Team USA's Under-19 Men's Lacrosse team was 36-0 going into the 2012 Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) Tournament this past July in Turku, Finland. The organization won all six gold medals contested since sanctioned play began in 1988. That's 24 years - longer than any of the 2012 team members have been alive.
The selection process for this year's team began in July 2011 with a four-day tryout on the campus of UMBC. Prompted by former Towson head coach Tony Seaman, then red-shirt freshman Robby Zoppo competed against 300 other highly talented players for one of just 23 roster spots, playing six games in four days.
"It was brutal," said Zoppo. "It was probably the hottest [weather] I've ever played lacrosse in. I hadn't played a game since senior year of high school. I didn't have any game experience. I was excited to play, but most of the [other] kids were Under Armour All-Americans or other All-Americans."
Zoppo scored multiple goals in several of the games and worked to clear the ball efficiently. By the end of the tryout he had made the squad, and by the end of training, Zoppo was selected by his teammates as a tri-captain.
"I was one of the older guys, but I didn't really expect to become a captain," said Zoppo. "[In this situation] you are playing with 23 of the best kids in the country at our age. Being selected captain ... gave me a chance to showcase what kind of leader I could be on and off the field. [My U-19 teammates] gave me a big confidence boost."
That confidence helped Zoppo when Team USA U-19 team's first loss finally came against Canada, 11-9, in double overtime on July 14. Its second arrived just three days later against the Iroquois, 15-13.
"I didn't feel a lot of pressure," recalled Zoppo. "To me, those [US] teams in the past had never played against [the quality of] Iroquois or Canadian teams like we did. The top recruit in the country [this year] played on the Iroquois team as well as some of the top recruits on the Canadian team. They were two of the best teams I've ever played against.
"Losing to them really woke us up. We knew inside that we were the better team. We had to really start coming together. We had a team meeting that was about two hours long and each kid talked about issues they were having or what they thought we had to do."
The comfort and ability for players to speak up in that meeting was hard-won not only on the field but in the year leading up to the tournament. Team USA traveled around the country scrimmaging all-star teams to work out team dynamics and strategy. In June of 2012, the team went to CW Post for a five-day training camp and were also issued their official Team USA gear that weekend.
"We were all waiting for it," said Zoppo with a smile on his face. "It made us all excited. I think that was really the start of it - just our meshing together as a team because we practiced five days and played our first real game together."
Those pre-tournament scrimmages and the first few FIL games gave the squad a chance to figure out how to play together. Their team meeting after the loss gave them an opportunity to see what they were really made of.
Team USA quickly returned to form, defeating England 20-1 on July 15. One thing Zoppo's international squad did not struggle with was scoring goals. It opened tournament play with a 24-6 win over Australia on July 13 and poured in 22 goals against Germany on July 18.
"We had some kids on our team that were just phenomenal players and phenomenal scorers," enthused Zoppo. "Matt Kavanagh (Virginia) was named the MVP of the whole Games. Kids like him could just score at will. We were more talented, but it was interesting seeing these other countries that obviously had talent.
"I was just curious to see how long these other teams had even been playing. Most of us [US players] had been playing for 10 or so years. I would highly doubt that most of the kids had been playing for even close to 10 years. It was a neat atmosphere. Just learning how the game is growing. It made me happy about the sport. The sport is growing and I'm part of it. I hope that I could help it grow even further."
That's the beautiful thing about sports. Even at the international level, competitors are able to take advantage of the opportunity to connect with opponents on a personal level and reach out to the communities that host the Games.
The entire tournament trip lasted 12 days. In the players' downtime, they mixed in the common room of the facility five teams (the US, Australian, English, Czech and Finnish squads) shared.
"We had a swimming pool, two hot tubs and a basketball court where we played floor hockey," Zoppo remembered. "It got really competitive, which was a lot of fun. But there also was a common room with an Xbox set up. We'd play FIFA against the English kids and the Australian kids."
That cultural exchange also occurred on the field. Zoppo was able to learn from other countries' team make ups and playing styles. Team USA was able to take the lessons it learned from its losses and apply them in the knockout rounds of the tournament.
On July 19, Team USA handed the Iroquois a 12-7 loss in the semifinals before winning its seventh gold medal with a 10-8 win over Canada on July 21. Both victories avenged earlier tournament lapses.
"I haven't felt anything like that before," said Zoppo. "We won that game, I took my helmet off and I threw my stick probably 40 yards, I was so excited. It didn't really sink in until a few hours later. I was just jumping and screaming. I would say my favorite thing was hearing the National Anthem overseas. That was really cool.
"Personally I didn't win any state championships in high school. I didn't light up the stat sheet. What built my confidence so much is [my team] won a World Games and I have a gold medal. You want to continue that success. I want to do that here at Towson. I want to win a CAA championship. I want to make a run to the NCAA championships."
That's a bold statement from a player who only has 19 college games under his belt. A medical red-shirt his freshman year, Zoppo was forced to the sidelines in 2011. But when he took to the midfield in 2012, he didn't miss a beat, scoring nine goals and posting two assists.
"At the end of last season, I didn't think I'd be ready for Fall Ball," recalls Zoppo. "I told myself I wasn't going to pick up my stick after the games in Finland, but a week after they ended, I picked up my stick. I thought I'd be burned out, but I'm more excited than ever."
Zoppo repeatedly used words like "fun," "cool," and "enjoyable" when re-telling his experiences at FIL and looking ahead to the 2013 season. They factored into nearly every part of his story. So maybe even when representing an entire nation and an organization that expects nothing less than gold, it still is just a game.