In order to make history you have to do something no one else has done before. Pushing limits and overcoming obstacles are tall orders. Practice, preparation and a little luck are behind almost every great effort.
The United States U-19 Men’s National Team was 36-0 going into the 2012 Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) Tournament hosted in Turku, Finland this past July. The US had steamrolled its way to every gold medal contested since 1988 – six in total. So it is fair to say Team Canada had its neighbors to the south in its crosshairs.
However, Canada wasn’t exactly the underdog in this scenario. A four-time U-19 FIL championship finalist and seeded No. 1 in the 2012 tournament, the squad featured several of the top National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) recruits among its wealth of talent. Team Canada was ready to take advantage of whatever luck came its way, but first it prepared and practiced.
The U-19 national team held tryouts in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada for four days over American Thanksgiving break. Out of several hundred lacrosse players who applied, Towson University freshman Aaron Moroney was one of the top 50 selected to attend. After spending mornings running drills and practicing stick work and scrimmaging for hours in the afternoons, Moroney got the call he’d been waiting for.
“It was probably the greatest day of my life,” he enthused. “Everyone dreams about playing for their country; it’s a huge honor. So when I got that call, it put a really big smile on my face. And then one of my roommates at my boarding school also made the team, so we got the call at the exact same time. It was a cool feeling sharing it with one of my best friends and having one of our dreams come true at the exact same time.”
While Moroney had never played with Team Canada before, he had represented his home province of Ontario at the National Championships three times and had won the national title in each of those three years. He had also played with or against 90 percent of his U-19 teammates.
Team Canada relied on its athletes to train on their own until a weekend prior to traveling to Finland when the Canadians came to Maryland to scrimmage four teams before flying back to Toronto and then onto Finland.
Moroney had traveled all over North America for tournaments and recruiting but had never been outside of his home continent.
“I had no clue what it was going to be like over there,” he said. “Everything was a lot different. Their culture was really, really laidback. For example, if you go to a restaurant, here you sit down, eat and get out in an hour and a half. There it seemed like they run on different time schedules. You just go in and sit down and be there for four hours and it didn’t seem like they cared.
“They were extremely friendly. The second you said you were from a different country, people would come talk to us and get to know us. It was cool.”
But he and Team Canada had little time for sight-seeing. Their first Blue Division game was against the United States on July 14 after a bye on July 13. The Canadians had a plan in place for the U.S. - to spread them out on offense and try to score off cutting and quick ball movement, win at least 50 percent of face-offs and to hold the Americans to outside shots and under 10 goals.
“Obviously you’re antsy and you want to play but I think our coaches did a really good job of trying to keep us level-headed and calm and cool,” remembers Moroney.
“We got possession right away [off the face-off] and scored … which I think kind of settled our nerves too. [We thought] ‘We’re just as good as them; we’re right here too,’ [that] kind of thing.”
Canada led 7-4 at the start of the fourth quarter, but the US fought back and tied the game with 9:28 left in regulation. The two teams knotted the score at 8-8 with 38 seconds remaining in the quarter. The US went up 9-8 early in overtime before Team Canada scored the final three goals and won the last draw to hold on for the 11-9, double overtime victory.
After the final whistle, “Oh, we went crazy,” chuckled Moroney. “It was like we won the gold pretty much after that game. First team to ever beat [the U.S.] was a really huge accomplishment.
“We walked into our hostel [after the game] and [Team] Germany gave us a standing ovation. It was kinda cool.”
Canada cruised through the rest of pool play, defeating the Iroquois 11-9, England 22-3 and Australia before resting on a bye before the start of the semifinals. The Canadians scored 15 goals against England to earn a place in their fifth U-19 tournament final – a rematch with Team USA on July 21.
“We didn’t really try to change too much,” said Moroney. “We tried to throw a few new things at them on offense and defense just in case they knew what we were doing. We could vary it a little, but we didn’t try to change anything too drastically. The one thing that we didn’t do well was the face-offs – we went 3-for-26.
“I remember going in thinking it was going to be a really tough game. They obviously wanted to avenge their loss. They’d done it against the Iroquois; they were rolling on a pretty big high. We were just trying to come in and do the exact same thing again, but it didn’t work out in our favor.”
Team USA did win the rematch, 10-8, and took its seventh straight gold. Even though Team Canada had to settle for silver, Moroney remained positive about the whole experience.
“Obviously the win was huge,” he remembered. “Being with the team and just having those goofy moments and doing the stupid things and being able to laugh at each other and just have fun playing lacrosse. It was kind of cool being with the top-level guys in your country and the plays you would see made or the plays you could make because of the players around you. It was a really cool experience.”
At no point in the conversation did Moroney seem awkward about dealing such a historic loss to his former official visit host Rob Zoppo, a captain for this past summer’s U-19 U.S. men’s team.
“I can’t really tease him,” said Moroney. “He just comes back with winning it all, so…”
This spring, Moroney and Zoppo will line up on the same side and look to bring the experience they gained playing among the best in the world to Towson Lacrosse.
"Aaron gained a great deal of experience competing for Team Canada's U-19 Team this summer," said Towson head coach Shawn Nadelen. "He was able to compete against the best players in the world at the U-19 level and came away with a lot of confidence. Aaron came into Towson and proved that he will be an immediate impact in our program during our fall practices."
It’s been six years since the Tigers have made the NCAA Tournament, and Moroney will be looking to make his mark on Towson history by taking the Tigers to their first Colonial Athletic Association title since 2005 and first NCAA championship since winning a Division II title in 1974.