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LIers thrilled to be in World Lacrosse Championship

They've all spilled blood, sweat and tears for their high schools and colleges. Some have even earned a few bucks playing in their niche sport's professional league.

But for 23 fortunate American men's lacrosse players, a rare honor awaits them beginning this week: a chance for a starring role on lacrosse's only international stage.

"It's an absolute thrill to be a part of it, to represent your country and be involved in our own Olympics," said former Massapequa High School and Duke University star Matt Zash, currently a Long Island Lizards midfielder. "We really don't have anything else, internationally, like the other sports. This is our World Cup."

The World Lacrosse Championships on July 15-24 in Manchester, England, will not be nearly as celebrated, televised or followed as the World Cup. Still, the upcoming quadrennial event can produce similar lump-in-the-throat patriotism for its participants and fans. "To say it's an honor is an absolute understatement," Zash said. "Every kid who plays lacrosse grows up wishing and hoping they could be on this team."

Among Zash's USA teammates are three other Long Island midfielders who have achieved big-time lacrosse success on the high school, college and professional level.

Stephen Peyser (Cold Spring Harbor, Johns Hopkins) is a fellow Lizard, a faceoff specialist with finishing skills. Veteran Kevin Cassese (Comsewogue, Duke) is a sturdy defensive star who retired from pro lacrosse after last season to become the head coach at Lehigh. Max Seibald (Hewlett, Cornell) was the Tewaaraton Trophy winner in 2009, emblematic of the nation's top college player, and is one of the United States' most athletic young guns.

"There is a great sense of pride to compete for the red, white and blue," Seibald said by phone from Denver, where he is a popular star for the Outlaws, Major League Lacrosse's most successful pro franchise. "You can see by the World Cup that Americans really show their patriotism for the U.S. team."

The American team is considered a slight favorite to re-claim the gold medal it won in 2002 but lost to Canada in 2006. Team USA opens with Australia on July 16 and faces Canada on July 17. The tournament format calls for five games in five days of round-robin play and two games in four days in the gold-medal round. "It'll be intense, that's for sure," Cassese said.

The United States won six straight gold medals before falling to the Canadians in 2006. Canada has closed the talent gap because of its popular indoor game - known as box lacrosse - that has produced a generation of players who can maneuver and shoot quickly in tight spaces. Numerous players on Team Canada were Division I stars at U.S. colleges, including Sid Smith and Cody Jamieson, key performers on Syracuse's 2009 national championship team.

"Talking to some of the guys who've played in this before, they said there was no greater feeling than hearing the national anthem at the end of the tournament in 2002," Seibald said. "In 2006, they said hearing 'O Canada' was the worst feeling in the world. Bringing home the silver was very unsatisfying. This trip will be a failure if we don't bring home the gold."

Cassese, 29, who played for the U.S. team in 2002 and 2006 and played for current USA coach Mike Pressler at Duke, has an even greater sense of urgency.

"I view this as the World Cup of lacrosse, and it carries special meaning for me because it's my last hurrah as a player," Cassese said. "When you lose, like we did last time, it sits with you for three years. The U.S. isn't used to losing. For me to end my career with a gold medal would be great. The gold medal belongs in the United States."

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