07/09/2019 8:10 AM
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Jeff Aiello knew that his Team 91 2024 Wolfpack team wasn't going to sneak up on anybody at the World Series of Youth Lacrosse.
It's hard to catch anyone off-guard when you roll through the toughest qualifier, or when you earn the tournament's top seed and are the latest in a long line of incredibly skilled Team 91 teams. After all, the 2020 Crush and 2023 Bandits had already won the event in their respective years, so there's always a bit of extra focus on any 91 team that makes it to Denver.
Rather than downplay being the alpha dog of the tournament, Aiello and his team took the hype head-on.
"We absolutely embraced it," Aiello said. "We won the qualifier and got the No. 1 overall seed, and we told the boys that the bottom line is that you have giant target on your chest with good reason. We're the best team, but we continued to preach to them that practice was only going to make them better."
It's hard to truly appreciate how dominant the Wolfpack was en route to winning the tournament. They outscored opponents by a ridiculous 65-8 margin in the pool play games before the competition significantly ramped up with familiar foe Long Island Express in the quarterfinals. A hard-fought 8-4 win placed the 'Pack in the semis, where they squared off with a super-skilled BBL team that had rampaged its way through its path.
"Going into the tournament, we knew that BBL was the game, and if we won, we'd be confident going forward in the final," Aiello said. "Going into our game, BBL had by far the most impressive numbers. They'd only given up six goals in the pool play and beat Express 10-0, so after we beat them, we felt good. The Express and BBL games were . alot closer than the scores would indicate."
A taut 8-5 win over the New Jersey program earned the 'Pack a spot in the title game against fellow Long Islanders Legacy, which jumped out to an early 2-1 lead before things turned on a dime. Aiello's group tied the game and took a 3-2 lead before the end of the quarter, and that sparked a run for the ages. The Wolfpack netted the next 12 goals, turning a squeaker into a celebration for the final three quarters.
"After we made it 2-2, the kids definitely loosened up. They were a little tight and missing passes and shots that we normally convert. Once they relaxed, they were just outstanding in transition and we had excellent team defense," Aiello said. "They started having fun and it was evident once you watched it on TV. They had a smile on their face and they played the way they're capable, and we're dangerous when we do that."
This team had it all, too. Unlike its 91 champion predecessors, it didn't exclusively rely on having attackmen that are simply light years better than the defensemen that are covering them. Instead, it was a "everyone eats" mentality that allowed 14 players to record a point during the weekend to go along with a lights-out defense backed by outstanding goaltending by Brady Smith and Sal Caputo, who combined to stop 72.7 percent of shots. Aiello's staff, which also includes offensive coach Mike Luce, goalie coach Mike McMinn as well as Brian Spallina, put the players in a position to succeed, and the 'Pack took care of the rest.
"When we spoke to (ESPN color analyst) Quint (Kessenich), he said, 'this team is so different than the other 91 teams,' and I asked him why," Aiello said. "He said that there aren't stars like the other ones did, like Brennan O'Neill, Jack Ponzio and Jack Speidell, but they're all really good and they play the right way. We don't foul. We teach them to play hard and play the game the right way."
That's how you get to be the top dog, and it's never anything to hide from.