The hot and muggy air of Boston in the dead of summer surrounded the field at a tryout featuring the best paintball players in the United States. In less than a month the idyllic venue in Dreux, France would host the Nations Cup, the event that would crown the greatest paintball country in the world. Dozens of the United States' best paintball players would all be vying for the few coveted roster spots on the Men’s, Women’s, Master’s, U19, and U16 National Teams to represent their country far from home.
One year ago, the US team saw shocking losses from the Men's National Team and the Masters Team, both unable to make the finals and taking home disappointing third place trophies. Team USA organizer Anthony Vitale would take no chances in a repeat performance for 2023, and scoured the country to build arguably the best roster of United States players ever assembled for the Nation’s Cup. But, talent is not always the only indicator to success, and Marcello Margott knows just how hard these events can be; “Every single nations cup I’ve played or been a part of, which is about 6 now, it doesn’t matter the roster. There is so much adversity along the way. You’re overseas, never the favorite, playing against not only the opposing team but also the crowd, refs, and other elements not in your control. I think they are some of the toughest events for Americans to win. That’s truly why they are so meaningful to me.”
A proverbial dream team looking to redeem the previous years disappointment featuring some of the best players in paintball history; Ryan Greenspan, Marcello Margott, Colt Roberts, and Tyler Harmon would headline the Men’s and Masters Teams, notable rivals on the NXL Pro field. However, the responsibility of representing their country trumped all other concerns according to Colt Roberts “Honestly there were zero instances of anything other than professionalism and desire to play as a unit all weekend. We were wearing red white and blue and that’s all that mattered. Everything else was left on the airplane the second we set foot in France. We came together as teammates and countrymen and played our hearts out for each other and every American back home.”
On the other side of the US program, the Women’s National Team was coming into the 2023 Nations Cup as the undisputed reigning champion. Arguably the best female player in the world, Jenn Fulk would confidently lead the way alongside some of the best female players from the WNXL Pro Division “Everyone was 100% bought into the process, the expectations, and the demands that came along with being a part of this team. Each of us selected for Team USA was already dedicated to paintball in a way that requires total commitment. So we all knew exactly what was required to see the results we wanted, and were willing to give it all.”
The passion and pride among all the rosters for Team USA was incredibly evident; for players like Marcello Margott, a leader on the Men’s National Team as well as the Head Coach of the U19 and U16 programs, he understood the deep honor and pride in his selection “It’s always an honor to be chosen to play for Team USA. Probably an even bigger honor is being chosen to be the U19 and U16 coach. Those kids are the future and being the one chosen to lead them to victory means more than I could explain.”
The event would take place during the NXL European Championships and lead off the weekend with a tense battle between powerhouse programs like France, Poland, Britain, and of course, the United States throughout the preliminary stage of the event.
The Opening Round Brings Adversity, Triumph
The preliminary rounds would open on Wednesday and see its returning champions, the Women’s National Team and U16 team, storm out to round leading 4-0 records with authority. The Masters team would also secure a perfect prelims record behind stellar play from their NXL core. The U19 program would also leave the prelims unblemished after a 2-2 tie with France in their fourth game left their record at 3-0-1. None of the programs saw major adversity through the preliminary rounds, but that didn’t mean they didn't feel the pressure of the expectations for winning. Jenn Fulk pressed a strong message to the team all weekend; “I had high expectations for us going into the event. I never doubted for a moment that this was the top team in the division. I continuously made that clear to the team along the way - that the expectations were high. Anything less than winning would mean that we, as a whole, did not fulfill our potential. Doing so with the most outstanding love and passion for this game, so as to thrive not only here at the Nation’s Cup but within each of our paintball careers and collective team efforts.”
The Men's program would face a much more staunch challenge in their opening round; after gliding to a 3-0 record behind three straight 4-0 wins over Switzerland, Slovakia, and Finland, they would face off against the Polish National team to close out the prelims. They would be without one of the team's best players, Marcello Margott, who would sit out the match while he coached the U19 in their playoff match; “Poland is an amazing team and I knew they would be tough. They are very aggressive and have excellent gun skills. If you’re not ready to get punched in the face then they will sting you.”
Led by one of the most talented young players in Europe, Jakub Bielski, and other veteran players from Virst Factory, Poland shocked Team USA. The US Men's Team would see their chance at a top seed crumble as they had no answer for the poised attack from Poland and lost the match 2-4. However, Tyler Harmon and the rest of the Men's Team was resolute in their focus and knew that the event wasn’t won in prelims; “After playing Poland and taking that loss we all huddled together and became more solidified than ever with the direction we needed to go in if we were going to win this tournament. ” Little did the team know that their biggest challenge of the weekend was yet to come in the playoffs in what would be one of the best games of the EU season.
Feeling the Weight
With more than 10,000 competitive paintball players actively playing in the United States, a spot on the National rosters is an incredible honor and none of the players took the weight of what that meant lightly. To represent one's country in the sport they master is one of the greatest achievements and those victories can often supersede even the best professional wins. Jenn Fulk understood the pressure of a roster spot; “They say pressure is a privilege, and I think there is certainly truth to that. It’s a great privilege to represent the USA, and to play alongside these incredible women.” Her words would mirror what many other members of the US rosters felt.
Pressure is intriguing, it can crack the strongest of wills, but with time and dedication it can produce individuals who will shine in the biggest moments, like Tyler Harmon. “We all understood the assignment thoroughly going into the championship event. It’s hard for me to convey through words just how much passion I apply to being the best I possibly can anytime I step on the field” That passion would shine through for Harmon throughout the weekend and he became one of the Men's Team’s biggest contributors. However, all the programs would certainly come to understand just how hard these events can be when the first horn of the playoffs sounded.
Big Moments Create Big Heroes
The start of the Thursday playoffs to determine the World Champion saw both Men’s Teams and the U19 team easily handle their opponent. Both the Masters Men’s Team and Women’s Team would need just one playoff win to secure a spot in the finals. For the Women’s Team, the road through the playoffs started much more difficult; they again faced off against a well balanced British National Team that was coming into the playoffs with only a narrow 1-2 loss earlier in the weekend to the US Team. Although the British Women’s Team had much less experience than the US team, they made up for it with a tenacious yet controlled attack. With the score at 2-1 with just over a minute left, Great Britain came out aggressive and their snake player eliminated four bodies to tie the game at 2-2.
Britain would stay aggressive in the overtime point, but a pocket play by the US resulted in quickly eliminating two players off the break and chipping away the rest of the British attack to win the match and move on to the finals.
With both the Master’s Team and Women’s Team securing a spot in the finals, it would come down to the Men’s Team and U19 Team. A quick victory for the U19 team against Norway would mean a repeat trip to the finals against France for the young team.
The Men’s program would face France in the semi-finals, arguably the best National Team in the World up to this point. One of the most experienced rosters in the World capped off by Europe’s best player in Axel Gaudin would provide a high entry barrier for the Men’s team to make the final round. However, the US Men’s team at this point was utterly focused on winning and didn’t give France a chance in their 4-2 win earning a trip to the finals.
A Clean Sweep; The Best Game in Nations Cup History
“The only moments that matter are the ones you create in the present and the determination you exude on the field to meet them.” Tyler Harmon understood the mission when the finals round started against Great Britain; the US Men’s Team was just 10 minutes away from redemption and a World Championship, they just needed to get past the highly organized and methodical British defense led by UK veteran Clint Moore.
A surprising pocket play from the United States on the first point caught Great Britain off guard; the US was packed with some of the best athletes at the event, yet Head Coach Kevin Bredthauer made the brilliant move to lean into that expectation to create a hole in the British gameplan and catch them out of position. Decisions like that are what make Bredthauer one of the best coaches in the World, and the USA team immediately took control of the finals.
However after taking a 2-1 lead the British team would grind away at the US to tie the game with just a minute left, then disaster struck. Great Britain would press their strongest attack of the weekend and force the US to concede the point with just 25 seconds left, it only lit a fire under Tyler Harmon; “The last couple minutes things really began to go sideways as we found ourselves down one point with only 25 seconds left in the match. We looked at eachother and decided there was absolutely no way team USA was going to go down without a fight.”
Regardless, the weight of expectation is not something so easily overcome and the US was rapidly witnessing their hopes at redemption slipping away, but the resilience of the US should never be taken lightly and Colt Roberts was as poised as ever; “I don’t think anyone was hanging their head when we started the 25 second overtime point. Our confidence was still there and we were going to come out swinging regardless of the result. As Alex Fraige said prior to the point, 25 seconds is a ton of time”.
With the fastest point of the European season, the United States stormed out through an attack led by Ryan Greenspan and Blake Yarber in the center; a snake side run through from Tyler Harmon would be the key piece that saw the US respond “With a tenacious charge we all pressed down the field as I found myself running down the snake side to hit the buzzer with 7 seconds left that would ultimately bring us to overtime.”
Resiliency and pride for one's country is an incredibly strong driver of sporting greatness; to feel the weight of your entire country hoisted upon your shoulders and narrowed down to a single point of paintball. For much of the US roster, their paintball dreams began decades prior, but none of them could have imagined they would pull within a single game of achieving greatness for their country.
They would start the overtime point with key eliminations off the break from Marcello Margott and Ryan Greenspan and then lock out Great Britain to force their attack. Greenspan would close the game with two dagger eliminations to end the match and vault the US to their first World Championship win in the modern NXL EU era. Perhaps Tyler Harmon said it best, “We all played our hearts out to win this event and coach Kevin Bredthauer was dialed in as we took the field to play the last point of the tournament. We played as resiliently as any team could play to bring it back and win the final point in overtime as we dwindled the Great Britain squad down and made it to the buzzer to claim the gold. The men’s squad played inspired paintball to bring the Nation's Cup Championship back to the USA!”
The four remaining US National Teams would all face off in the finals against the French National Teams and they gave no room for France to steal away the US sweep. 4-0 victories from the U19 and Master’s Team, a 3-1 victory from the Women’s Team, and a 3-2 win for U16 would cement the first ever USA sweep of the World Championship and mark an historic moment for the program. It was the result of over a year of planning, and for program leaders Lori Miller and Anthony Vitale, expected “Lori and I were very proud of the players and coaches whose hard work started all the way back to the Combine. It truly does take a village and the support of the parents, the paintball community did not go unnoticed. The reward for all the long days leading up to the event was seeing all the emotions displayed on the faces of the players from the kids, woman and men alike. Competing for your country there is truly nothing like it."
Legacy Built Together
A total sweep across the Nation’s Cup for the United States was a historic moment for a program just a year after a disappointing showing in 2022, and it may usher in the next wave of dominance for the National teams moving forward. The win provides a major legacy checkmark for many of the players involved and for some like Colt Roberts, the capstone of an incredible career; “This was the last milestone I had set for myself. I can end my career without any regrets or wants. I have done all that I set out to accomplish and it’s an amazing feeling. I still got some years left in me and still hunger for more but I am proud that I was able to put the final exclamation point on my career.”
For other players like Jenn Fulk of the Women’s National Team, it wasn’t about legacy or accolades, but simply the love of the sport we all share; “I never intended to have a legacy. Knowing the feeling of triumph creates this unquenchable thirst that I cannot escape. I want to be better. I want to see others perform at their best. Maybe that is how I ended up here, who knows, but I cannot imagine my life without this experience, without these friends and without paintball.”
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All photos were shot and provided by Philip Swindall of Anchors Aweigh Photography.