Paul Krome | @paulkrome
BALTIMORE — More than the millions of Americans watching the NCAA basketball tournaments at this emotion- and drama-filled time of “March Madness,” Michele Uhlfelder knows what survive and advance means.
The former Maryland Terrapin and Team USA player led her teams through the rigors of NCAA and Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) tournaments, respectively, something she repeated on a conference level as head coach at Stanford for much of the 2000s. So when she sees players in her Coast to Coast LA (Calif.) U15 program get juiced about the prospect of advancing to July’s US Lacrosse U15 National Championships, powered by Lacrosse Unlimited, she gets juiced.
“They’re creating that bond of working toward something — getting somewhere based on their performance in the regionals. They’re pumped,” Uhlfelder said. “This is a fun scenario. This championship format is not something these kids get to experience much. Even those who are on the ‘tournament circuit’ — that’s just a weekend of games and then they go home.”
Home, of course, is not where Coast to Coast LA wants to be July 21-23, when as many as 64 of the nation’s best boys’ and girls’ U15 teams will converge on Aurora, Colo., to compete for US Lacrosse U15 National Championships. That event offers a limited number of at-large berths, so to guarantee a spot in one of the nation’s premier youth tournaments, Coast to Coast LA will try to place in the top four at the US Lacrosse West Championships, powered by Lacrosse Unlimited, June 27-29 roughly five hours north on I-5 in San Jose, Calif.
“They’re extremely excited about the West Championships. It’s definitely a ‘live another day’ opportunity, and that brings on that emotion and adrenaline,” Uhlfelder said. “There’s an element of suspense as to what will happen after San Jose that has everyone focused and dialed in.”
The US Lacrosse West Championships represent one of four regional qualifying tournaments for teams to earn bids to the U15 lacrosse world’s equivalent of “March Madness.” Others are set for June 7-9 in Raleigh, N.C., June 13-15 in Madison, Wis., and June 20-22 in Amherst, Mass. Regional champions earn a free bid to the U15 national championships, while the runner-up and semifinalists at each event also qualify automatically with registration discounts of 25 to 75 percent. Each regional championship also features a U13 age division, which gives younger teams the chance to play against their peers from different states.
“Most tournaments for middle school-age teams include teams from the area,” said Jennifer Palmiere, administrator and co-founder of the MC Elite (Md.) girls’ program. “I was looking for other events where we could play good competition against teams from other places, and I heard about the US Lacrosse Southeast Championships in Raleigh. It’s great — not too far, but far enough to not see the same teams you always see in the summer. We’re excited about the opportunity.”
With the May 1 deadline for teams to register fast approaching, now’s the time for teams to get in before space fills up, as it already has for the U15 division of the World Festivals in Commerce City, Colo.
MC Elite will bring two U13 teams and one U15 team to Raleigh, taking advantage of a multi-team discount US Lacrosse offers for lacrosse organizations. All coaches or program administrators that register two or more teams from their organization will save $50 per team and be automatically entered into raffles, prizes for which include a free team registration to a regional championship next year and a free registration with two hotel nights to the 2015 US Lacrosse Convention in Baltimore.
“Madison is a nice community and a great college town,” said Aaron Johnson, coach of the Prior Lake Lakers (Minn.) U13 boys’ team. “It’s an easy drive from the Twin Cities and a no-brainer as far as destinations. We have a good youth program within Minneapolis-St. Paul, but I wanted to expose our kids to select teams in other states to benchmark where we are and compete against teams from other communities.”
The sense of hometown pride and wanting to represent local communities in matchups against teams from other states represented common themes in interviews with coaches. Those themes seem to play out annually in US Lacrosse’s youth tournament structure. Last year, the Next Level (R.I.) boys won the silver medal at the US Lacrosse U15 Northeast Championships, then battled teams from Colorado, Long Island, Florida and Philadelphia while advancing to the round of 16 in the national championships.
“I’d put our 10 best U15 players against anyone, but we’re trying to build depth,” said head coach Steve O’Donnell. “Dukes HHH (Pa.) beat us by six in the tournament. Our guys are having fun and getting better. They believe in our coaching model and in our practice. The only way to get better is to get better team-wise.”
O’Donnell was the head coach at Providence College in the mid-1980s and has been involved in youth and high school lacrosse in New England for 30 years, joining a lineup of tournament-savvy coaches like Kyle Harrison (Team USA midfielder), Shannon Smith (Hofstra women’s coach) and Theresa Sherry (former Cal women’s coach) to direct teams in US Lacrosse events.
Survive and advance, indeed.
Registration for the US Lacrosse Regional Championships, powered by Lacrosse Unlimited, ends May 1. Sign up your U13 and U15 teams today.