Photo by Michael Greenlar
Article via Syracuse.com
By Sean Kirst
Even after a hard defeat, Rich Kilgour did Sunday what he’d been doing with eloquence, all week.
His Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team had just lost to Team Canada, 12-8, in the finals of the World Indoor Lacrosse Championships at the Carrier Dome. The defeat was especially painfully for the Nationals, because the tournament was hosted for the first time by a native government – the Six Nations, or Haudenosaunee – with most of the games played at the Onondaga Nation.
Kilgour, a longtime player – and now a coach – with the Buffalo Bandits, serves as head coach of the Nationals. The keen disappointment of Sunday’s loss was evident on the somber faces of his players. Canada has never lost a game in world indoor tournament play, going back to 2003, and the talented Nationals – who often seem to be knocking at the door – thought maybe this would be the year they figured out a way to win the gold.
Yet if there was a symbolic moment in the game, it came in the second half, with the score still close and the Nationals threatening to catch up. Miles Thompson, one of four brothers on the team from a legendary lacrosse family at Onondaga, took a seemingly impossible point-blank shot on goal, a backwards, over-the-head, two-handed, high-velocity catapult that would have lived forever on Twitter had it swept into the nets, the kind of shot that would have sent the crowd into a frenzy and could have been a momentum-shaking pivot in the game ….
But all-world Canadian goaltender Matt Vinc was well-positioned, and somehow stopped the shot. Thompson and his brothers have “magical sticks,” Vinc said after the game, and the best any goaltender can do is to watch the ball and “try and stay as big as possible.”
Sunday, he came up big 45 times against the Iroquois, and Canada again was world champion.
So a quiet and philosophical Kilgour addressed reporters afterward. He congratulated the Canadians, and he said he felt as if the whole game might have changed if “we could have just tied it up, (then) who knows.”
Amid those wistful reflections, Kilgour spoke beautifully to the same point he’d been making since the day his team began practicing at Onondaga, for the tournament:
The larger victory for the Nationals, the unforgettable aspect as his players move forward with their lives, was simply taking part in these games.
The lacrosse world came to the blue hills of Onondaga in what was just about as magnificent a September week as you could imagine, the Central New York climate as good as it gets: The apples were ripe and the days were warm and the nights turned cool, perfect for good sleeping.
It was the first time the Six Nations served as hosts in an official international championship lacrosse tourney, and Kilgour kept reminding his players, throughout the week, that they were part of something extraordinary, maybe once-in-a-lifetime:
They were the ambassadors in welcoming the world to a piece of land, the capital of the Haudenosaunee, that has never left the hands of their people – a piece of land where even Team USA was a visitor.
Kilgour grew up on the Tuscarora territory, near Niagara Falls. After Sunday’s news conference, he paused in a Carrier Dome corridor and built upon his point: From the bench, during the game, he could look up in the bleachers and see hundreds upon hundreds of children from the Six Nations, many wearing jerseys or T-shirts with the names of their favorite Nationals players.
“I’m so proud of these guys,” Kilgour said, for a reason that goes beyond lacrosse. He described his players as being “dead in shape,” young men who fully understand how the lifestyle they choose and the way they carry themselves can have a powerful impact on decisions children make down the road, children who will always remember the year the world games came to Onondaga.
Kilgour has been around long enough to recall, back in the 1980s, how the Nationals were getting swamped by international opponents. Now they’re on the annual cusp of a world title – “Someday,” he said, “we’re going to get one more goal than those guys” – and that success is increasingly fused with a sense of cultural identity.
He spoke of how lacrosse, for many years, was “taken away” from the Six Nations, and how the warmth, the celebration, surrounding these world games becomes a statement symbolically – as well as physically – on much that has come home.
Then he said goodbye and went through the air-locked door of the Carrier Dome. On the other side, as if to amplify his words, dozens of native children awaited Kilgour and his players – children carrying lacrosse sticks and wearing Iroquois colors.
They were eager for autographs and conversation from a team, in their young eyes, that had already won it all.