PHOTO BY ODED KARNI

College Lacrosse Players in Limbo Make Most of Season in Israel


Editor’s Note: On May 10, rockets from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip struck civilian targets in nearby Ashkelon, Israel. Israel’s air force responded by striking Hamas targets in Gaza. Cross-border attacks continued for 11 days. Our reporter had just visited Ashkelon to interview American collegiate players who had come to play and teach lacrosse for the year. By the time the conflict broke out, the players were away on a previously scheduled trip to the resort town of Eilat. They relocated to Netanya, site of the 2018 World Lacrosse Men’s World Championship, and remained out of harm’s way before returning to Ashkelon on Saturday after a cease-fire brought quiet back to both sides of the border.

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ASHKELON, Israel — On a picture-perfect, late-April morning, 27 American collegiate lacrosse players stretched, sprinted and performed full-contact drills. They huddled up, checked and collided, their sweat and breath freely mingling between unmasked faces.

The immaculate green field with pristine lines of yellow and orange on which they played would be the pride of any lacrosse program between the Atlantic and Pacific. Instead, it lies a mile inland from the Mediterranean coast in this southern Israel city.

The players arrived here last fall and winter, forsaking their shuttered campuses, suspended lacrosse competition or both in favor of an oasis of athletic normalcy in a country that more than a month ago reopened to close to pre-pandemic life and leads the world in coronavirus vaccination rates.

Salvaging what otherwise would have been a lost season on the field, along with experiencing another culture and undergoing personal growth, made the decision an easy one, according to 10 players whom USA Lacrosse Magazine interviewed.


“The pandemic was a big ol’ basket of lemons. Israel was the sugar. We made lemonade out of it.”


Andie Kapiloff, a sophomore attacker at Swarthmore, came with the blessing of her collegiate coach and teammates while taking classes online. Midfielder Nate Lapat deferred admission as an incoming freshman at the Stevens Institute of Technology. Justin Tepper, an attackman, said that his Stevenson teammates “are jealous” that he took off his sophomore year to play in Israel.

“Even after a win, they can’t hang out as a team and celebrate” due to coronavirus restrictions, Tepper said of the Mustangs.

The plan to bring the American players to Israel began evolving a year ago. St. Louis native and Tel Aviv resident David Lasday, the Israel Lacrosse Association’s chief operating officer, explained that the coronavirus shutdown presented “an opportunity, with the cancellation of fall ball and the [collegiate] seasons,” for the ILA to recruit Americans “to hone their skills and prepare them to be better players in college.”

Even pre-pandemic, the ILA was considering devising a gap-year-abroad experience for newly graduated high schoolers. It pivoted to attract players frustrated by the pandemic-driven shutdown back home and itching to remain active in lacrosse, Lasday explained.

Kapiloff participated in non-contact practices in autumn, when only freshmen and sophomores occupied Swarthmore’s campus. She dreaded the spring semester, when she’d be displaced by juniors and seniors.

“All I wanted to do was be on campus playing. I said, ‘This is going to go poorly for me,’” Kapiloff said. “The pandemic was a big ol’ basket of lemons. Israel was the sugar. We made lemonade out of it.”








Some of the Americans, like Kapiloff, were in ILA’s network from playing for Israel’s national teams or previously visiting the country. Others learned of the opportunity through social media or word of mouth and contacted Lasday.

The 27 players, and nine others who came for the fall semester only, entered government-mandated quarantine upon arriving in Israel, underwent regular coronavirus testing and soon benefited from full-contact, non-socially-distanced practices. They followed countrywide rules on mask-wearing and on venturing from the apartments they share near the field. Beginning in February, they received vaccinations and, when the country reopened further, public transportation passes and cards enabling entry to restaurants.

Mornings involve practicing at the field here, lifting at an adjacent shipping container transformed into a weight room and receiving treatment and massages from a licensed athletic trainer in the next container. Players then have Hebrew language instruction and take online classes. Late afternoons often mean coaching youth here and in other towns, from those enrolled in ILA leagues to some who’d never seen a stick. During a USA Lacrosse Magazine reporter’s visit, the collegians sat in a semi-circle for an hour-long discussion about mental health run by an American therapist, the third such session this term.

The experience eclipses what several called an unappealing reality back home, where some practices, if held, mean pods of four or five and no-contact rules.

The NCAA hasn’t yet compiled figures on how many of the 919 lacrosse programs in its three divisions have closed during the pandemic, an official of the association said.

UMass was one program that canceled fall ball, so sophomore defenseman Ryan Fitzpatrick left for Israel. Joining other U.S. lacrosse players in Ashkelon “was the best thing I could’ve done during the pandemic,” he said.

“I was just appreciative that I could go to the Middle East and play lacrosse, meet new people and learn new things,” said Fitzpatrick by phone from UMass, where he returned to play in the reopened spring season.

Said Reese Gittelman, a junior attackman and midfielder at Smith, “If it weren’t for coronavirus, I’d have never been in Israel. For that, I am thankful in some sense. As sad as it was losing the whole season, it provided me with that opportunity, and it’ll make me that much more thankful to be back on the field with my team at Smith.”

Dan Kraft, a Boston businessman whose foundation helped to build the field and underwrite part of ILA’s budget, said that were his son, Joey, a year older, he’d have encouraged him to join this year’s program. Joey will play lacrosse as a Tufts freshman in 2021–22.

The ILA initiative “has given all those college kids in limbo an amazing experience,” said Kraft, whose father, Robert, owns the NFL’s New England Patriots. “They’re playing the game they love, aren’t losing a year of [athletic] eligibility and are teaching Israeli kids.”




PHOTO BY ODED KARNI


The experience has so moved junior defensive midfielder Jake Suesserman that he intends to make Israel his home upon graduating Muhlenberg next year.

Suesserman was reeling from his father’s recent death from cancer when an ILA official alerted him last summer to the lacrosse bubble plan. Suesserman came for the fall semester, then extended his stay through the academic year.

Suesserman learned that several of his protégés sleep in bomb shelters whenever Hamas terrorists in the nearby Gaza Strip launch rockets at Israel’s civilian targets.

“As I’ve spent time here, my love for Israel and wanting to be part of the Jewish state has deepened,” he said. “Living here and working with these kids has given me a sense of purpose unmatched in anything I’ve done prior. Unequivocally, it was the right thing to do.”

His Muhlenberg coach, Jake Plunket, said that their conversations throughout the term indicate that Suesserman has adopted a “new outlook” and “almost a sense of enlightenment.”

“Aside from being able to compete and play lacrosse,” Plunket said, “I think he realized what his real purpose was overseas and the impact that he and his teammates were making on some of the younger children in the area.”

Some are very young.

As the Americans ran passing and shooting drills at both ends of the field late that April afternoon, seven wee children stood in the center circle. All just recently became aware of lacrosse. They included two brother-sister pairs whose parents came from Eritrea. Kapiloff explained that one of the quartet, 8-year-old Sinit, noticed the strange sport being played on her neighborhood’s field several weeks earlier and stopped by.

Her brother Hermon, 5, soon tagged along, then 10-year-old Marina and her brother Mousseh, 4. They’d crawl under the fences, approach the players and ask about the game. The Americans welcomed the children, proffering sticks and teaching them to catch and pass and cradle the ball.

Sinit estimated that she’s now attended 10 sessions.

“I want to learn the game and meet different people,” she said. “I like that they brought equipment to teach kids in Israel.”

In the Tigrinya language, the girl explained, her name means thank you.