DENVER — Former Vermont player and current Israeli forward Noach Miller is leading his team on quite a run at the world lacrosse championships, even if his mind is thousands of miles away.
His squad, one formed only four years ago, advanced to the quarterfinals with a 15-1 win over Germany on Tuesday. However, it's hard for him and his teammates to bask in the moment as loved ones back home deal with rocket attacks from Gaza.
"Maybe this provides a little bit of light in the darkness that's really in Israel right now," said Miller, who grew up in Burlington, Vermont, and now lives in Tel Aviv. "Because every time we step on that field, we represent something bigger than just the lacrosse team."
Soon after this tournament, some of the members will be joining the Israeli Defense Forces and may be in the middle of the conflict. That includes captain Matt Cherry and Miller, who took up lacrosse in middle school before playing for Vermont.
There are already several players who couldn't make the trip because they were either called up for the reserves or are going through basic training.
"It's a very real reality for us," Miller said. "Lacrosse is our way to give back to the country now. But there are many more ways we're going to be giving back to Israel."
As tension increases back home, the Israelis are turning heads at the tournament. The squad has knocked off Sweden, Slovakia, South Korea, Ireland and Germany by a combined score of 88-18. The favorites remain the United States and Canada.
"We knew we had a talented squad," said executive director Scott Neiss, who launched the Israeli program in 2010. "But I don't think anybody expected us to perform at the level we have, kind of roll through the tournament up to this point."
Miller has a simple explanation for the success: "Every other team is playing for a medal. We're playing for the people. That's what separates us from every other team."
They constantly talk about what's going on in Israel — during practice, before team meetings, on the bus ride over to the field, even in huddles in the middle of a game.
The conversations provide comfort.
"It's near and dear to everyone's heart," said Israeli coach Bill Beroza, a three-time member of Team USA who's in the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame. "We think about the people and what's going on. We pray for peace."
The tears suddenly began to trickle down Beroza's face. He removed his glasses and wiped them away with his left hand.
"This is just on everyone's mind," he added softly.
Each time Miller steps on the field, he instantly thinks of his family, friends and the little kids he coaches near Tel Aviv, just hoping they're safe.
He said the threat of rocket attacks is real on a normal day.
"I'll paint a picture for you: With a lacrosse coach in the United States, a parent may come up and say, 'What's your plan if there's thunder?' " recounted Miller, one of 12 players on the 23-man roster who lives in Israel. "When we're coaching we have parents come up to us and say, 'What are you going to do if there's a rocket attack?'
"But you have to go on living your life — it's the Israeli way."
The lacrosse staff in Tel Aviv held a watch party for the opening game with Sweden. But it was interrupted by the bomb sirens and everyone headed for shelter.
"That's what we're dealing with right now," said Neiss, who has 250 members in the program, most between ages 8 and 18. "That's part of our struggle, our reality. We're not going to stop what we're doing. But this is something that puts things into perspective."
For the tournament, Miller wrote the Hebrew and Arabic words for "peace" on white tape and plastered it to the side of his helmet.
"I like to think every time out there that's what we're playing for," he said. "We're playing to bridge those divides."
Beroza couldn't agree more.
"Sports are a foundation for creating peace," Beroza said. "Kids playing together, they're not going to fight when they get older."