Israeli forward Noach Miller led his team on quite a run at the world lacrosse championships in Denver last week, even if his mind was thousands of miles away.
His squad, formed only four years ago, turned heads by coming up with victories against some highly ranked teams, including a 15-1 stunner over No. 6 Germany to advance to the quarterfinals.
Israel wound up settling for seventh place — still an eye-popping achievement for a team that was making its debut in the 38-team Federation of International Lacrosse World Championships.
However, it was hard for many of Israel’s players to bask in the moment as loved ones back home dealt with rocket attacks from Gaza.
“Maybe this provides a little bit of light in the darkness that’s really in Israel right now,” said Miller, who grew up in Burlington, Vermont, and now lives in Tel Aviv. “Because every time we step on that field, we represent something bigger than just the lacrosse team.”
Danville’s Josh Rottman was one of 35 players invited to Vail, Colo., before the start of the tournament and was hoping to win a spot on the 23-man Israeli roster.
A former lacrosse standout at Monte Vista High School and U.C. Davis, he played in five games with the Israeli training-camp team in Vail, and four with the development team in Denver, but he didn’t make Israel’s final tournament team.
However, Rottman, 26, stayed with the squad, working a camera for the Lacrosse Network, which streamed nearly 100 live games. In a phone interview last week, he praised the Israeli team for focusing on its task at hand despite the situation in Israel and Gaza.
“Our goalie is a family doctor in Jerusalem and lives in the West Bank,” Rottman said. “It’s a scary time for people and to see them here — to see them focused — is pretty inspiring.”
The players and coaching staff constantly talked about what was going on in Israel — during practice, before team meetings, on the bus ride over to the field, even in huddles in the middle of a game.
“It’s near and dear to everyone’s heart,” said Israeli coach Bill Beroza, a three-time member of Team USA who’s in the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame. “We think about the people and what’s going on. We pray for peace.”
For the opening game against Sweden on July 11, the Israel Lacrosse staff back in Tel Aviv held a rooftop viewing party, projecting the game onto an outside wall. But it was interrupted by air-raid sirens and everyone heading for shelter.
With a roster fairly evenly divided between American immigrants to Israel and U.S. residents, Israel made a splash by beating No. 10 Sweden, No. 17 Slovakia, No. 25 South Korea and No. 9 Ireland in its first four tournament games. After knocking off Germany to reach the quarterfinals, Israel had outscored its first five opponents by a combined 88-18.
In its next two games, Israel suffered a pair of heartbreaking one-goal losses: 9-8 to No. 3 Australia (a result that prevented an Israel-U.S. matchup in the semifinals) and 10-9 to No. 5 England. Israel finished the tournament July 18 with a 15-4 win over No. 4 Japan in the seventh-place match.
“It was awesome,” Rottman said. “To play so well, it was exciting for everyone there.”
Canada won the title with an 8-5 victory over the United States on July 20.
After the tournament, some members of the Israeli team were expected to join the Israel Defense Forces and may be in the middle of the conflict by now. That included Miller and captain Matt Cherry.
As it was, several Israeli players couldn’t make the trip to Denver because they were either called up for the reserves or were going through basic training.
“It’s a very real reality for us,” said Miller. “Lacrosse is our way to give back to the country now. But there are many more ways we’re going to be giving back to Israel.”
Rottman, who runs the Danville video company Empty Duck Digital, said he felt a lot of pride working side-by-side with Israeli players, and playing with them during preliminary games and tryouts.
“For us to be able to represent our heritage by continuing to progress at the sport we love alongside others who feel the same way is incredible,” Rottman said. “We all have all gone to Israel and contributed to the growth of the sport there, but we wear their colors here with an immense sense of responsibility.”
Rottman said the Israeli pride in Denver was “palpable.” Miller wrote in Hebrew and Arabic the word “peace” on white tape and plastered it to the side of his helmet.
Rottman had never even heard of lacrosse until he was in seventh grade. However, he became devoted to the sport, going on to play four years at U.C. Davis (2007-10) and eventually researching the sport’s history — or lack thereof — in Israel.
Lacrosse “was not big in Israel” until Scott Neiss, the director of Israel Lacrosse, “stepped up to the plate” in 2010, said Rottman. He first contacted Neiss in June 2011 to express interest in coaching and playing for the national team. Rottman tried out in Baltimore last August, then played in a game immediately thereafter against the Philippines.
He scored four goals and had an assist. He made the exhibition team.
Rottman also spent 11 days in Israel and Poland chaperoning a trip for the under-19 Israeli national team.
Neiss praised Rottman as “someone who has really gone above and beyond to contribute to the growth of the sport in Israel. Since we first saw him compete, we wanted him involved with Israel Lacrosse for his skills on the field, but he’s really been so much more than that. He’s stepped up to fill any gap with the program — coaching, chaperoning athletes, video, you name it. His passion is contagious.”
Rottman said he believes Israel’s lacrosse program has grown faster than any of the countries that competed in the world championships, and that it will be even stronger at the 2018 world tournament in England.
“Many of our national team players have made aliyah to Israel and devote every waking moment to expanding the reach of the sport with the youth of Israel,” Rottman said.
“We knew we had a talented squad,” Neiss said. “But I don’t think anybody expected us to perform at the level we [did].”
Miller had a simple explanation for Israel’s success: “Every other team [was] playing for a medal. We [were] playing for the people. That’s what separate[d] us from every other team.”
Freelance reporter Richard Freedman, the Associated Press and JTA contributed to this report.