There was a time when Rick Mercurio experienced the Cold War. It was real and there was tension. As a kid growing up on Long Island, the idea of being a lacrosse coach for Team Russia was literally foreign.
Mercurio traveled to Russia in July 2012 as a representative of the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL). Since then, he’s stayed in contact with players and coaches from the region and the relationships led to a coaching spot with the Team Russia at the World Lacrosse Championships being held in Denver this month.
“I just never imagined that something like this could have ever happened in my lifetime,” he said. “I want to share a great experience with them to remember forever, and for them to bring back to share with others in Russia.”
Originally intending to help the FIL during the World Games, Mercurio was contacted by Peter Milliman, the defensive coordinator at Cornell and head coach of Team Russia, to join his coaching staff.
“I looked at it as an opportunity to get some international coaching experience at the competitive level,” said Mercurio, who taught and coached at Sachem for more than 20 years and compiled 316 career victories.
Mercurio was the driving force behind bringing legendary Ward Melville coach Joe Cuozzo on board with Team Russia as well.
Most of the players on the Russian squad have never been to the states before. Until a certain point prior to the games, it was unsure they would be issued travel visas. Everything was squared away and the team went 2-5 in tournament play, earning victories over Argentina and Spain.
Mercurio said in light of all the recent tension between the United States and Russian governments, it is even more important to show the world that through sport, people can be brought together in peace and rise above the political agendas of governments.
“The one thing that I have found constant through all my travels with the FIL, is that the players, coaches and people that I have met, share the same basic needs and aspirations that we all have,” he said.
There are 38 nations represented in nine divisions at the World Games. Team Russia competed in the Plum Division with Argentina, New Zealand and Wales. The top team in each Division advances to the quarterfinals. The United States is the top ranked team in the world.
“Our objective is to improve the team as much as we can while they are here in the states and to be competitive,” said Mercurio, who has also traveled to Thailand, China and Belgium as an ambassador of the sport. “We want to help them to develop and to be able to grow the game on their return to Russia.”
The development of lacrosse worldwide is growing rapidly. Through the efforts of the FIL, these World Games look to be an exciting time for lacrosse.
“We want to show that lacrosse is a game that has been embraced by the sports world community,” said Mercurio.
-Words by Chris R. Vaccaro