If you don't believe in miracles, you probably missed the 2005 IFWLA World Cup in Annapolis. After all, when Jen Adams and Australia took home the Gold Medal after topping the United States, 14-7, in the Championship Game on July 2, the victory was perhaps the greatest upset we have seen on the International Athletics level since the "original" miracle - the Miracle on Ice - back in 1980, when the United States beat the then Soviet Union for the Ice Hockey Gold Medal at the Olympics in Lake Placid.
Some will probably say that such a parallel is crazy. My editor did (he had the Aussies by 6 points). But if you look closer at the Aussie's feat, such a comparison is not out of the question.
While the obvious difference between the Miracle on Ice and Miracle on Turf is that the Australian women's lacrosse team had far more experience on the International level than the group of college kids who took USA to hockey glory, the fact remains that in nearly every way, the Australian victory was indeed a monumental upset worthy of such comparison. On paper, the United States women's lacrosse team was every bit the powerhouse that the Soviet hockey team was back in 1980. 12 of the 16 members of the team had played in a World Cup before. 7 of those 12 had competed in at least two prior World Cups, and 4 members of the team (exactly ¼ of the roster) were playing for the World Championship for the fourth time. Add to the mix the fact that patrolling the sidelines for the United States was a Head coach who had never lost a game in the medal round as the Head coach of Team USA, and this United States team was nothing short of a winning machine.
On paper, this was perhaps the finest and most seasoned women's lacrosse team to ever take the field together. Each player will probably enter the US Lacrosse Hall of Fame before long. This was a machine, built for victory, and while prior to the games in Annapolis there was a buzz that the Aussies had a shot to win the whole thing, it was inconceivable that the United States could fall - particularly on their home turf.
The Aussies for their part had a very experienced team, as well, with nine World Cup Veterans, four of which were playing in either their third or fourth World Championships. Seven members of the team played college lacrosse at the University of Maryland, most of which made heavy contributions to the dynasty of seven consecutive National Championships that made Maryland the most storied women's lacrosse program in the land. Jen Adams, the biggest name on Team Australia, is regarded as perhaps the best offensive player to ever pick up a stick. However, during the 2001 World Cup, the United States had an answer for Adams, and for the rest of Team Australia for that matter. After the 2001 Cup, there were many who wondered if the gaudy statistics Adams compiled while at Maryland were more of a result of the team she played for than the individual talent she brought to the field. More on that later.
What makes the Australian victory along the lines of a Miracle on Turf, what makes it inconceivable that the United States could lose in this tournament was not only the make up of the rosters, but really the make up of the programs. While there are bigger sports than lacrosse in the United States, the sport has an incredible degree of organization here that is not present in other countries. In lacrosse "hot beds" sticks are picked up when children are very young, and chances are that a young lacrosse player will play on an organized team from the time they enter grade school through Middle School, High School, and college. If a lacrosse player is good enough to potentially make Team USA, there is a Developmental Team for that program, and basically an opportunity every year for a top player to prepare for International play. For the player a step below the elite, lacrosse at the NCAA level is so incredibly organized and competitive that they are learning the game at the highest level just for being on the field against such great competition. Essentially, the program that makes lacrosse in the United States so strong is the very reason why the Aussies were able to take home the gold medal. Had the nine Aussies who played Division I Lacrosse in the United States never made the journey to play in college here, would Team Australia be the World Champion today? Very doubtful.
The production of lacrosse talent in the United States is very much a well-oiled machine whereas the production of such talent in Australia is definitely not. Down Under, there is some great lacrosse played at the Club level, but nowhere near the level of organization that we have in the United States. There is no government funding of Lacrosse in Australia, no NCAA for the Aussie college programs, and in terms of the public consciousness of lacrosse, there really is none. In Australia, lacrosse is played by a select few who happen to pick up sticks, but the sport is insanely low on the proverbial athletics totem pole. While tryouts for Team USA was probably a dog-fight that saw dozens of players who could easily have made the team, the Australian try-out probably consisted of the 16 women who made the team and perhaps a few others.
In other words, while the two teams were relatively comparable in terms of experience and talent, you absolutely cannot compare the network behind the teams. In fact, Team USA not only had one of the best coaches in the history of the sport as its Head coach, in the line-up itself were four current or past Division I Head coaches (Bonnie Rosen - UConn, Sarah Nelson (Harvard), Randall Goldsborough (formerly Bucknell), and Kelly Amonte-Hiller (Northwestern). Amonte-Hiller just led Northwestern to one of the best individual seasons in NCAA history. The combined lacrosse IQ of Team USA, along with experience, and a support network that was superior to that of every team in the World Cup combined made the United States a force that would require nothing short of a miracle to beat them.
And the miracle came. It came because Team Australia had something that nobody else, including the United States, had in its line-up. The Aussies had lucky #7 wearing its colors, and she was simply unstoppable.
Could a team win a World Championship because of one person? Absolutely not. But could one person be such an individual force on the field that it makes an entire team play at a level never imagined before? Absolutely - and in the case of Team Australia, it was the presence of Jen Adams that was really the "X factor" in Annapolis. Adams was simply overwhelming, notching 21 goals and a World Cup record 26 assists, including 4 goals and 3 assists in the Gold Medal game. When the Aussies needed a big play or a big goal, it was Adams who had the ball in her stick. She proved she was the best player in the world and then some. But I need to spread the credit a bit wider. Four years ago, Adams was the best player in the world on a very good Australian team, but frankly, the Aussies showed up in less than World Cup condition and the United States was just way too strong to be competed with. Adams was effectively shut down without Sarah Forbes and Sascha Newmarche in top form to take over. They knew it. They regretted it for four years and they labored faithfully to see that it did not happen again. The Aussies showed up in the shape of their lives this time. My editor did not recognize Forbes or Newmarche when he first saw the team during a pre-game warm-up. Their hard work in preparation and near perfect skills were the real difference here, along with the addition of some recent Aussie stars from the American college scene like Stacey Morlang, Kate McHarg, Casey Magor and Sonia Judd. Add new international superstar Sarah Falcione and final game MVP and goalkeeper Suzanne McSolvin and the Aussies were a step quicker, a bit smarter, and seemed much more motivated to win. They not only won the Gold Medal game, but they doubled up the US by a 14-7 score. The Championship Game was one of the more shocking events in recent memory as the US was simply dominated.
Adams's performance at the 2005 World Cup will probably be remembered as one of the greatest individual performances in the history of the sport at any level. She was consistently a step ahead of the competition, and it just seemed like she knew something out there that nobody else knew. Adams was essentially what the United States lacked, as while the Americans had a talent and experience-laden roster the likes of which we have probably never seen, it was almost too balanced. On both sides of the field, the US was solid. In transition, they were solid. Two excellent goalies were on the American roster. However, when a big play or two were needed, who could the United States turn to? Who was the American, "go-to girl"? When you think about it and look at the numbers, the US really didn't have one.
Balance in lacrosse (and just about every other team sport) is a good thing, actually a great thing. No coach wants to have to rely on the same player over and over again. However, you always need the one player that the entire opposing team needs to keep an eye on. That's the player who sometimes doesn't register a point, but his or her presence out there is enough to create opportunities to score. Virginia advanced to the last two NCAA Championship Games in women's lacrosse with Amy Appelt leading the way, and sometimes it was her mere presence, not her uncanny scoring ability, that drove other teams crazy. Jen Adams was that for Australia during the World Cup, but there was no American counterpart. The US had an incredibly balanced system, and when the Aussies seemed to find an answer to the system, the Americans did not have the person who could carry the team on her back and spark a rally. Better stated, nobody on the United States seemed willing to take that role.
All of which naturally brings to the table the question of team selection and whether or not the US fielded the best possible team. Clearly, Head coach Sue Stahl went with an experienced and veteran roster. Less than 1/3 of the team (five out of 16) graduated college after the year 2000, and not one member of the team graduated from college in 2004 or 2005. When you think about the number of top players who have graduated from college over the last five years, it is shocking that only five of them made the team. No Appelt. No Katie Chrest. No Sarah Hughes. There are probably dozens of other players who could join the list, but were not present.
It has to be a tough decision to select such a team. At what point is a veteran player past her prime? When is a younger player seasoned enough for International play? Not easy questions when you have to select a roster of 16 from a pool of hundreds of top players. But it would seem as if the US was a little bit too season this time around. The Aussies were by and large a younger team, and there was definitely a spring in their step that the US did not have. Was age a factor? Nobody on the US side was willing to say for sure, but how could it not have been when you're talking about several games in a very short span.
On the other hand, had Stahl elected to cut say, Cherie Greer or Jess Wilk - both of which were key members of three straight World Championship teams - what would that have done for the morale of the team? Again, it's a tough call. And I am not willing to say that the wrong team was picked. Stahl went with the experienced team, she gave her loyalties to a group that had given her so much for so long, and the United States fell one win short of another World Championship. The decision to carry this type of team should be respected but probably not replicated. In Stahl's defense, and she needs none, this team could have won the World Cup. They just didn't.
A dejected Kelly Amonte-Hiller after losing the final and the mythical "best player in the world" title
I do not hesitate to say, however, that the American loss is the end of an era for USA Lacrosse. Now that is has been proven on the field that the United States is not invincible, the selection of the team for the 2009 World Championships has to be scrutinized closely. Chances are we will see the end of the era before tryouts even begin because it is difficult to imagine that ½ of the 2005 team will elect to play again. Greer, Wilk, and Danielle Gallagher - all of whom played in four World Cups - will likely retire, as will several other members of the team. We will likely see the retirements of some of the greatest women's lacrosse players we have ever seen, several of which were responsible for helping to start the current boom that women's lacrosse is experiencing at all levels. It is incredibly unfortunate that this group could not go out on top. They deserved it, and will still be remembered as being among the best who ever played despite the loss. If you look at the impact many of the members of the 2005 team have had on the sport as a whole, it is clear that this is a group that will be remembered long after they hang up their sticks for good, and anybody involved in women's lacrosse owes them a debt of gratitude for their efforts.
With only five members of the 2005 team having graduated from college after 2000, it means that there will be a crop of 22 to 30 year old players who deserve serious consideration to play in 2009. In fact, judging by the performance of this year's college freshman class across the board, the collegiate classes from 2000 through 2008 are chock full of talent and desire. In 2009 Team USA should be comprised almost exclusively of this group. If not, we are setting ourselves up for another loss to Australia or a team like England who's U-19 girls were the "Belles" of the Cup of Nations tournament accompanying the World Cup. And frankly, just based on participation numbers alone, the United States should never lose if we take our best team.
If you can clearly and honestly imagine the contest between the USA's second best 16 and Australia's next 16, all of the points I've made here should click. Ultimately, the Aussies won the Gold Medal because they were the better 16 with a much better 1. But becoming the better 16, when perhaps the next 100 groups of sixteen from each country in match play might end up 100-0, was against all odds and was historic. Jen Adams is immortalized and Team U.S.A., while having nothing to be ashamed of, needs a program change to get the cup back. After all, it only takes 16 to win it.