U.S. Under-19 men's lacrosse team tabs three local products

Of the three local players to earn a spot on the U.S. Under-19 boys lacrosse team, which will defend its world title in Finland next summer, Ryan Tucker was the only one who appeared almost destined to qualify after leading Gilman to the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship in May.

The finishing kick to his high school career was that strong for the University of Virginia recruit.

The other two — Stephen Kelly and Robby Zoppo — had to be considered surprises to make the elite 23-man squad.

For one thing, Zoppo just completed a redshirt year for Towson University after graduating from Calvert Hall in 2010 — not exactly the perfect credentials for such an honor.

And Kelly would seem, at first blush, to be way too young to compete with such a distinguished group.

After all, the Calvert Hall rising junior from Lutherville is merely 16, two years younger than many of his teammates, including Tucker and Zoppo.

Nevertheless, Calvert Hall coach Bryan Kelly, who coaches his nephew, Stephen, coached Zoppo for two years on the Cardinal varsity and coached against Ryan's dad, John, when he was at Gilman and Loyola Blakefield, feels all three midfielders deserved to be selected after four grueling days of tryouts at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County earlier this month.

Bryan Kelly knows the international game, considering he played on the inaugural U.S. U-19 team, which swept to the title in Adelaide, Australia, in 1988.

"The international game is a lot of up and down (the field), the way the game is meant to be played," Kelly said. "As a midfielder, you have to be able to play defense, too. If you can't play defense, they don't want you. And all three of these guys can fly. They all can do so many things."

Towson resident Tucker, the 2011 Towson Times co-player of the year with Conor Doyle, features a wicked shot among an array of attributes.

"When he's hitting the cage, there's not much you can do to stop him," the coach said. "He just has such a hard shot."

Stephen Kelly is a faceoff phenom — he won 17 of 23 draws in the 13-8 loss to Gilman in the conference finale in May — with several other strong suits that make him extraordinarily valuable. The acronym FOGO (faceoff, get off) does not apply to him because of his uncanny ability to also score, feed and defend.

Even so, he thought his chances of making the team were slim after playing "the worst game of my life" in the next-to-last game of the tryout.

Kelly redeemed himself, however, by playing extremely well in the final tryout scrimmage.

Still, he said, he figured the coaches "might take a kid with college experience over me."

They didn't, which precipitated an impromptu Kelly family celebration on a Fenwick Island, Del., beach the next day when the team was announced.

The kid with college experience, Zoppo, was the least likely member of the group — except to his high school coach.

Kelly said that the Loch Raven and Parkville rec product always had the ability, although his age and relative lack of experience hindered his progress.

As a senior at Calvert Hall, Zoppo was on the same midfield unit with Phil Castronova and Tony Rossi, who started this spring for Johns Hopkins and Stevenson universities, respectively, as freshmen.

"Rob would always defer to them, but I told him that he could break down defenders, too," Kelly said. "He was a late bloomer, but I always knew his best lacrosse was ahead of him. He just wasn't ready. He wasn't sure he was good enough."

Zoppo's confidence soared, he said, by practicing this season against tough TU defender Peter Mezzanotte.

"I know I'm a good player," Zoppo said. "Things just didn't go my way before, but now they are. I got bigger, faster and stronger. And playing against Mezzanotte every day made me a better player."

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