrosse as they prepare the biggest world championships ever to be seen. BUT… you can safely anticipate that small play dates like this will continue to pop up. I’ll happily contribute to any of these events as much as I can, including collecting Euro Stars from all over Europe and beyond.
I think this is how we grow the game. We frequently offer a higher quality of play to more players. We make the world smaller. We have fun.
We Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop
International lacrosse is something I’m passionate about, hence the World Championships gig. If you’re interested in trying your hand and catching the wave as international lacrosse grows, please drop me a line and let’s get you out there. The World Championships need a lot of interns and liaisons, and a lot of countries want to find North American coaches, recruiters, and lacrosse development officers to come live in-country and grow the game.
Come to the World Championships in Israel this summer. See what lacrosse looks like around the world. This is the biggest championships that will ever happen (FIL will be cutting entrants similar to the FIFA qualifier model) and it will simply be the biggest collection of amazing humans within our game.
I’m in Poland… still. I took a train to Katowice the wrong day by accident and now I’m sitting in a coffee shop writing this. I’ll travel with my good Polish buddies on Cebulax to Budapest tonight for the New Year’s Cup (irony). I’ll stay there for a week, and coach the Israeli girls team when they come up for the New Year’s Cup women’s weekend. Then I’ll go to Prague for Jizni Mesto’s Mayor’s Cup with my Glasgow Clydesiders. Denmark/Norway next month with the Danish lacrosse folks.
See you out there.