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For a shot at world championship, Maryland lacrosse players follow family history to nontraditional nations

There’s no shortage of men’s lacrosse stars for powerhouses like the United States, Canada and the Iroquois Nationals to tap for the Federation of International Men’s World Lacrosse Championship, which opens Thursday in Netanya, Israel.

But for nontraditional nations, the pool is not quite as deep.

That’s where someone like John Tornabene steps in. The Havre de Grace native and Archbishop Curley graduate, who in April wrapped up his senior year as a close defenseman for UMBC, will play for the Filipino national team, which in 2014 became the 50th country to join the FIL. His maternal grandparents called the Southeast Asia country home for years before immigrating to the United States.

“The Filipino nation is not necessarily known as a sports nation, and I want to go out and prove what we’re capable of,” he said. “Maybe one day, we can be as good as the United States. It might take some time, but it’s not out of sight.”

Former Loyola Maryland long-stick midfielder Zac Davliakos, who will suit up for Greece, has a similar viewpoint.

“For us smaller countries, it means a lot to be on the same field as the U.S. and Canada,” Davliakos said. “Obviously, we’re not as successful or as talented as them, but we’re still competing on the same field. So that means a lot for Greece.”

To be more competitive in the quadrennial lacrosse competition, the sport’s newer nations have had to recruit more experienced players from other countries. Tornabene and Davliakos are just two of many who hail from Division I programs in Maryland.

Puerto Rico’s roster includes midfielder Corey Millhouse (Loyola Maryland), defenseman Tomas Rodriguez (UMBC/Pace) and short-stick defensive midfielder Thomas O’Connell (Maryland). Tornabene and goalkeeper Dan Morris (Maryland) will play for the Philippines, while midfielder Jean-Luc Chetner (Towson) and goalie Eric Schneider (Johns Hopkins) will represent Israel. Short-stick defensive midfielder Phil Castronova (Johns Hopkins) will play for Italy.

ESPN lacrosse analyst Quint Kessenich is excited to see the growing number of American players representing other countries.

“It’s wonderful to see American players contributing to the growth of the game globally by playing for some national teams and spending some time in those countries and working with youngsters and adults to grow the game and teach the game and to be ambassadors,” said the former Johns Hopkins goalkeeper, who will be part of ESPN’s coverage of the world championship. “That’s what the world games are about.”

FIL rules allow nations to add four nonpassport holders and two players with dual-citizenship status to their rosters as long as they can provide proof of their ancestry. For someone like O’Connell, a rising senior, a family tree can have unexpected roots: His maternal grandparents were born and raised in Puerto Rico before immigrating to the United States and meeting in New York.

“I’m the only Irish Puerto Rican on the team,” he quipped.

Many players acknowledged that they had little hope of making Team USA, the 2014 runner-up and a nine-time world champion. Joining another nation for a chance to play in the world championship was their next-best option.

“I knew I wasn’t going to be good enough to make Team USA,” said Castronova, a 26-year-old real estate banker and Calvert Hall graduate whose paternal grandparents were born and raised in Italy. “So this means a lot. … It’s great to be able to represent them and the culture they loved. I don’t know any Italian myself, but I’m hoping to learn about my culture from my teammates.”

The path to Israel was no picnic. Players said they had to compete against as many as 50 other candidates over two or three days of tryouts, and sometimes more than once. And because many of the countries will be competing at the world championship for the first time, some players had to pay for airfare, lodging, food and equipment, which in some cases totaled as much as $5,000.

Because of their backgrounds and experience in the sport, the American-bred players are expected to be some of the best players on their teams. Davliakos said he has been told that he will start on close defense for Greece, but also has been given the green light to seek scoring opportunities.

“I have free rein to go all over the field and do whatever I want,” said Davliakos, who scored seven goals in his career but missed all 12 of his shots last season with the Greyhounds. “But I better hit the cage more than I did this past season.”

“In terms of D-1 level of success, I guess I’m up there,” acknowledged Morris, whose maternal grandparents are Filipino. “We have a lot of guys who have played college lacrosse, but we definitely have some talented guys.”

O’Connell, on the other hand, said he was surprised by the skill level of his teammates on the Puerto Rican team.

“It’s certainly a humbling experience to see how good these guys are,” he said. “So I wouldn’t say that I’m the best player. I have to prove that I’m talented enough to be on this team.”

Because 12 of the 48 countries playing in the world championship are making their international debut in Israel, they will not play in the Blue Division, which is made up of the top six teams from the 2014 championship. But the objective is universal: Play well enough to clinch a berth in 2022 world championships, which will be limited to 30 qualifying countries.

Morris said his teammates on the Philippines are embracing the slogan “Shock the world.”

“This is our first appearance in the world games, but we’re trying to be competitive,” said the goalie, who started 17 games as a senior last season at Maryland. “Obviously, the goal is to medal, but we’d be happy to finish in the top 14. We want to go as far as we can.”

O’Connell’s maternal grandparents, Candido and Maria Felix, plan to watch their grandson’s games. O’Connell said he takes immense pride in honoring his Puerto Rican heritage,

“You always rep your school and your alumni and especially when you play for Maryland, the state,” he said. “But to rep your family, it’s very cool. My grandfather is so excited. He’s still learning about the game, but he’s excited to see me put on the uniform and represent the family.”

Tornabene’s 76-year-old maternal grandmother, Ching Barretto; mother, Julie; and stepfather, George Perise, will attend the games in Israel. Tornabene said wearing the Filipino uniform is his way of paying tribute to his “lola” (Tagalog for “grandmother”).

“This means a lot to her,” he said. “I want to make her proud because she is an important part of my life. And I want to make the Filipino community proud.”

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