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Casey Cittadino and Team Israel

March 18, 2016
At first mention, Casey Cittadino’s name doesn’t sound like an Israeli one. But, then again, haven’t we been taught to remember that things aren’t always as they seem? The same goes for Team Israel, making its first national appearance in the FIL 2014 World Lacrosse Championships this week. An unlikely bunch with a lot to prove, in less than four years Team Israel and Cittadino have joined forces and surprised the lacrosse community.

Cittadino was raised Jewish but had never really considered extending his religious relationship with its homeland until he was contacted by Team Israel. “When they reached out to me, I just couldn’t think of anything better to be a part of,” he said. “I was raised Jewish, my mother’s Jewish, my mother’s side of the family is Jewish, I was bar mitzvahed, I’ve been to Israel… so, when I was contacted I thought: they don’t have lacrosse there, how do I help grow the sport as a whole and take it to some place amazing?”

And just like that, Team Israel had a nine year MLL defensive-midfielder veteran, complete with 84 collected ground balls, a background in training, and a deep desire to be a part of something great. There was just one stipulation, though: he needed an Israeli passport.

“The past year and a half I’ve gone through a ridiculous amount of paper work, interviews, different things of that nature. [I’ve had to] fly to Israel—make Aliyah—go to the Israeli consulate, get passports validated, get ID cards, get my Teudat Maavar… but, I just wanted to be a part of it, I wanted to help. I truly did.”

While he was in Israel to help develop the team, Cittadino noticed the eagerness with which his fellow program members approached their training. “These guys have been preparing quite a bit… what really blew me away was one: the group of Jewish-American players’ commitment. They went [to Israel] to play lacrosse but they just got their eyes opened to the Jewish culture—and, really, to Israel’s culture—and now, in their mind, they’re saying ‘hey, I want to play on this team again in four years.’ And, two: everybody just wants to learn. And most of them are soccer players, so they’re playing almost as if a soccer player would, and [Harvard Assistant Coach] Ben Smith and I would take guys off to the side to work with and they’d run this play and then look at us and go: ‘Can we do it again?’ ‘Can we do it again?’ And I’m talking 50 times in a row. These kids just wanted to get it right every time. So there is some dedication and passion behind it, really.”

When Team Israel first contacted him, Cittadino thought it was “just a really unique opportunity… I saw it as a chance for me to make the team, be a part of it, and go play lacrosse at the World Games… what’s cool about Israel is that we’ve never had a team in the Worlds and we kind of want to showcase that ‘Hey! We can play lacrosse, too!’ and we have a pretty decent team to do that with.”

But, there’s something more to it now than he originally anticipated.

A dedicated and passionate lacrosse player himself, Cittadino is experiencing a newer, different feeling while watching new players and teammates connect with the game for the first time and develop their lacrosse IQ: patriotism. “Y’know, when you play [in the World Games] you represent you country. You’re representing your country, you’re representing a group of people much bigger than yourself, and so when anyone has that opportunity, they want to do anything they can to represent those things in the best way possible. I want to be a part of it. Really. I do.”

His expectations for Team Israel challenge World Game spectators to not count the inaugural team out just yet, either. When asked of his prediction for the competition starting this week, Cittadino confessed that “most people probably have Sweden winning the bracket [of the Orange Division]… but, I think we’re going to come in and surprise some people and win it.”

His dreams for Team Israel don’t end there, either. He continued, “From there it’s… I don’t know, I’ll have to look at the brackets again. But, I think if we win we’ll go play like, a Team Ireland, which is still a ranked nine or ten team, and I’ve got no doubt in my mind that we can play with those guys. We’ve got some good talent on the team so we can be in the game and if we win that game… then it’s… who knows where we could go…”

“These guys have been preparing quite a bit and it’s just nice to bring that exposure and to help grow the game for future generations in Israel,” Cittadino ultimately decides. “Who knows where our team will be in four years, and in four years after that. But, I’m excited to be a part of the first inaugural team. Like I said, I just couldn’t think of anything better to be a part of.”

And that’s one thing that Cittadino never expected: to feel so connected.