Bottom teams relish challenge of building sport

ERIC BENDER -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:16 AM ET

They came. They saw. They didn't conquer.

They did learn and got a taste of what it takes to compete in the world of lacrosse.

Two countries -- both island nations -- winless in the competitive section of the world field lacrosse championships, met yesterday at the North London athletic fields to determine which would be the first to be eliminated.

Bermuda lost 19-6 to New Zealand.

It was the first competition ever for Bermuda.

"We have about 35 players to draw from," said Jon Heckscher, president of the fledgling Bermuda field lacrosse association and an attack player on the team. He was injured and didn't dress yesterday.

"Three or four years ago, some guys started throwing a ball around in park and we got a couple of club teams going. This is a country of 65,000 and 20,000 are expats, so there's people coming and going," Heckscher said.

They formed a tri-nations type of program with box lacrosse players from Canada, field lacrosse players from the U.S. and Bermudans who simply picked up a stick and started to play.

"You can see the levels of skill varies," Heckscher said. The team had nine players with collegiate experience.

There was enough of a nucleus, Heckscher said, to bring in Tom Rooney, a coach of a high school team on Long Island, N.Y., and Steve Colfer, who coaches near Philadelphia, to prepare the team for this year's worlds in London.

"Why not shoot for the top?" he said about the boldness of entering a team.

The players paid for their flight and bought their own sticks and shoulder pads; the rest of the program was financed by sponsors from the island.

A current player, Andrew Soucie, a former player for New England College in New Hampshire, initially paid for basic equipment to get the interested athletes started.

Rooney said he went to Bermuda to coach in the program when asked by Stephen Michel, with whom he played at the University of Scranton.

"They hung on every word," Rooney said. "They wanted to be coached. It's difficult, though, because they are all business professionals and there's only so much time for preparedness."

Still, the team fared not badly, except for a blowout game against Finland.

Heckscher said the main focus now is to develop "the grassroots."

"We are starting kids' programs on the island. You have to have that base. The only kids we have playing are those who were fortunate enough to go to prep school," he said.

Soccer is still the No. 1 sport in Bermuda, he said, followed by cricket and rugby.

New Zealand's closest match previously in the tournament was a one-goal loss to South Korea.

Mark Freeman was a player and coach in England and went to New Zealand in 1998. "I coached and played and married a Kiwi," he said.

The national team was formed in 2000. Freeman and others went after field time and facilities and formed four clubs. Now there are seven clubs in their league. Freeman said there are 126 players in the country, about 96 of them "committed." All seven teams have representatives on the national team in London.

It's the second time at the world championship.

"All the guys live in New Zealand. We feel we are doing it the right way. We had some inquiries (from players in other countries who qualify to play for New Zealand). We stayed with our guys. We want to establish our under-14s and under-17s. The under-17s are soon ready."

Coaching and developing a sport in New Zealand is challenging, Freeman said. "There's a population of four million and they believe rugby is the only game in town. Cricket comes next.

"Kiwis, though, have an island mentality. They do it, get it done some way if they have to make it up.

"Kiwis like to play free and loose sports. Sometimes they grizzle at systems."


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