John Tornabene Reflects on his “Unforgettable” Journey

John Tornabene Reflects on his “Unforgettable” Journey

John Tornabene experienced some pretty special moments on the lacrosse field in a four-month span.


He spearheaded a defensive unit that led the nation in goals against average in 2017 and held high-flying and top-ranked Albany to just seven goals in a landmark 11-7 upset by the Retrievers on April 6.


The season ended in disappointment as UMBC's late bid for an America East Tournament bid came up just short at Vermont.


But Tornabene only put his stick down for a short time, as he tried out for and earned a spot on the fledgling Filipino national team (gained membership Federation of International Lacrosse in 2014) that was to compete in the FIL World Championships in Israel last month.  


Competing in its first world championship competition, the Philippines won five of seven games, including a shocking 12-6 victory over Scotland, the world's No. 6-ranked team. Tornabene and his defensive mates allowed only 7.29 goals per game, doing its part in moving the nation into the world's top ten at No. 10.


Tornabene shared a number of reflections on his experience with teammates, coaches throughout the journey.   


Q: The Philippines' story was one of the top storylines of the competition. Rising all the way up to No. 10 in the world and defeating No. 6 Scotland. How were you guys able to pull it together so well and so quickly?


JT: I believe that there were multiple factors one could contribute into why we gelled so quickly. First, was the fact that all members of the team, including players, coaches, and supporting staff, are all very prideful of their Filipino heritage. We all knew the potential impact we could create for the Filipino community in the U.S. and Philippines so each person treated the tournament as a business trip. This mindset set the stage for our success. Second, family is an integral part of Filipino culture, therefore it was natural for us to bond together so rapidly. A running joke of the tournament for us was that although most of us have known each other for only two weeks, it has felt like we've been together for a year. Lastly, our team brought in a vast amount of NCAA experience. This allowed us to learn and understand our offensive system, defensive scheme, and team role early on. Unlike a lot of teams that are put together from people who have not played with each other before, there was no steep learning curve involved.


Q: I believe your side did not allow more than 11 goals in any game, which is very similar to the defense that was played at UMBC this past spring. Talk about your role on the defense and how the group performed so well.


JT: Coming into the tournament, we knew that the defensive side brought in a lot of talent and experience. On our side of the field, we had players from Maryland, Notre Dame, Le Moyne, Bowdoin, and Endicott. This pool of talent allowed the onus of success to be split between each player. In turn, this enabled everyone to emphasize their strengths while having their weaknesses covered by another man in our unit. My role for the Philippines team was very similar to what I did for UMBC. Communication, off-ball play, and pressing out on ball are what I relied on the most. The coaching staff did allow me some freedom on ball to get creative and have fun. This allowed me to be more physical and have more CT's than I normally would.


Q: How did your experience at UMBC prepare you for playing internationally? 


JT: All of the experience I obtained and knowledge I acquired while at UMBC completely prepared me for international play. The UMBC defense prides itself on being ready for any situation, offensive set, and wrinkle thrown its way. Schematically, there was nothing that I had not seen before while playing in Israel. This is directly attributed to the countless hours of film and board work I had with Coach Koesterer and [Coach] Bucci. Physically, I had no trouble being ready for the games. In fact, preparing for international play was easy in comparison to weight lifting and conditioning with Coach Brian Amenta.


Q: Refresh the fans' on how you qualified to play for the Philippines. I'm sure you had an idea how it would feel to play for a country as opposed to a university - did the expectation reach or exceed those pre-conceived notions?


JT: I qualified for the team through a weekend of tryouts at SUNY-Cortland. There were about 70 players from around the U.S. that came. Initially, I was surprised at the amount of talent that was present. This gave me high hopes for how the tournament would play out. Even with those high expectations, the team exceeded what I thought we could do. Another thing I enjoyed about the experience was being able to represent my heritage in a unique way. I've always been very prideful about where I come from so being able to have this opportunity was a dream come true.

Editor's Note: John's maternal grandparents were natives of the Philippines before immigrating to the United States.  


Q: Were you able to do any sight-seeing in Israel? If so, what stood out in the country. Is there anything from a cultural, food, lifestyle standpoint that you found especially cool? 


JT: Luckily, I was able to see many of the beautiful sights of Israel. Some of the places I visited were Jerusalem, Masada, the Dead Sea, and Tel Aviv. The place that stood out to me that most was definitely the old city of Jerusalem. Every corner you turn, there is some piece of history that is centuries old. It was also fascinating to see how many religions were vying for control of the same area. What I found most fascinating about the entire trip was actually my safety. Going into the trip, I had pre-conceived notions of Israel and the Middle East of being dangerous. However, at no point in the trip did I feel unsafe; that thought never crossed my mind!


Q: What occurred during your time in Israel that you think will stick with you over the long haul?


JT: Truthfully, the entire trip will stick in my mind. It was an unforgettable journey from the very start. However, there are three moments that stand out. First is the opening ceremony. Forty-six countries came to compete in these games; meeting players from places like Uganda and Taiwan gave me a broadened perspective of the game. Seeing these guys be just as passionate about lacrosse as me while living halfway across the world made me realize how fortunate I was to have the opportunity in front of me. The lasting picture from the ceremony is the sea of 46 unique flags waving across the backdrop of Netanya Stadium while hearing a multitude of distinct languages rush by me.


Second was beating No. 6 Scotland. Once we accomplished that I knew that we solidified our spot as a legitimate world contender. Our team knew the talent Filipinos had but now the world knew. Also, it was great to meet a fellow UMBC lax alum after the game in Mark Hodkin, '86, who was coaching for the Scottish team. In fact, there were multiple UMBC lacrosse alums and former student-athletes at the tournament. Rob Cross, '05 (Phillipines Offensive Coordinator), Tomas Rodriguez (Puerto Rico player), Mark Hodkin (Scotland Coach), and Nate Lewnes, '17 (Greece player) are the ones that I was able to be with in person.  


The most lasting impression in my mind though is the story of my teammate James Schutt. Coming in to the game I noticed his name on the roster sheet along with his age, 36. I thought to myself that it was impressive that someone of older age will be playing alongside me. Learning that he has three young daughters back home watching, I would tell him before every game, "Do it for your daughters." 


As the tournament played out, James ended up being our leading scorer. Once the tournament ended and we had our last huddle, James told us his background. He explained to us that financially he almost could not come but the community rallied around him to help support him. As his voice began to quiver and tears started to appear in his eyes, he was able to mutter, "Thank you guys for making my dream come true." All of this adversity and he prevailed. I will always remember to be strong and follow my dreams thanks to James Schutt.



Q: Final thoughts…


JT: I would like [to] thank you to all the coaches, players, and supporting staff that I had the pleasure of participating in this trip with. Laban Pilipinas. Also, a shout-out to Rob Cross (UMBC lax alum) for wearing #22 at UMBC and keeping the dream alive.