It was a trip to remember for three former Cranford High School lacrosse stars, who were invited to take their talents to Europe to play teams from Germany, the Netherlands and other European nations as part of an All-Star contingent made up of local college players.
Alex Stone, John Hoeffler and John Gesumaria weren't quite sure what they were getting into. But after finishing their tour with an unbeaten 8-0 record, they quickly realized that this is one game where the United States has the sporting edge.
"We went into a few tournaments," said Stone. "We went to one tournament in the Netherlands, which was based out of Amsterdam, and then we went on to play in Germany and then from there we went on to play the Austrian National team in Vienna."
Coach Shelley Shiner, who heads the Kean College men's varsity program, was instrumental in putting the squad together, taking some of his Kean graduates as well as athletes from other mid-Atlantic schools.
Team USA's convincing 9-1 victory in the final of the Amsterdam Lowlands tournament proved they were superior to their European lacrosse rivals.
"All the club teams had players from the international teams," said Hoeffler, a 2006 CHS grad. "We played against a couple of players that are playing in the world games this week. It was really cool. You can see the difference between the level of play of the international players on the club teams that have only been playing for two years over there."
Gesumaria, who protected the cage for Kean University until graduating this past season, was an Honorable-Mention pre-season All-American and also was a two-time All-Conference selection in college. He also graduated form Cranford High in 2006.
"The culture experience was beyond anything we could have imagined," Gesumaria said. "We played lacrosse here for the past eight, nine years, even more. Going there for lacrosse was one thing, but meeting the people from different countries, being able to hang out with them during the day, talk about their countries, along with the U.S., was awesome. Traveling through three different countries, one country to the next, was great."
"It's not so much the success (on the field) we were most proud of," added Hoeffler. "But it was the experience we had with other players, the cultural experience we had over there. Getting to see the cities was unreal. Their McDonald's is like a four-star restaurant."
International lacrosse may have also opened the door to an even more important assignment.
"I'm still talking to one of the guys about a program where they have U.S. college graduates teach English as a second language for middle school programs over in Amsterdam," noted Hoeffler. "You help develop lacrosse programs. They put you up in a house and I'm hoping I can do that next year."
The trio also got to experience the excitement of World Cup soccer -- right in the backyard of the Netherlands, who advanced to the World Cup finals, while defeating the world's number-one ranked team along the way.
"That was an experience by itself -- being able to be in the Netherlands when they beat Brazil," said Gesumaria. "So that was a once in a lifetime experience, to see how much they put us to shame in having pride in team sports there."
When the trip was planned, there was excitement, of course, but they had no idea what was in store when they stepped off the plane.
"Going there, we didn't know what we were getting ourselves into, lacrosse-wise," said Gesumaria. "Our level of play was a lot higher. It allowed us to win. We taught them more lacrosse-wise, but they taught us more culture-wise."
To help defray the costs of the trip, team members held a unique fundraiser, with the help of Dave and Donna Stone, who organized a lacrosse camp for kids featuring the Team USA players.
In addition to raising funds for the trip, Gesumaria noted it gave the team the opportunity to help out the younger lacrosse players in town.
"This opportunity going to Europe provided us with an even better opportunity back in Cranford," said Hoeffler. "I think the kids got so much fun and joy out of the camp. They were asking us when the next camp was. We had just intended on doing a fundraiser because the trip was very expensive, but the kids wanted to know if we were going to have one in the fall. We were taken aback by it. Looking back on it, when we started the program – when we were in eighth grade, we didn't have anybody to look up to, to run camps for us. I think we started something, where we can – year in and year out – run a camp for these kids, try and help them become better lacrosse players, to be better kids essentially."
And maybe have the chance to follow in their footsteps someday as members of Team USA.