Only One Acceptable Outcome as U.S. U21 Men Prepare for Ireland

PHOTO BY MASON PERRICONE

Cole Kirst (2) was named co-captain of the U.S. U21 men's team after training camp in June.


Six years never felt so long as they did to Nick Myers when he saw Mac O’Keefe pull aside Myers’ 12-year-old son, Mason, on the last day of the U.S. U21 men’s team’s training camp June 14 at USA Lacrosse in Sparks, Maryland.

O’Keefe had only just graduated from high school when he played for Myers on the gold medal-winning 2016 U.S. U19 team. The lefty submarine shooter had yet to take the NCAA by storm as its all-time leading goal scorer and give Myers, the Ohio State coach, headaches as he and Grant Ament propelled Big Ten foe Penn State into the national championship picture.

Mason was 6 at the time. Now he’s a defensive tackle in the thick of sixth-grade football preseason with Upper Arlington. Five weeks. Four nights a week.

Mason still loves lacrosse, of course. And he’s a lefty too. Which was why the boy had a particular interest in O’Keefe, one of six 2016 U19 alumni in the house for the U.S. men’s senior team tryouts overlapping with the U21 camp.

“He hasn’t taken an overhand shot since,” Myers quipped. “Thanks Mac.”

Myers marveled that night as Bryan Costabile and Michael Sowers sliced through defenders, Jack Rowlett manhandled attackers and Ryan Conrad and Brad Smith made play after play between the restraining lines.

Earlier this week, Myers saw a clip on social media of Jared Bernhardt catching an over-the-shoulder pass from Marcus Mariota on a wheel route at Atlanta Falcons training camp. That’s our MVP, he thought.

“No one knew who these guys were,” Myers said. “We picked them as high school players. Now look at what they’ve done.”

Myers sees a lot of similarities between the 2016 U.S. U19 team and the 2022 U.S. U21 team set to defend the gold medal at the World Lacrosse Men’s U21 Championship in Limerick, Ireland. The U.S., which finalized its roster earlier this week, opens play next Wednesday against Canada (7 a.m. ET, ESPN+).

“There’s a humility and grace that comes with wearing the red, white and blue,” he said. “We ask our men to embrace that, to understand that humble does not mean soft. We ask them to be grateful and thankful, to put others first but also to unlock the warrior inside. You need to be able to toggle between tender and tough.”







The biggest difference is the number after the U. The pandemic has added two years to the selection process. Graham Bundy Jr., Pat Kavanagh, Brennan O’Neill — they’re proven commodities. Bona fide college lacrosse stars. Bundy and Cole Kirst were named U.S. U21 captains after the June camp.

“They’re men,” Myers said. “These guys are now juniors and seniors in college. They’ve weathered more storms. They’re more seasoned. That means they’re a little more stuck in their ways, too. You’re not going to coach this group the same way you did the group in 2016.”

That said, only Quentin Matsui, a starting defenseman on Virginia’s NCAA championship-winning team in 2021, has experienced a victory lap on Memorial Day. Kirst told Myers his bag has been packed for the last week. The team GroupMe chat has morphed into a thread of one-upmanship to see who’s training hardest.

“I don’t think anybody’s belly is full. The guys are hungry,” Myers said. “We’re setting up for the toughest challenge this team has ever faced. Let’s do it.”

Myers also noted the shorter game length — from 20- to 15-minute running quarters, which would have doomed the 2016 team that trailed Canada by six at halftime and by three with less than seven minutes left in the final — a Canadian team that’s more experienced in the field discipline and limited opportunities to play outside competition in the buildup to Ireland as factors separating 2022 from 2016.

“We’ve got to be clear. This is going to be bumpy,” he said. “Mom and Dad think we’re going over there to spend two weeks in Ireland and just come home with gold. God bless ‘em. That’s not how it’s going to work. Did you watch Sixes two weeks ago?”

Myers and his coaching staff — which includes his brother, Pat, as offensive coordinator — learned the last time to leave room for growth during the tournament. To emphasize process over outcome.

Even if there’s only one acceptable outcome.

The U.S. has won all eight world titles since the inaugural U19 championship in 1988, compiling a record of 47-2.

The two losses came in 2012, as the U.S. fell to Canada and the Iroquois Nationals during pool play in Finland, but the U.S. avenged both losses in the medal round to win another championship.

In the most recent world championship in 2016, the U.S. staged a dramatic second-half comeback to beat rival Canada 13-12 on Conrad’s goal with eight seconds remaining.

“There’s no try in USA Lacrosse. We’re not going over to see the cliffs,” Myers said. “We’re going over for one thing and that’s to bring the gold back home.”

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