The opening night for the largest international lacrosse event in history is set with storylines swarming.
On Thursday, July 12, host Israel will face Jamaica at 4:30 p.m. at Netanya Stadium in Netanya, with two of 2014’s medalists, USA and the Iroquois Nationals, taking the same field at 8:30 p.m.
The early game pits two programs in similar spots, with both Jamaica and Israel hoping to use these World Championships as a declaration to the world. Israel made a continental statement last summer with the gold medal at the 2017 European Box Championship, but this is their chance to improve on a seventh-place finish in 2014, the country’s first appearance at the games.
To top it all off, Israel can do it from its backyard.
“It’s monumental for the program,” said Israel Head Coach Bill Beroza. “With the volume of fans who will be there to witness the opening ceremonies, getting to play in front of them is an opportunity to not only show off our team to Israelis, but to the world.”
For Jamaica, though, this is the start of the journey. The program gained FIL membership in 2013, and for five years everything has built to this. Opening night will be Jamaica’s first foray into the World Championships, but with plenty of talent and college experience on the roster, the stage might not be too big.
But with the uncertainty that looms over a program participating in the World Championships for the first time, Jamaica will find itself the underdog against an Israel team that has more international and continental experience. It’s a position eerily comparable to Israel’s four years ago.
“It feels like I’m in the hot seat because Jamaica is the team to watch since we’re new to everything, just like Israel was new to everything,” said Jamaican Midfielder Alex Benjamin. “But I’m ready to learn.”
And what better field to find your footing than a featured fixture?
“Opening night gives us a good showcase to let the world see what Jamaica has to deliver,” said Ricardo Scarlett, a midfielder for Jamaica. “Everybody will be tuned in for the first game. I hope we come there and show what Jamaica has in lacrosse.”
The backend of the bookended opening night brings an opportunity for history to be made. In eight tries dating to 1990, the Iroquois Nationals have never defeated the United States in World Championships play or come closer than eight goals, including an 18-5 drumming in divisional play in 2014.
But the Iroquois had also never medaled in the World Championships before capturing a bronze in 2014, and with players like the Thompsons returning and others such as Albany freshman Tehoka Nanticoke starting the youth movement, this seems like as good a time as any for what would be an enormous achievement for the program.
“It’s always been the question: when are you going to beat that team? When are you going to conquer the giant, as they say?” said Red Burnam, head coach of the Iroquois Nationals. “As a people, as a nation, we’ve finally arrived if we beat them. Our guys will feed off that, especially if it’s a close game.”
Burnam represented the Iroquois in five World Championships from 1990 to 2006 and experienced firsthand most of the Iroquois losses at the hands of the Americans. Otherwise, though, he won at every level he played: World Indoor Championships, NCAA Division I, high school state championships, professionally and more. But triumph over the Americans in a World Outdoor Championship never came.
But never can’t last forever.
“I’ve been on the end of a lot of losses in my five World Games as a player,” Burnam said. “It’s tough to swallow when you’re used to winning, and it’s the only one that escaped me as a player. I’ll never be able to say I won that as a player, but it’s one I would love to win as a coach. Somebody from the Iroquois Nation has got to beat that team.”
These games have concrete consequences in the context of the championships, too. The Iroquois find themselves in the Blue Division, so a loss to the Americans on opening night wouldn’t kill their golden dreams. However, for Israel and Jamaica in the Red Division, a defeat could spell doom.
“If we’re going to put ourselves in position to potentially play for a medal, we have to win every game, so losing the first game is not an option,” Beroza said. “There’s no second chances.”
The priority of planting the proverbial flag can’t be passed, though.
“You know when everyone says go out with a bang? I want to start with a bang here and let everyone see that this is Jamaica, and we didn’t come here to play games,” Benjamin explained.