Alphas of the Offense: Kirst, Slusher Fuel U.S. U21 Offense Against UNC

PHOTO BY JOE MAIORANA


Cole Kirst lurked near goal-line extended on the left side of the cage, looking to bull dodge his North Carolina defender before eventually retreating toward x. All the while, he kept his head up and his eyes open, looking for a U.S. U21 attacker to find space.

As headed behind the crease, he noticed a sliver of space between defenders into which his teammate, Alex Slusher, had sneaked. Kirst sent a pass through three different Tar Heels defenders and into Slusher’s stick, allowing him to flip a low-to-low shot past goalie Colin Krieg for the U21 team goal.

As soon as the ball hit the net lining the cage, Kirst burst into celebration, thrusting his arms in the air for a few seconds until Slusher leaped to meet him for a chest bump. The goal was characteristic of a chemistry developed over of the better part of three years, but resurrected during the team’s training weekend at Ohio State this weekend.

“He’s a really easy guy to play with,” Slusher said of Kirst. “Our games complement each other really well. He’s a big bruiser, where I’m a little more shifty. He bodies up some guys, draws a double and finds me.”

Two offensive powers — Kirst the 6-foot-3 physical product of Lehigh and Slusher, the 5-foot-9 stealthy attackman out of Princeton — display contrasting styles of lacrosse, but within the U.S. U21 system, they fit in along with a variety of skillsets.

The duo showcased their potential during a 60-minute international scrimmage against North Carolina on Saturday night. With notable U21 stars like Pat Kavanagh, Brennan O’Neill, Lance Tillman, Cole Herbert and Graham Bundy Jr. out for the weekend’s activities, Kirst and Slusher became the leaders of the U.S. offense.

Kirst and Slusher helped initiate an offense that found its groove in a 10-6 victory over the 2021 NCAA semifinalists. They found open shooters to ignite the U.S. offense, leading Brendan Grimes, Peter Lehman and Shane Knobloch to score multiple goals in an impressive showing.

“Five really impactful offensive players were not dressed for us, and it allowed guys like Kirst and Slusher to rise to the occasion,” coach Nick Myers said. “They’re sort of the alphas of the offense, two very different players, but they understand what we’re looking for.”

Kirst’s voice could be heard echoing throughout the Ohio State athletic facilities. The vocal leader of the U.S. U21 team, he’d kickstart a chain of “What up?” callouts during warm-ups, where teammates would follow the phrase with a jersey number.

His experience as a senior at Lehigh and one of the oldest players on the U21 team speaks for itself, but he’s still inclined to keep the conversation going.

“I realized I’m most successful when I’m speaking to my teammates,” Kirst said. “Coach [Kevin] Cassese at Lehigh always says ‘If your voice is loud, your legs will follow.’ If you’re positive and you bring others along with you, the team will get through anything.”

Kirst’s positive attitude, with help from Bundy (who was sidelined with an injury), helped the U.S. regroup from an up-and-down morning practice with Ohio State which featured a 3-1 loss in a 20-minute scrimmage.

While Slusher’s voice may not project in the same way as Kirst’s, he helped the offense make strides through Saturday’s practice and into the night session against the Tar Heels. In 2019 and 2020, he found himself playing middie and right-handed attackman at times, with the presence of x attackman Pat Kavanagh so strong.

With Kavanagh out for the weekend, Slusher stepped into a role he enjoys — and one he’ll likely play when he suits up for his first college game since early 2020 with Princeton. He prides himself on his adaptability, and it paid dividends for the U.S. this weekend in Columbus.

“One of my best attributes is that I can play with other people,” he said. “Usually, we have Kavanagh here and I can play righty attackman, but today we needed someone at x, so I stepped up and did that. I hope I can make an impact in a lot of different spots on the field.”







NEW KIDS ON THE KNOBLOCH

Shane Knobloch was approached by his Rutgers coach, Brian Brecht, after a random Tuesday practice just weeks ago. His coach informed him that he’d gotten the invite to the U.S. U21 training camp in Columbus, Ohio.

Knobloch, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year who dropped 21 points in 2021, had never participated in a U21 event. He had seen a roster posted years ago, but had paid little mind to the process since then.

Suddenly, he was part of a program fighting for gold at next year’s U21 world championship in Ireland. Knobloch was one of six newcomers that joined the U.S. U21 training camp this weekend, a list including Kenny Brower (Duke), Greg Campisi (Harvard), Peter Lehman (Lafayette), Charlie O'Connor (Duke) and Danny Parker (Virginia).

“I was surprised, but I was like ‘Absolutely. Let’s do it,’” he said.

Knobloch had very few connections minus Cole Kirst, whose brothers Connor and Colin played at Rutgers last season. He knew he’d have to get to know a whole new team and the culture that went with it, and quickly.

Just over 24 hours after arriving in Columbus, Knobloch was dodging past defenders and scoring goals against the same team that ended his 2021 college season in an epic overtime thriller that saw the Tar Heels squeeze past the Scarlet Knights.

Knobloch finished with a pair of goals, but an experience he never imagined possible.

“I have nothing to lose, coming here and trying out,” he said. "These guys have already been on the team, so being able to have a chance at this is amazing. I was going in blind. It’s easy to call this a brotherhood and it’s easy to get around the red, white and blue.”

FRIENDLY FACES

At the sun rose above Harmon Family Football Park on Saturday morning, Jake Snyder lined up for what he knew would be a unique handshake line.

The U.S. U21 defenseman shook hands with the members of the Ohio State men’s lacrosse team — where he starts as a junior and a key component to the Buckeyes’ back line. As he passed his teammates, each smiled and exchanged laughs at their teammates’ expense.

“I thought the Ohio State defense had a good day, so I was just telling them I was happy with it,” he joked. “They were chatting it up bunch, especially when I go onto the field.”

Snyder traded jerseys for the weekend, training with the U.S. U21 national team. However, the two teams met for a joint practice on Saturday morning, running through clearing drills and man-up and man-down situations before scrimmages to close the morning. It created a unique experience for Snyder and fellow Ohio State and U21 teammate Connor Mitchell.

The Buckeyes’ brought pressure and physicality throughout the chilly practice and cheered each other on with each defensive stop and goal scored. It comes as no surprise that two Nick Myers coached teams brought energy throughout the hour-long practice.

Snyder even caught himself supporting the wrong team at one point during the practice.

“When I was standing on the sideline, I saw Carson Raney play really good on-ball defense. I was like ‘Attaboy, Rainey. Yeah, that’s good D!’” Snyder joked. “Then, I remembered I want my team to score.”

Through the U21 process, Snyder has witness a slightly different approach from Myers, but the same philosophies prevail. Myers has built both programs on a foundation of toughness and energy.

The U.S. defense got its chemistry back quickly during Saturday’s morning practice, and carried the intensity into the victory over North Carolina.

THREE GOOD MINUTES

Myers and the members of the U21 national sat in a circle, perched on red-topped stools in the middle of the Ohio State men’s lacrosse locker room. Before players had a chance to suit up or grab a stick, Myers had his first task of the training weekend.

He called it “Three Good Minutes.”

Myers’ theory circled around the amount of time married couples typically spend in good conversation. Normally, he preaches “Seven Good Minutes,” but the U.S. U21 completed a shortened version on Friday night.

He asked his players to pair up with a teammate with which they were not too familiar. With very few chances for this team to develop chemistry, Myers wasn’t going to let the moment pass them.

“You juiced Kirsty?” Myers asked Lehigh senior Cole Kirst.

“Heck yeah!” he responded.

The clock was running as players like Ryan Schriber sat facing Quentin Matsui. The two had maintained a friendship since they played together at a Maverik Showtime event seven years ago, but they had never spent time getting to know each other.

Schriber, a Michigan defenseman, was excited to learn more about his roommate and Virginia defenseman Matsui.

“I’ve known him for seven years, but I’ve never really asked him about his family or what he wants to do in life,” he said.  “Every time I’ve seen him, it’s been lacrosse.”

Together, they talked about their upbringings — Matsui’s in Eden Prairie, Minn. and Schriber in Wilton, Conn. Sitting in the spacious locker room decked out in black-and-red, two key members of the U21 defense got closer.

“We both took the time to get to know each other on a deeper level,” Schriber said. “We took those three good minutes on either side, and I love that we do that.”

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