When the United States Under-19 women's lacrosse team steps on the field Thursday for its opening game at the Federation of International Lacrosse world championships in Hanover, Germany, expectations will be high — and with good reason.
The United States has won the last three Under-19 titles, hasn't lost a game during that stretch, and won the 1999, 2003 and 2007 championships by an average of 11.7 goals — all over Australia.
The Aussies won the inaugural U-19 title, 5-4, in Haverford, Pa., in 1995, but that is the only game the U.S. has lost in the event's history.
Canada coach Scott Teeter said that dominance starts with one simple thing that other nations cannot counter: numbers.
"[The U.S. team is] so deep, they just keep coming from different directions," said Teeter, whose team played a tune-up match against the U.S. Memorial Day weekend on Long Island. "They really don't have a weak spot, and I honestly believe it comes from the number of players that they have to select from. There are so many girls that are playing field lacrosse all year around."
The latest participation survey from US Lacrosse, the sport's governing body in this country, counted nearly 229,000 girls in high school or younger playing the game in 2010.
By comparison, Australia had 470 players in the Under-18 age groups, according to Fiona Clark, president of the Australia Lacrosse Association. Only 1,020 women of all ages play the game in Australia.
The Canadian Lacrosse Association registered 1,166 young players in 2010, although that does not include players in Ontario's house leagues and in about 30 high schools, Joanne Stanga, CLA director of women's national teams, said in an email.
U.S. U-19 coach Krystin Porcella said another key to success is the well-developed system the U.S. has to support those players from tots to teens.
"Kids start playing, for the most part, when they're five years old," said Porcella, who also coaches at John Carroll. "There's clubs, there's clinics, there's rec leagues, there's travel leagues and the club programs are monsters right now. I think our kids are playing more seriously at a younger age." .
And girls lacrosse continues to grow at a rapid pace in the U.S.
At the youth level (under 15), participation has grown 34 percent over the past four years, according to the US Lacrosse survey. Participation in the high school girls game is up 48.4 percent in five years and, making it the fastest growing high school sport among members of the National Federation of State High School Associations.
"US Lacrosse is such a catalyst for that growth," Porcella said. "The structure that they have in place from the youth programs to high schools all the way up to college, and the support for the sport itself, is something that perhaps some other countries don't have — that true support or a national organization pushing for the sport."
With so many young players taking up the game, the U.S. has a broad foundation that fosters not only skilled players, but experienced coaches who continue to change and improve the game.
By comparison, Australia women's lacrosse is purely a club system, and coaches volunteer.
Josie Owen, who played for the U.S. U-19 team in 2007, said she could tell the difference between the U.S. players and coaches and their opponents.
"I think that our program and coaches are top-notch," said the Severn graduate, who is now playing at Virginia. "I'm friends with a girl who played on the U-19 team for England. She plays on England's national team now, and she said the coaching is a lot of years behind and the strategy is a little behind the U.S. I just think that more girls here have been playing for longer … and I definitely felt like the experience and the skill level were superior."
While the vast numbers give the U.S. an initial advantage, they don't guarantee victory. Porcella said the Aussies likely will be the biggest challenge when they meet the U.S. in pool play Tuesday.
For Bryn Mawr coach Wendy Kridel, who coached the U.S. in the last three U-19 championships, there's also the challenge of bringing the players together and bringing out the most in them.
"Who's to say that the right kids were always picked, but the kids that were there bought in lock, stock and barrel to everything they were told to do and about the experience and what it meant," Kridel said. "They believed it, and they lived it, and then they wanted it, so I think there's that piece of it. I think it's such an honest thing and so different for these kids. To truly be honored to be chosen to play for your country, you don't often get that feeling."