TURKU, Finland — It’s game day for the Iroquois Nationals as they face off against the USA in the semi-final round of the 2012 U19 World Lacrosse Championships, and the excitement here is palpable.
The tournament crowd is abuzz with excitement since the Iroquois Nationals established themselves as elite players capable of taking down the American team with their 15-13 historic victory over Team USA in their first game.
In the team hotel on the day of their second match, Team USA sat in a separate dining room for breakfast getting the “Alamo” speech from their coaches with reminders about what is at stake for national pride.
Iroquois Nationals head coach “Boss” Freeman had a different approach as he sat with players and assistant coaches.
“Let’s play a good game today. Be calm, be focused and play for the Creator,” he said. “It’s our game and we’ll do our best to play well for our people back home.”
Compared to the multimillion-dollar operation that stands behind Team USA, the Iroquois are clearly the underdogs in this match, choosing their players from a pool of only 86 Native players eligible to try-out for the team.
Team USA draws from a pool of more than 150,000 high school and college lacrosse players nationwide, picking their players and coaches nearly a year in advance to allow for multiple practice sessions well before the world games.
“We don’t recruit that way,” said Freeman, himself a longtime lacrosse player who has been coaching for 27 years now. His four sons were star players, including Brett Bucktooth, who now plays for the Seattle Stealth.
“For us, it’s part of our culture, and we raise our sons to play lacrosse the original way – the way the game was given to us by the Creator,” he said, noting that the Nationals did not pick their team until May, lacking the transportation costs that would allow them to practice regularly.
“Our boys come up playing lacrosse from the time they are 2-3 years old, chasing the ball with a stick from the time they can walk. They grow up playing together and against each other. Many of the young men on this team have played together since they were kids.”
That might account for their tight teamwork and fast, intuitive style of playing, unlike the more formal style of American team. Their unique presence has created a following of other team players and European fans that’ve heard the Haudenosaunee have been playing lacrosse for literally hundreds of years.
“The Iroquois Nationals are all on the same page, same line of the page, same word on the same line on the same page – it’s just ridiculous,” said Steven McDermott, a lacrosse player from London, England who is a fan of the Iroquois.
Boss Freeman credits his coaching staff – Ansley Jemison, Marty Ward, Delby Powless, Jason Johnson and Steve Beville – for their one-on-one work with the team that is paying off in competition.
“These guys do all the work and deserve credit for their dedication and commitment to our team. They’re all players themselves and bring a lot of top notch experience to the team.”
Taking the team through a light practice on the morning of their second game against Team USA, they focused on long passes, offensive tune-ups, defense and stick work.
As they enter the stadium tonight singing a traditional stomp dance song, they will also be playing to honor the spirit of a team member they lost in January, Kanatiio Adams, whose jersey hangs on the fence behind the bench.
The day before they left for Finland, the team also suffered the loss of longtime Iroquois Nationals board member Barbara Barnes who served for nearly 30 years raising money and organizing support for the 2102 U19 Iroquois Nationals Team.
“We know their spirits are here with us today,” said Denise Waterman, Executive Director for the Nationals.
Gewas Schindler, the team’s General Manager and a nine-year veteran of professional lacrosse, was upbeat and optimistic on game day.
“We’re here to play and we’re ready,” he said. “Our boys are full of confidence and playing with a lot of heart today. Just knowing that people back home are in full support of us, and backing us, means a lot. We can feel that support from home and Indian country. We’ll be playing to win it for us and for them.”
“We see how clear the sky is today and we know the Creator is watching.”