U.S. Starts Strong, Withstands Late Rally to Down Japan at The World Games

COURTESY OF WORLD LACROSSE


BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The message was clear inside the U.S. women’s Sixes team huddle on the practice field prior to its matchup with Japan.

As the 12-player roster leaned in to hear a message delivered by the few veterans, Haley Hicklen offered a simple suggestion.

“Let’s start the way we ended last game,” she said.

The message was met with nods of approval as they headed toward PNC Field for the second game of The World Games — the international competition featuring lacrosse for the second time.

After struggling through the first half of Tuesday’s opener, coaches Mandy O’Leary and Regy Thorpe preached the importance of a strong first eight minutes. The U.S. women responded accordingly, and it may have saved them a tense afternoon against a pesky Japanese team on Wednesday.

The U.S. jumped out of a seven-goal lead in the first quarter thanks to timely passing and finishing, and held off a late rally in the second half to pick up a 16-10 win over Japan. Caitlyn Wurzburger led the U.S. offense with a goal and three assists, while Belle Smith tallied a hat trick to help break up the late Japan rally.

“The players came out firing, so hats off to them,” said coach Regy Thorpe. “It got a little choppy and we got a little complacent and Japan capitalized. “When you don’t have the momentum, you have to keep chipping away because you can get it pretty quick. There are so many swings and it’s chaotic. We have to keep our composure.”

The facilitators of the U.S. offense were on full display in the first quarter, setting up seven different scorers in a first quarter that ended with the score at 8-1. Smith led the offense in transition and dodged her way to a goal, while Wurzburger helped work the ball to X and find cutting teammates with ease.

What the U.S. set out to do was accomplish early in Wednesday’s matchup — start quickly and put the opponent on their heels. Smith chipped in the lone two goals in the second quarter to put the U.S. up 10-3 at halftime and looking poised for a commanding win.







The combination of Smith and Wurzburger helped fuel the gold-medal run for the U19 national team. Since then, each has picked up a NCAA national title (Smith in 2021 and Wurzburger this past May). They’ve gone separate directions in their college careers, but they relish being together again.

“Hell yeah,” Smith said on if she likes playing with Wurzburger more than against her. We know each other’s tendencies more than anyone else. I’d much rather play offense with her than defense on her behind the cage.”

“I’m very comfortable playing with Belle and she’s very comfortable with me,” Wurzburger said. “It comes down to trust. I know what she’s going to do, and she knows what I’m going to do.”

Japan found its stride late in the third quarter and into the fourth. Negai Nakazawa scored twice to kickstart a run of five out of six goals to pull Japan within 14-10 with just minutes left. Turnovers hurt the U.S. as it tried to close out in the fourth quarter — its second game in 16 hours.

Smith admitted that in the Sixes game, momentum can wane for team to team, so she knows they have to play sound lacrosse for 32 minutes.

“It’s a momentum swing game,” she said. “If one team comes out hot, the other is bound to come back. It makes the game really entertaining. Last night for the guy’s [gold medal] game, there were people packing the stands coming out. It’s something that people want to watch.”

The Japan comeback was fierce, but Smith, Wurzburger and Kasey Choma helped calm the U.S. offense and halt the momentum. Choma and Meaghan Tyrrell chipped in goals to clinch the six-goal win — a game that could have been a nailbiter had the U.S. not started as strong as it did.

The U.S. has yet to deliver a complete performance, but Thorpe and fellow coach Mandy O’Leary know their team is still adapting to Sixes at The World Games.

“We’ll certainly learn from this one,” Thorpe said. “This could have been a closer game.”

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