Scrub to Star: Max Adler, Israel’s New Face-off Man
Rewind five years, or five months, or even five weeks, and the thought of pursuing an international lacrosse career would have been the last thing Max Adler would have been expected to do.
But Max has made a habit of executing the unexpected.
If things go according to plan for Adler — who dropped everything and relocated to Israel earlier this week — he will don the Star of David at the 2018 FIL World Lacrosse Championships as the blue-and-white’s face-off specialist.
Setting a New Course
Adler’s unexpected pursuit of an international career follows his successful debut on the professional circuit.
Major League Lacrosse’s Denver Outlaws selected him 61st overall in the seventh round of the 2017 Collegiate Draft and he had his professional debut in July, his first of three appearances in his rookie season.
But five years ago, all he wanted was a chance.
Adler wrestled all through high school, getting looks from multiple collegiate programs, but head injuries kept scholarships from materializing. With concussions closing the door he expected to walk through, he opened a different one, entering a room where human giants use metal poles to knock you into next week: lacrosse.
He played lacrosse in high school, too, picking it up for the first time as a freshman, though wrestling was his focus. Despite the physical nature of the game, lacrosse became the safer alternative relative to wrestling, and with how much of his life revolved around sports, he couldn’t walk away from athletics. Lacrosse was his new goal.
But with only one year of varsity starting experience and no recruitment, the next step wasn’t so simple…
“I reached out to a ton of colleges asking for a chance,” Adler said. “Most of them didn’t reply, and ones that did just said that I wasn’t talented enough to play at that level.”
But finally, he found his chance. Jim Murphy, the head coach at Bentley University, a Division II school in Waltham, Massachusetts, offered Adler an opportunity to try out. There were no guarantees, no promises, and certainly no expectations.
Opening the Door
That was enough for Adler.
“His whole outlook when he came to lacrosse in college was just wanting to have a chance to try out,” Murphy said. “I say hey, everyone has a chance, and if they work hard, we’ll find the right place at the right time, and he epitomizes hard work, trust me.”
Bentley’s tryouts lasted through all of fall ball, giving Adler plenty of time to display his inexperience. He went up against the likes of high school All-Americans and players who had specialized in lacrosse since they were youngsters, and the skill gap was evident. But Adler also showcased his work ethic, which ultimately landed him the final spot on the depth chart as the team’s fifth-string face-off man.
Adler saw limited action as a freshman, featuring only a few runs in garbage time. But rather than let it get to him, Adler found it encouraging.
Honing in on One Thing
He knew he couldn’t catch up in skill in such a short amount of time, so he zeroed in on a position where he felt his raw ability could thrive. As a faceoff specialist, Adler worked tirelessly to improve his strength, conditioning, technique and toughness, attributes that didn’t require a lengthy lacrosse background.
“I knew that if I hit the weight room and was in really good shape, I could find a spot,” Adler said. “Every single day I felt myself getting better and closing that gap … It was really the opposite of being discouraged. To feeling yourself get better and feel yourself get closer to that level, it was an awesome feeling.”
By the time his sophomore season rolled around, Adler was ready.
From the first practice, he took the starting spot and ran with it. Just one year after barely making Bentley’s roster, Adler finished sixth in Division II in face-off percentage at .660 (124-of-188), scooped a team-high 57 ground balls, and the New England Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association (NEILA) named him to the All-New England Team.
Still, Adler felt he had room to grow, and he was right.
He finished third in the nation in face-off percentage his junior season at .728 (195-of-268) and fourth in ground balls per game with 9.15, earning Third-Team All-America honors. He was a Second-Team All-American his senior season, again finishing fourth in Division II in face-off percentage at .679 (201-of-296) and third in ground ball per game with 9.54. In addition, Adler received Academic All-American honors as a senior.
“As a coach, you look like a genius when you have a player come into your program like [Adler],” Murphy said.
Plenty of Doors Left
But the journey had only begun. While his collegiate success has launched the opportunity to compete professionally, Adler recognized the need to help spread lacrosse in the country he desires to compete for through its’ grassroots movement of school visits and lacrosse outreach programs.
He’s packed his bags and relocated to Netanya, Israel, the host city of the 2018 World Championships, and if all goes according to plan, he’ll earn his way onto Israel’s roster.
His international career almost didn’t begin, though. With the MLL season looming and the pressure of a career in investment banking steering him towards a desk, Adler didn’t know much about international lacrosse, the Israeli program, or even the country he now calls home.
“I didn’t know what it was and what the mission was,” Adler said. “I had never even been outside of the United States, so I just heard about Israel from what I heard in the media, which wasn’t all that positive. I didn’t understand what the World Championships were and the significance of Israel holding them.”
Noah Molnar, Adler’s teammate with the Outlaws [and now Team Israel], returned to the locker room at Mile High Stadium from Israel with glowing reviews. Adler felt he missed what could have been a major life experience and wanted to get involved in the program in any capacity possible.
His first step was seeing Israel for himself. Initially skeptical, Adler overcame his fears and joined the Israel Lacrosse Association as a coach and chaperone on their Winter Service Trip, a program where roughly 50 Jewish high schoolers travel across the country and play lacrosse with and against local competition.
On December 22, Alder’s flight from New York landed in Tel Aviv, and instantly he knew Israel wasn’t what he thought.
“I was expecting the security to be extremely tight and everyone with machine guns. I expected I would feel in danger,” he said. “The whole trip couldn’t have felt any safer. I think I felt safer in Israel than I do in Boston. Everything I perceived of Israel was not only wrong but almost the opposite.”
New Purpose, New Goals
Following his time in Israel, Adler offered to relocate to the Middle East, and the Israeli program’s coaches and managers reciprocated with an offer to join the now 34-man squad which is preparing for the World Championships on home soil.
“It’ll definitely be the coolest experience of my life. To live in Israel and hopefully represent that will be the greatest honor I’ve ever received,” he explained. “The mission of Israel Lacrosse and how genuine it is, there’s no second agenda. There’s no egos. It’s all about growing the sport of lacrosse in Israel, it’s pure and something I want to be a part of and help in any way I can.”
Adler was tabbed to return to graduate school at Bentley, but those plans are now on hold for the foreseeable future.
“I’m picking up my entire life and completely changing what I was planning on doing in order to help grow the sport of lacrosse in Israel and represent Israel Lacrosse in the best way I possibly can,” Adler said.
After watching Adler mature into a dominant faceoff man, there’s no question in Murphy’s mind that his former player will fit well with his teammates in Israel. Even from the start, he saw the characteristics that would shape Adler into a success story.
“He wants to be a good teammate. He wants to be a good lacrosse player,” Murphy said. “But most importantly, he wants to be a good person, and those are the things that I saw in him right away when I first met him, and I didn’t even know if he knew how to hold a lacrosse stick.”
Craig Bunker, a former MLL face-off star for the Rochester Rattlers and Boston Cannons, first met Adler when he was a freshman at Bentley.
Bunker was a friend of the program, often around to help as he could, and he bonded with Adler. He has watched him go from scrub-to starter-to star and witnessed the work along the way.
“He wants to be successful, and he’ll do whatever it takes, even if it’s something that naturally doesn’t come to him,” Bunker said. “That’s okay, that’s just a little hurdle he has to step over. He’s going to will himself to be the best he can be.”