Bernhardt, 'Rope Unit' Set Tone for U.S. in Perfect Round-Robin


U.S. midfielder Jake Bernhardt dislodges the ball from England's Zac Guy in the first quarter of Team USA's 19-2 victory Tuesday at the Wingate Institute.

NETANYA, Israel — Jake Bernhardt looked around the locker room at Netanya Stadium and saw the stunned expressions of his teammates.

The U.S. trailed the Iroquois Nationals 7-5 at halftime of the Federation of International Lacrosse World Championship opener last Thursday — a Team USA debut that was two-and-a-half years in the making.

Someone had to say something. Bernhardt spoke first.

“I felt comfortable expressing myself to this group, that I don’t want to have any coulda-shoulda-woulda moments,” Bernhardt said. “I just told the guys, ‘Don’t look around for anyone to step up. Someone go make a play. Because we’re the best players in the world, and we shouldn’t have that deer-in-headlights look. We should be out there playing, having fun and doing what we know we can do.’”

The U.S. responded to Bernhardt’s rallying cry with a dominant second half en route to a 17-9 victory.

Bernhardt plays short-stick defensive midfield, a position often held by players that are meant to be seen but not heard.

Not on this team.

Team USA (5-0) put the finishing touches on a perfect run through pool play Tuesday with a 19-2 victory over England at the Wingate Institute. As the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, the U.S. has earned a bye in the quarterfinals and will meet the winner of Wednesday’s game between Australia and either Israel or Ireland in the tournament semifinals Thursday at 9 p.m. local time (2 p.m. Eastern on ESPNU).

A 17-goal win might not seem like the right opportunity to highlight the defense, but when the U.S. looked lethargic and a bit careless on offense in the early going, the d-middies set the tone. During one first-quarter sequence, Bernhardt dislodged the ball in a physical confrontation with England’s Zac Guy, the U.S. coughed it up on the other end, Will Haus earned it back on a double-team trap at midfield, and then Kevin Unterstein swooped in for the ground ball, ran the field and fed Tom Schreiber at the point for a fast-break goal to give Team USA a 2-1 lead it wouldn’t relinquish.

“That was a big moment. You hope that those little plays carry over,” said U.S. assistant Joe Amplo, the team’s defensive coordinator. “The other guys notice it.”

That’s largely why the team has exclusively selected its otherwise unheralded players to carry the American flag out onto the field before each game. Unterstein, Bernhardt and Haus all have had turns, as have long-stick midfielders Michael Ehrhardt and Joel White, who have been flying around the field intercepting passes, scooping ground balls and turning opponent’s sticks into helicopters.

“That’s the cool part of the group,” Amplo said. “The humble guys are being highlighted by their peers.”

Those five players and Kyle Hartzell — who has played a hybrid of long pole, close defense and even some shorty — comprise Team USA’s “rope unit.” ESPN analyst Quint Kessenich credited Fred Smith, a four-time All-American defenseman at Johns Hopkins in the 1980s, as the originator of the term. According to Kessenich, Smith likened the punishment absorbed and redirected by defensive midfielders to the rope-a-dope boxing strategy famously deployed by Muhammad Ali in his Rumble in the Jungle match against George Foreman.

That description certainly fits what this group has embodied for the U.S. against opponents who attempt to slow it down by grinding out long possessions, bull dodging d-middies several times over. They must know riding, clearing, offensive and defensive concepts. They are almost always at the point of attack.

“Michael Ehrhardt and Joel White are playing terrific. And the short sticks, they have the toughest job on the field,” Amplo said. “They’re exposed on defense. They get challenged every possession. And they’re kind of the heart and soul of our team. Coach [John] Danowski said it today, that those guys are our MVPs.”

Bernhardt was not always a defensive midfielder. He put up 118 points as a high school senior at Lake Brantley (Fla.) before earning a reputation as a two-way midfielder with superb strength and conditioning at Maryland. He scored 17 goals as a redshirt senior for the Terps in 2013.

Entering Major League Lacrosse, Bernhardt thought he’d have a better chance to dress regularly if he focused on his defensive attributes. But even then, he put up 34 points (18 goals, 16 assists) while helping to lead the Ohio Machine to their first MLL championship in 2017.

With the U.S. team, however, Bernhardt has embraced the mindset of blunting opposing midfielders and winning matchups rather than scoring goals.

“He’s got a little bit of edge,” Unterstein said. “He’s the guy in huddles and the locker room that will get everyone going. And the best part about Jake is he backs it up with his play.”

Bernhardt, Ehrhardt, Hartzell, Haus, Unterstein and White — you may not see many of these names on the All-World team come Saturday. But if the U.S. leaves Israel with gold medals around its neck, you better believe those six players will have played a significant role in making it happen.

“That rope group has really embodied the spirit of what we’re trying to create,” Amplo said. “They don’t want the spotlight. They just play hard for each other.”

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