July 31, 2014
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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Marc Van Arsdale has been involved with lacrosse for most of his life -- first as a player and now as a coach. He was raised in Upstate New York, so he's long known about the sport's Native American roots.
Not until this year, however, did UVa's associate head coach truly gain an insider's perspective on the sport's significance to the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy: the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora tribes.
Van Arsdale, 50, was an assistant coach on the Iroquois Nationals team that thumped Australia 16-5 on July 19 to win the bronze medal at the Federation of International Lacrosse's world championships in Denver.
Canada defeated the United States 8-5 in the championship game.
For the Iroquois, the medal was their first at an FIL senior world championship, and it came after a college season in which the exploits of the wondrously gifted Thompson brothers -- Albany stars Lyle and Miles -- captivated the lacrosse world.
"They were the rock stars of this event," Van Arsdale said of the Native Americans, whose players included four Thompson brothers: Lyle, Miles, Jeremy and Jerome Jr.
Lyle and Miles were co-winners this spring of the Tewaaraton Trophy, which is awarded annually to the top player in college lacrosse. Jeremy is a former Syracuse star who teamed with Jerome Jr. to help Onondaga Community College win two national junior-college titles.
There was a general fascination with the Iroquois in Denver, Van Arsdale said, but "the Thompsons were certainly the main headliners. When you've got four brothers playing on a national team, that's a story in and of itself.
"Everywhere we went there were autograph seekers, and those guys had endless patience with them. You'd be in the hotel at the restaurant, and some young kids would be going by, saying, `Oh, my God, the Thompsons are eating!' "
The Iroquois wanted to leave Denver with a championship, but "I think they also realistically knew there might be a little bit of a gap, at least in depth, between the team and the Canadian and U.S. teams, and that certainly showed out there," said Van Arsdale, whose son, Owen, is a three-year starter on the attack for UVa.
"But the experience in general was terrific. I think overall [the Iroquois] were generally pleased, with it being the first time that the team had medaled, and with a very young team being at the core of the group, it sets itself up well maybe for the future."
One of Virginia's top returning players, sophomore midfielder Zed Williams, is a member of the Seneca tribe. Williams was invited to try out for the Iroquois Nationals but chose to spend the summer with his family in New York.
For Van Arsdale, who's had two stints on head coach Dom Starsia's staff at UVa, it was a thrill "to be around the world championships, seeing all the countries playing and seeing the growth of the game. It's talked about a lot in this country, the growth of the sport within the U.S., but it's also amazing that there's now 38 teams competing in the world championships, when only 30 years ago there were four. That's a pretty good sign. Obviously the competitive level of some [countries] has a long way to go, but at least they're playing."
On a more personal level, Van Arsdale said, working with the Iroquois allowed him "to learn a little bit more about the spiritual nature of the game with those guys and what it means to them. It was neat to be sort of in the inner circle, to be someone who gets to take part with all their little traditions."
Those traditions include a ritual Van Arsdale had never experienced before joining the team.
"Before every game and practice, the coaches and players would form a circle," Van Arsdale said, "and the Iroquois spiritual guru who was out there with the team would pass around a pipe with tobacco that was being offered to the Creator as a thank-you for the opportunity to play the game.
"You'd pass the pipe around the circle while he was in the middle saying a prayer to the Creator in the Native language, and they passed around water with that, mixed with some roots and things. You're supposed to take a drink of the water and spread it on your face to clear your mind and gain the right perspective going into the game. And [the tradition] was taken very seriously. It wasn't like, `This is what we have to do.' It is really meaningful to them, and it's offering a prayer up to the Creator."
Head coach Steve Beville's other assistants included several Native Americans, among them Cam Bomberry, Jerome Thompson Sr. and Mark Burnam. Van Arsdale and Beville, who's the head coach at SUNY Cortland, have known each other since they were in high school.
"Steve had coached the U19 team for the Iroquois a couple years back," Van Arsdale said, "and when they asked him to move up to the senior national team, he gave me a call and said, `Would you be interested in doing it?' "
With Starsia's blessing, Van Arsdale pursued the opportunity and was named to the Iroquois coaching staff last year. Arsdale's work with the team pulled him away from Charlottesville on several weekends during the 2013-14 school year, and he was in Denver from July 4-20 for the FIL tournament, which limited his availability for recruiting this month.
"Thankfully, Dom was very understanding of the whole process," Van Arsdale said. "I think he's enough of a big-picture person to see the value of it."
The Iroquois have a distinct playing style, and Van Arsdale, a former head coach at the University of Pennsylvania, was careful to respect that tradition.
"You weren't going to go in guns blazing and say, `This is the way we're going to do it,' " Van Arsdale said. "But I do think that the group, particularly the younger guys that have played in major college programs and have been exposed to coaching that way, are receptive to being coached. But there's also a certain way that they like to go about things, and I don't think you want to curtail that, because some of that creativity and flair is what makes some of those plays happen, and if you threw all that away, they may not be as strong.
"I think the place where the program is starting to make some inroads is in the preparation piece. You look at our guys in relation to the other top teams, strength and conditioning-wise we're not there. The Iroquois weren't in the same spot as [the USA and Canada teams] ... There's very little of that kind of preparation physically going on with our team, which is a little bit different."
Van Arsdale laughed. "Then even the whole concept of time, it's a little different. If you say we're going to meet at 11 o'clock, that sort of means maybe we'll be there by 11:15," he said. "So you get a little used to it. Steve and I were talking about that at one point. I said to him, `We're not going to change 3,000 years of history in two weeks with these guys.' But when they were there, they were receptive to being coached and attentive."
The Iroquois need to become more comfortable when a game's pace slows, Van Arsdale said, "but I would hate for them to lose their flair. That's what makes them so attractive [to watch] and sort of what's caught the imagination of the lacrosse-spectating world."
He learned lessons with the Iroquois, Van Arsdale said, that he will apply at UVa.
"I think one of the things that you get reminded of when you're around guys like that is that it is a players' game, and you want to try and within certain boundaries give guys the freedom to be creative," he said. "And when you have special talents, particularly somebody like Lyle Thompson, you don't want to put the reins on them. And there are certain techniques that he uses that maybe you can teach some of our guys, but a lot of that is individual, and also guys figuring it out creatively what really works for them. Because there's things that he does that none of the other guys on that [Iroquois] team really do, either."
The next FIL world championship will be held in 2018 in Manchester, England. If asked to assist the Iroquois again, Van Arsdale said, he definitely would be interested.
"It was a very positive experience," he said.