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West Coast-infused Team USA hoping for FIRS success in Italy

 

Celeste loyatho_SrWomen

inlinehockey-800The International Roller Sports Federation (FIRS) will roll out the latest edition of its inline hockey world championship tournament in the latter stages of July in the mountains of northeastern Italy.

The United States, braced by a large supporting cast of Californians, hopes to shine brightly in the medal department at this summer’s international event.

Tournament dates are July 14-28 in Asiago and Roana, located in the Veneto region in the foothills of the Alps. Asiago is world-renowned for its cheese.

The senior women’s and junior men’s tournaments face off July 14-21, playing at both sites.

The senior men’s and junior women’s tournaments follow July 22-28, with the senior men playing at both sites and the junior women playing in Roana.

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Group play is followed by playoffs, placement games and medal games.

The United States turned in a mixed showing at last fall’s World Roller Games in Nanjing, China. The U.S. senior women’s team won the gold medal to lead the American effort though neither the U.S. junior men’s team nor the U.S. senior men’s team earned a medal. The United States did not field a junior women’s team.

Golden girls

The U.S. senior women’s team has established a tradition of winning at the FIRS international event. The American women have captured eight gold medals, seven silver medals and two bronze medals in 17 previous world championship tournaments.

The United States defeated Spain to win last year’s senior’s women’s tournament in China.

This year’s team returns to defend its gold medal stocked with nine players hailing from either California or Arizona, including six players from the Golden State.

Californians named to the roster include San Juan Capistrano’s Celeste Loyatho (pictured top), La Mesa’s Kendall Curtis, Linden’s Brooke Bryant, Corona’s Elisa Pogu, Sonora’s Jenna Weeks and Capistrano’s Audra Smit (goaltender).

Arizonans on the roster include Youngstown’s Allison Era, Tempe’s Katherine McGovern and Chandler’s Lyndsey Fry.

Arizonan Dave Marmorstein serves as head coach to further enhance the team’s West Coast aura.

Weeks, who will represent Tuolumne County for the second consecutive year, is among four returners from last year’s gold medalist team.

“I have been playing hockey since I was four years old and having been dreaming for opportunities like this for many years,” Weeks posted on her Go Fund Me account.

Other returners include Era, Loyatho and Pogu.

Fry brings Olympic credentials to the team having won a silver medal with Team USA at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

Era, meanwhile, is the group’s trailblazer. She became the youngest member to make the U.S. senior women’s team at age 15 in 2008; she was also to the first Arizonan to make the team.

The 2018 tournament will mark her 11th consecutive year on Team USA. She has competed in Germany, Italy (four times), Czech Republic, Colombia, USA, France, Argentina and China.

Era is serving as this year’s U.S. team captain.

“We can’t take any country lightly,” she said before departing for Italy. “We are a talented team but everyone needs to play up to their potential. Inline hockey is a team game and we will need to play as ‘one’ to win.”

The United States will face Argentina, Italy and the Czech Republic in pool play.

Other national teams entered in the 14-team field include Switzerland, India, New Zealand, Canada, Sweden, China, Australia, Spain, Finland and Latvia.

Playoff rounds commence July 17.

Young guns

JrMens-USA-AAUWestCoastNats

The U.S. junior men’s national team might as well be called Team California as 12 of its 14 rostered players hail from the Golden State.

Californians on the U.S. roster include Corona’s Brayden Kohler and Cody Vadeboncoeur; Tustin’s Grayson Yada and Hayden Maxwell; Yorba Linda’s Max Reeves and Noah Aulerich; and Chase Edwards, Christian Acosta, Derek Le, Jaden Guzman, Joe Fordyce and Ethan Bach, all from San Jose.

Cody Printzen, from Las Vegas, among three returners on the team, adds to the team’s West Coast-centric dimension.

Kohler, another returner along with Auerlich, serves as this year’s team captain.

New York’s Jim Tamburino (head coach) and Corona’s Steven Boddy (assistant coach) serve as coaches on the team.

Boddy has a special connection to the U.S. squad having worn team colors as a player at the 2008 tournament.

The U.S. team will seek improvement from last year’s seventh-place finish (out of 17 teams) in Nanjing, China. Team USA last medaled in the division in 2013 when it captured the silver medal.

The young American squad had a unique opportunity to hold a pre-event training camp of sorts by competing as a unit in May’s Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) West Coast Nationals at THE RINKS-Corona Inline. Playing as Team USA, the squad won the Men’s Gold Division championship to provide a sense of optimism on what could lie ahead.

“Most of our players are California kids, so we already have some good team chemistry and camaraderie,” explained Boddy, who also served as the team’s assistant coach last year in China. “We had the majority of the players down here for the tournament (AAU West Coast Nationals) and were able to have the team play in the Men’s division. They played really well all tournament and ended up beating a good Rink Rat team in the final.

“I think we really have a shot at medaling this year for our junior men’s team, so I’m really excited about the trip.”

Maxwell, who will be making his international debut, is an accomplished player in the Anaheim Ducks Inline Scholastic Hockey League (ADISL) with Beckman High School and a highly regarded NARCh-level club player.

The significance of the upcoming trip has left an impact on him personally.

“I’ve been playing roller many years and it’s allowed me to travel all across the USA and meet many great people,” Maxwell explained. “Now I get to play with my buddies and represent my country in Italy. That’s pretty cool. I’m very lucky and fortunate to have this honor. I have to thanks my parents, coaches and teammates for all the support.”

Maxwell is one of six players on the U.S. junior men’s team who played this past 2017-18 season in the ADISL, joining Beckman teammate Yada and Kohler, Vadeboncoeur, Reeves and Auerlich all from Santiago High School.

Boddy, who serves as coach of Norco High School, and Pogu, who serves as an assistant coach with Santiago High School, complete the ADISL’s strong connection to the U.S. national team program.

Once in Italy, the Americans will meet Spain, Colombia and the host Italians in pool play in the 19-team tournament.

Other nations seeking to medal include Canada, Switzerland, France, Poland, Great Britain, Sweden, Czech Republic, India, Germany, China, New Zealand, Latvia, Namibia, Australia and Chinese Taipei.

Playoffs start July 16.

France defeated Spain to win last year’s gold medal while Italy defeated the Czechs to capture the bronze medal.

Stars & Stripes

The U.S. senior men’s team will compete in a 24-nation field — the largest of the four tournaments under this year’s FIRS banner.

The Americans will face China, India and Slovenia in pool play. Other national teams entered alongside the USA include Germany, Great Britain, Mexico, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Ireland, Poland, Sweden, Brazil, Australia, Argentina, Slovakia, Colombia, France, Czech Republic, Latvia, Switzerland, Italy, Canada and Spain.

Tustin’s Tyler Svoboda, who moves from an assistant coach to the head coaching position of the U.S. senior men’s team, has set a goal to improve on last year’s extremely disappointing ninth-place finish (out of 20 teams) in China.

Svoboda said his job will be to thoroughly study the rules and plan team strategy.

“It’s 100 percent on me,” he said. “It’s on me to blueprint our power play, our penalty kill. I need to find the right guys to rise up to leadership roles. It’s my job to put these guys in position to be successful.

“Every goal matters.”

Three Californians are on the U.S. senior men’s roster: forward Matt Sarvak (Newport Beach) and defensemen Jackson Faught (Rancho Santa Margarita, pictured below) and Tristan Gonzalez (Tustin).

All three return from last year.

Jackson_Faught_SrMen

Faught helped lead Saddleback College to the Junior College Division championship at April’s National Collegiate Roller Hockey Association (NCRHA) national championship tournament.

Arizona Outcasts goaltender Clay Taylor, who led his team to a runner-up up finish in May’s American Inline Hockey League (AIHL) Champions Cup tournament in Philadelphia, complements the team’s West Coast presence.

The United States last won a gold medal in 2014 but has not medaled since claiming the bronze medal in 2015 as an indication that the sport has started to grow internationally in terms of competitiveness.

With the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) not holing its inline hockey world championship tournament this year, this year’s FIRS event should be even more competitive than usual with top players from around the world no longer splitting the talent pool between the two tournaments.

Svoboda said other countries are making rapid improvement in terms of fielding competitive inline hockey teams.

The Czech Republic won back-to-back gold medals in 2015-16 while France defeated Italy to win last year’s gold medal, with the Czechs finishing third.

The Czechs have medaled in 13 consecutive tournaments, winning the gold medal five times.

The United States has collected 15 gold medals in the history of the event, which dates to 1995.

“There has been 100 percent improvement over the years of the tournament,” Svoboda said. “The gap has closed. The Czechs have always been good, the Canadians have always been good and France has really closed the gap. But teams like Argentina have made significant improvement. Italy, of course, will be cheered on by the home fans.”

The U.S. team will face a domestic conflict with top players in the talent pool split between playing for Team USA and club teams at the State Wars 14 United States Hockey Championships July 25-Aug. 6 in St. Peters, Mo.

Svoboda, who admitted disappointment at the schedule conflict, said he is resolved to “make the best with what we have” in Italy.

As it is, the U.S. team has quite a bit working in its favor.

“We’re going to have some firepower,” Svoboda said. “I think we have a shot at a medal if we play smart and stay out of the penalty box. In pro and international, events are won and lost on the power play. We have an incredible power play. That will help us.

“The expectations are huge. I hope we can deliver and execute – we’re up to do it.”

Girl power

This is the third year the world championships have featured a junior women’s division. Chinese Taipei defeated Italy to win last year’s title while New Zealand defeated Australia to win the bronze medal.

The United States competed at the inaugural event in 2013 in Huntington Beach but has yet to medal in the division.

That could change this year with a major assist from six Arizonans — four players, one head coach and one assistant coach on the team.

In fact, all the players on this year’s U.S. junior women’s team hail from the West Coast, including three from California, two from Oregon and one from Nevada.

Head coach Greg Era hails from Arizona as does Fry, who serves as the team’s assistant coach, to complete the Grand Canyon State theme.

Californians on the roster include San Jose’s Kristin Vavaroutsos, Corona’s Lilie Pogu and West Covina’s Anamary Pulgar (goaltender).

Arizonans on the roster include Yuma’s Isabella Clark, Scottsdale’s Lauren Power, Scottsdale’s Macy Eide and Phoenix’s Tatum Proud (goaltender).

Kylie Brown and Lexus Ace are both from Bend, Ore., while Ashley Printzen is from Las Vegas.

“This year’s team has a good age mix for competing and growing the team,” Greg Era said. “With a group of senior age 19U players, a group of 16U players and a couple of really good skating 14U players we will compete against some of the best junior women teams in the world such as Spain, Italy and Chinese Taipei.”

The Team USA coach has managed to secure enough rink time in Arizona to allow players from both states to get together for training and practices. The team should be well versed when it hits the playing court in Italy.

“I have been fortunate to get rink time to train USA players almost weekly with practices and games as a unit,” Era said. “The Arizona senior and junior women make it almost every week.

“Allison Era and Lyndsey Fry are a great asset to have with me on the rink. Both played NCAA collegiate hockey. Allie won a national championship in 2013-14 with SUNY Plattsburgh and is a two-time All-American. She is the current captain for the USA senior women and has 11 years of consecutive service on the team. Lyndsey is a Harvard graduate and silver medalist with the USA women’s 2014 Olympic ice hockey team and played inline hockey with Arizona State University.

“Both bring hockey skills and acumen as well as being great role models for the junior team.”

The U.S. coach can still recall how his daughter made the game her own.

“Allison started competing nationally as an 8U inline player and I remember a few of the then older standout players who led the way for her age group,” Greg Era recalled. “She couldn’t wait to be 14 to play in the women’s divisions. Most of these ladies went on to play college ice hockey. Arizona has had up to four players, a goalie and a coach represent the USA senior women at a single FIRS world championship.”

A new generation appears ready to take the playing court.

The U.S. head coach noted that Pogu, who skates for the Bulldogs Hockey Club, exudes a strong defensive presence on the playing court and has the most international travel experience on the U.S. junior women’s team after playing on USA junior women’s teams at AAU Junior Olympic Games.

She is the younger sister of Elisa Pogu, a long-standing player on the U.S. senior women’s team.

Pulgar plays the goaltender position both in ice (19U Lady Ducks) and inline (Labeda Jets). She earned the top goaltender award with a .897 save percentage in the Pee Wee Silver Division at the 2017 NARCh West Coast Finals.

Vavaroutsos has an extensive inline playing career, having played for the Silicon Valley Quakes, 16U Revision Revolution and in women’s divisions for the Revision Lady Revolution, Ferda and Verbero.

Vavaroutsos and Printzen played together on the 18U girls Team USA at the 2016 AAU Junior Olympic Games under coach Dave Inouye.

Clark and Proud are both products of the Inline Hockey Association of Arizona (IHAAZ) playing on 16U boys teams. Clark is representing the Yuma Blaze and Proud the Arizona Knighthawks.

Power and Eide are 1999 birth-years and come from ice hockey programs. Power is a product of the long-standing AZ Lady Coyotes; Eide won a state championship as a goaltender with Desert Vista High School in 2016-2017 and has been named to Arizona State University’s women’s ice hockey team.

Tatum_Proud“Macy is really sharp and can see the game from a goalie’s perspective,” the elder Era noted. “She is skating out this year with the junior women and I hope to see her on the senior women as a goalie in the near future. She has been training hard for the past couple of months to learn player strategies, sharpen skating skills while using her high-end goalie knowledge.”

Printzen plays ice hockey for Belle Tire 16U girls and competed at the 2018 USA Hockey National Championships in Marlborough, Mass. in the 16U Girls Tier 1 division.

Brown and Ace are the youngest players to make the team. Both play for the Bend Bullets AAA team and won the gold medal at the 2017 NARCh Winternationals. Both play ice and inline hockey. They also play on boys age-group inline teams to sharpen their skills.

Proud (pictured right) is very excited to be part of this year’s Team USA junior women’s team.

“I am so excited to be goalie for Team USA,” she explained. “This has been a dream of mine since I started playing, and to be able to compete with my great friend Izzy Clark from Yuma is simply amazing.

“I have made a bunch of new friends and teammates and this group of girls are extremely awesome. I have been lucky to have some fantastic coaches along the way. We have a lot of families and friends who are cheering for us and it is truly an amazing feeling! I cannot wait to get to Italy and show the world what USA girls Roller Hockey is all about.”

Opponents in Italy include Colombia, Finland, New Zealand and Italy in pool play. Other countries competing in the 10-team division include Spain, Great Britain, India, Australia and Chinese Taipei.

Playoff rounds start July 26.

For tournament updates, visit www.worldskate.org.

top Loyatho photo/USA Roller Sports
Faught photo/Saddleback College

— Phillip Brents

(July 14, 2018)