Four years ago, Matt Popeck was a camper at the Top 205 Lacrosse Camp in Towson, and his roommate, David Metzger, arrived a day late. The reason? An Israel Lacrosse event.
“What’s that?” Popeck, then a sophomore at Sherwood High in Olney, Md., asked Metzger.
Back then, the organization known as the Israel Lacrosse Association was just getting off the ground. Now, only seven years after its small group of co-founders informally pulled off their first exhibition game at the Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem, Israel Lacrosse will be hosting the sport’s top international event — the Federation of International Lacrosse World Championship.
From July 12-21, 48 teams will compete in the northern Israeli coastal town of Netanya. Opening and closing ceremonies will be held at the city’s 14,000-seat Shefayim Soccer Complex, with the bulk of the tournament’s 160 games played at the nearby Wingate Institute.
Nearly 2,000 players, coaches and staff from around the world – not to mention thousands of family members, friends and fans — are expected to attend.
Fourteen tournament games will be broadcast on ESPN2 or ESPNU, including Israel’s matchup on July 12 against Jamaica — yes, Jamaica — with the rest of the games showing on ESPN’s streaming service and local TV in Israel.
More than 150 people from the Baltimore metropolitan area are expected to attend the tournament. Like Popeck, Baltimore resident Matt Cherry, a member of Israel’s 2014 team in Denver – which finished seventh in its international debut– will be there. Cherry captained Israel’s 2014 world championship team and went on to serve in the Israel Defense Forces on the Gaza border.
Jean Luc-Chetner, who plays lacrosse at Towson University, will also play in the championship games. He will play for Team Israel.
For the past nine months, Popeck has lived in Ashkelon, Baltimore’s sister city in Israel, coaching and teaching youth lacrosse full-time. He plans to start his college studies at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia this fall.
“I don’t want to sound cliché, but this has been a life-changing thing for me,” Popeck said of Israel Lacrosse, “and it’s only getting bigger.”
This year will mark the first time that the competition, launched in 1967, was held in a country other than the United States, Canada, England or Australia.
The English city of Manchester was originally slated to be the host for this year’s championship. But it withdrew its bid due to logistical problems. Soon afterward, Scott Neiss and a small group of his fellow Israel Lacrosse co-founders – including Mark Greenberg, a Johns Hopkins University All-American defenseman, Team USA member and National Lacrosse Hall of Famer — held a quick conference call and decided to submit their first-ever offer to host the championship.
Two weeks later, with facilities and hotel proposals buttoned up, it was official.
“Ultimately, we wanted to be able to do this, but this fell in our lap sooner than anyone could have anticipated,” Greenberg said. “If you know the sport and the fraternity that it is, it’s a pretty special situation. Now, this is about everybody feeling good about the country and the sport. We’ve always seen that lacrosse has been a door-opener to people.”
Last April, Israel hosted 12 international lacrosse teams in a series of five exhibition games, including one in Ashkelon.
In 2013, Israel’s first official youth lacrosse program started in Ashkelon and spread from there. The organization now holds youth clinics and fields teams in the Israeli cities of Beersheva, Ashdod, Kiryat Gat, Herzliya, Sderot and Haifa.
“We’re creating new advocates for the country,” said Neiss, Israel Lacrosse’s executive director. “In a lot of ways, we’re the anti-BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement] that’s trying to chip away at Israel and convince artists to not perform in Israel. We’re bringing people here instead.”
Corey McLaughlin is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.