The following article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse.
by Theresa Smith
In three months, the biggest event in lacrosse history will
descend on Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, a 25-minute drive from
Lee Zink’s home in Colorado.
Zink, a quiet, polite sort, takes his hosting role seriously as a member of Team USA. He’s among 30 players in the running for the final 23 spots for a U.S. team that will defend its gold medal at the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Championship July 10-19 in Commerce City, Colo. A record 38 countries will compete in front of a fan base that has set a plethora of professional lacrosse attendance records with the National Lacrosse League’s Colorado Mammoth and Zink’s Denver Outlaws of Major League Lacrosse.
Zink, 32, gets better with age. The two-time reigning MLL Defensive Player of the Year now stands on the threshold of making the U.S. team in his third attempt. After missing the cut in 2006, Zink traveled with the team to England as an alternate in 2010.
As the second-oldest member of Team USA (he’s two months younger than Kevin Leveille), Zink admits he has lost a step. But his rigid and relentless position defense — helped by his massive wingspan and 6-foot-4 frame — is viewed as the antidote for Team Canada legend John Grant Jr.
In two MLL encounters last summer, Zink held Grant to one goal and one assist. Grant, who starred in the Chesapeake Bayhakws’ run to the 2013 MLL title, was traded to Outlaws and also plays for the Mammoth. The Ontario native now lives fulltime in Denver.
So Zink will get a teammate’s perspective on a potential rival.
“One of the biggest challenges when you face Canada is how do you stop one of their main offensive threats?’’ Zink said. “I’m not stronger. I’m not bigger. I’m not going to muscle him. He and I have both lost a step. But when you get older, you get smarter.”
Jesse Schwartzman, one of three goalies vying likely for two spots on the U.S. team, enjoys a bird’s-eye view of Zink’s lockdown abilities as a six-time MLL All-Star with the Outlaws.
“He’s neither the biggest nor the strongest, but he’s versatile. He can play a speedy player. He can play behind the net or in front of the net,” Schwartzman said. “He doesn’t get too many highs and he doesn’t get too many lows. He is a calming force. He leads by example. He’s not a screamer. If you give up a goal, he makes sure you know what’s wrong, and we fix it.’’
Those attributes were enough to convince Team USA defensive coordinator Dave Pietramala that Zink deserved the chance to move one step closer to a dream he has pursued for the last nine years.
“It’s hard to turn your back on his experience,” said Pietramala, who tried to get Zink to play for him at Johns Hopkins before Zink landed at rival Maryland. “I said to him, ‘I recruited the heck out of you, and I’m glad to have a chance to coach you.’”
A brief episode of phone tag betwen Pietramala and Zink delayed the good news. When Zink finally heard it, he texted his wife, Kiera, then called his parents, waiting a few hours because his father was in Australia.
Schwartzman said Zink’s call came four years too late, insisting that he belonged on the 2010 U.S. team. But Zink was diplomatic.
“Going into those 2010 tryouts, the coaches had an outline of exactly what they need on their team and what role they want people to fill,’’ he said. “If you fit those roles, it’s great. If you don’t fit those roles, or if you’re not able to adapt to assume those roles, it’s harder.”
“There was no ill will about that team,” Zink added. “I was lucky enough to be a part of it, to go over and travel with them as an alternate. So I got to experience what the worlds are all about, and it only makes you train harder for the next go around.”
After January’s Champion Challenge, where Pietramala feverishly worked both sidelines during the nationally televised U.S. Blue-White game, the coaches forged forward with a mostly younger defense that includes current collegian Joe Fletcher (Loyola) and 2013 Maryland grad Jesse Bernhardt.
Zink graduated from Maryland in 2004.
“Having a player like Lee Zink who is very experienced and has been around the block is critical,” Pietramala said. “He has played against many of the guys we’ll see from the Iroquois and Canada. It has been interesting to watch him move on and have a lengthy career from being rock solid in high school, on to college and the pros. He does it in his own calm, cool, collected and poised way.”
The opportunity to play in Denver added to Zink’s motivation.
“This is my hometown now,” said Zink, who grew up in Connecticut, “so I always had that in the back of my mind — to do whatever I could to give myself the best chance to make the team.”
No matter who makes the final 23, Zink sees a winner in this U.S. team.
“The coaches say it is a challenge to pick, and they’ve put forth a team that is going to win the gold,’’ he said. “The strength of the team is that we have a bunch of great athletes. We can control the tempo. The key to success is to dictate the pace of play.”
Thirty-seven other teams, including five in the top-flight Blue Division, will take their best shot at Team USA, a far cry from the eight teams that participated in 1998, when US Lacrosse last hosted the World Championship. Zink attended those games in Baltimore as a 17-year-old. While he never imagined playing for Team USA, he said, he also never imagined lining up across from Uganda, Norway and Thailand.
As spring gives way to summer, Zink said it will be easier to combine his full-time responsibilities at an oil and gas financing company with CrossFit training, stick-skill sessions in the park and the strength training prescribed by Team USA coach Jay Dyer.
After all, the lacrosse world is coming to his backyard, and a championship quest awaits him.