Dispatches from England – Canada at the World Lacrosse Championships – 2010 – #7

When Zach Greer was a kid he played on a couple of house league teams in Whitby, Ontario that his father Dan coached.  Each spring, Dan would make a big deal about finding sweetgrass, drying it and braiding it and then taking his young team to some ideal location to perform the sweetgrass ceremony. The ancient aboriginal ceremony is performed by burning the sweetgrass and allowing the smoke to pass over people or objects as a means of providing spiritual strength and cleansing.

Zach Greer has scored more goals in NCAA Division I history (248) than any other person dead or alive. Tonight, Greer will play against Mike Pressler, Team USA coach and Greer’s former coach at Duke and Bryant Universities for the first time in his life. Greer admits that there are times when it seems odd to see Coach Pressler on the other teams bench or even on the other side of the dining hall but that’s the nature of sport. Greer knows that the highest compliment he can pay his former coach is to play well against the USA and throughout the duration of the tournament.
Zach Greer has been playing lacrosse since he was three years old. Greer was introduced to the sport by his father who built nets for his kids in their back yard and was always there to play catch.  Dan Greer was a gas fitter by occupation and was frequently on call in the evenings in the area that extends from Whitby out to Peterborough. However, Zach recalls that his Dad always seemed to work his schedule so that he could sneak away to watch his kids play and he rarely missed a game.
Greer was recruited by Duke while playing Jr. B for Clarington at the Founders Cup and his performances at the U-19 Worlds clinched the deal. The future looked bright but just as he was heading off to Duke his father, who had successfully fought off cancer a couple of years earlier, suddenly found himself very ill. Greer considered deferring his year at Duke (as did his sister who was attending Hamilton College on a lacrosse scholarship) but he decided that his Dad would have wanted him to stay so he soldiered on. Dan Greer lost his battle with cancer in January of Zach’s freshman year.
The Greer’s are a lacrosse family, with sister Kalley playing for Team Canada and older brother Bill playing in the NLL, and virtually all of the other siblings have played lacrosse at some level.  With the death of his father and being so far from home, Greer continued to wonder whether he should stay at Duke or go home to his family. That is of course when Mike Pressler and the rest of the coaches at Duke became more than just coaches and the players on the team became more than just team mates. Despite the loss of his father, the players and coaches at Duke came around him like sweetgrass and Greer would go on to score 57 goals in his rookie season.
It is now the middle of the morning in Manchester. The sun has not shone in a week and it is pouring rain – again. On one field, Spain is eking out an 11-7 win over Norway while on the adjacent field the Polish and Danish teams are warming up. Off in the distance is Team Canada, playing some type of quick stick game around the goalie that involves having the long poles play offence and the short sticks play defence. Even through the din of the weather and the distance you can hear a lot of laughing and trash talking going on. Canada is loose and ready for tonight’s game against the USA.
Enough ink has been written on the Duke incident which occurred in 2006 so we will move on to 2007. Duke lacrosse would eventually resume its status as one of the premier lacrosse programs in the nation and Greer would score 132 goals in his last two seasons. But for Greer, Duke would always be a place where he had experienced the loss of his father and ‘the incident”.  As Greer points out “on one hand, the coaches and players would remain among my closest friends and confidants but at the same time I knew I needed a change”.
Having completed his undergraduate degree and been granted a fifth year of eligibility, Greer was looking to earn an MBA at another school and in the end he chose Bryant University in Rhode Island. Out of respect for his former team mates and coaches he wanted to play for a school that would not face Duke in the regular season and with Bryant moving from Division II to Division I he was also conscious of the fact that he would be giving something back to a man who had stood behind him during some tough times. Going to Bryant and playing for Pressler became an easy decision and one that Greer would not regret.   
It is now early afternoon in Manchester. The weather is starting to improve, the team has been fed and most of the players are having a nap or listening to music. A few players putter around in the hall but the dorms are generally pretty quiet. Canada is ready to play.
While the Canadian lacrosse system is dominated by clubs, many of the top lacrosse programs in the US are run out of high schools and prep schools. For years a select group of young Canadians have had the opportunity to attend these wonderful institutions that include Salisbury, Taft, Trinity Pawling, Brewster, Albany Academy, and Western Reserve. The integrity of this system is upheld by coaches, teachers and administrators who continue to believe in a student-athlete model that’s emphasizes academic excellence, fair play and a strong work ethic. Among these great American educators, none shines brighter in lacrosse circles than Skip Flanagan.
By Flanagan’s own admission, he is failing retirement in a big way. Skip started as a lacrosse coach and teacher at Avon Old Farms School in 1972 and moved to Western Reserve Academy in 1982 and became the Headmaster for 26 years. In both schools he built lacrosse powerhouses. Retiring in 2008, he returned to Connecticut and was pulled out of retirement by Avon Old Farms to once again coach lacrosse and serve as the Dean of Admissions. Besides his duties at Avon, Flanagan has assisted the English lacrosse association in their preparations for the 2006 and 2010 World Championships. Three of Flanagan’s former students are playing for England.
Flanagan has been to many World Championships and is a keen observer of the development of the game. He believes the expansion of the game of lacrosse to many parts of the world is a good thing but he hopes that as the sport grows that it does not lose its sense of closeness and fellowship.  Flanagan believes that scale and competition can depersonalise an event like the World Championships and he believes that we all can play a role in ensuring that the spirit of fellowship that has existed at previous World Championships is sustained into the future.
It is now an hour before the US versus Canada round robin lacrosse game. Both teams are leaving the dormitories and working their way to the turf fields which are a couple of hundred yards away. The weather is unusually good with a bit of sun peeking through the clouds. Temperatures are cool but the field is dry and there is little wind. Both teams begin their warm ups and the stadium, which is sold out for the game begins to fill. Soon the players are called to center field, the national anthems are played, and the game is set to begin.
Tonight’s game will feature the two best face-off men in the world and Geoff Snider wins the opening face-off against Alex Smith.  Canada then loses possession and Chris Sanderson is forced to make a big save. Canada gets the ball back, races down the field and John Grant Jr hits one of the US goals posts. The game is less than two minutes old. Finally, Corey Small grabs a loose ball off a broken play, puts it in the net and Canada leads the USA 1 to 0.
The rest of the quarter is intense. Paul Rabil is forcing Brodie Merrill and Curtis Manning to work hard but suddenly Rabil is open and the ball is in the net and the game is tied. Snider wins the next face-off but the US then goes man-up and Mike Leveille quickly converts off a pass from Rabil and the US leads 2 to 1. A few minutes later Canada is playing box lacrosse on grass and Cory Small flips a nifty pass to Rhys Duch and the ball is in the net and the game is tied. Off the next face-off Canada is on the verge of grabbing a ground ball when suddenly Kyle Sweeney grabs it and runs for the Canada net and blasts a shot with his long pole. The USA leads Canada 3-2 at the end of the first quarter.
The second quarter opens with the ball in the Canadian end and the US attacking when suddenly Billy Dee Smith intercepts a US pass and sprints down the left side of the field alongside the grandstand. The US defence assumes that Smith will stop and let the offence change but Smith keeps going and scores, tying the game at 3 to 3. A few minutes later, John Grant Jr has the ball behind the net, grinds his way forward and then drills an over the shoulder shot top shelf on the US goalie. The US comes storming back, wiring a shot off the Canadian goal post and then Canada has the ball again. Kevin Huntley then finds Rhys Duch cutting through the middle and Duch buries it – Canada leads 5-3. Canada scores another but it is called off, Sanderson makes another big save and suddenly the quarter is over and Canada is still leading 5-3.
Canada starts the third quarter man-down and Chris Sanderson is forced to make a couple of huge saves roughly 30 seconds apart. It is now becoming readily apparent that as good as Sanderson was in 2006 when he was voted the best goalie in the world he is playing even better in 2010. Finally after a long possession Matt Striebel makes a nice move from behind the net and the score is 5-4 in favour of Canada. Canada then goes man-up and Duch continues to hold a hot hand, scoring his third of the game and extending Canada’s lead to 6-4. Matt Zash then replies quickly for the US and the US scores another and suddenly the game is tied 6-6 and the third quarter is over.
Canada opens the fourth quarter with possession and in an instant, Kevin Crowley, the youngest player on the team scores a beautiful goal and Canada leads 7-6.  A few minutes later, John Grant Jr is playing with the ball behind the net and suddenly he finds Garrett Billings wide open and the ball is in the net. Canada leads 8 to 6. Drew Westervelt then replies for the US and Canada only leads by one, 8-7. John Grant Jr then scores another and Canada is up 9-7 and then the US scores a beautiful transition goal and the score is now Canada 9, USA 8. John Grant Jr scores again and its 10-8 for Canada. Sanderson then makes another big save and with 3:03 left in the 4th quarter the US calls a time out. About a minute later the US scores on a goal by Brendan Mundorf and Canada’s lead is cut to one.
There is now 40 second left in the game, Canada has called a time out and Canada starts with possession. The US double teams John Grant Jr and soon they have the ball back but as the defence swoops forward with the ball out of nowhere comes Zach Greer with a perfectly timed trail check and Canada has the ball one again. Now with twenty second left, Canada is ragging the ball in the US end when suddenly the ball is on the ground and once again Greer swoops in to allow Canada to retain possession. The clock winds down – Canada wins 10-9.
This has been a superb game. Like the round robin game between Canada and the US in 2006 it comes down to the wire with the victor wining by a goal. Both teams can be proud of their play. For the coaches of Team Canada there will be a modest celebration and by morning the Team will be focused on the next opponent, Australia.
On the score sheet it was a quiet night for Zach Greer, but there is satisfaction in a great team victory and for the role that each player had to play at different stages of the game. Dan Greer’s greatest lacrosse gift to his son was teaching him how to read the play and to anticipate what was coming next. For Zach, his defining moment came in the last 40 seconds of the game when he was forced to make two huge defensive plays that allowed Canada to retain possession – and there was clearly a little bit of Dan in each of those plays. As Greer walks across the courtyard he is satisfied with being part of a great Team Canada victory and as he stops for a moment he’s almost certain that he can smell the scent of sweetgrass in the air.

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