For nearly a decade, youth lacrosse players in western New York have learned the box game from some of the game's biggest names.
Players from fifth grade to high school have suited up for the Jr. Knighthawks and Jr. Bandits. This summer, the two National Lacrosse League franchises are collaborating to offer college players the same opportunity.
In partnership with the US Box Lacrosse Association (USBOXLA), the country's largest box-specific governing body, is launching the Upstate Collegiate Box Lacrosse League (UCBLL) in the National Collegiate Box Series (NCBS).
The UCBLL joins a growing lineup of NCBS leagues, which includes the Colorado Collegiate Box Lacrosse League (CCBLL), Ohio Collegiate Box Lacrosse League (OCBLL), and Connecticut Collegiate Box Lacrosse League (CTCBLL), and possibly one in California.
With Pegula Sports and Entertainment (PSE) support, who owns the two NLL teams, the four-team league is slated to face off this summer. The UCBLL will provide a highly competitive, skilled, and structured environment for the best players residing in the Upstate New York area and even beyond those boundaries. Past and present NLL players and local coaches will serve as bench bosses for the clubs.
Playing in the UCBLL will set field players apart from their competition, according to NLL stars like Rochester's Ryland Rees and Buffalo's Dhane Smith.
"I have done a lot of coaching with USBOXLA," said Rees, who has coached box lacrosse in Rochester. "There is a reason why I love sharing the game of box lacrosse with Americans who have not experienced the game. It is how fast they begin to love the game and start to have fun with the game. Box lacrosse is fast-paced and physical and adds a tremendous amount of stick skills and offensive and defensive IQ to every lacrosse player.
The 2019 NCBS National Championship at the USBOXLA Nationals (Photo: Zach Heffner)
"Every Canadian begins their lacrosse career playing box lacrosse and is still able to pick up field lacrosse and succeed because of everything they learned in box lacrosse. Not only will you become a better lacrosse player, but I believe that it will bring the passion and love of the game out of each player."
"I think the indoor game has helped a lot of college kids, Canadian and American, but most importantly, it helped me be a better field player," said Smith, who has spent time coaching the Jr. Bandits. "I tell kids, 'If you can play in a small area – whether you’re a defender or offensive player – you can play in a big area like field lacrosse.' Indoor lacrosse has helped me slow down the field game and make decisions other guys don't see. If you can make quick decisions like you do indoors, it comes easier in the field game."
One of the most significant incentives to playing in the National Collegiate Box Lacrosse Series is competing for a national championship. In 2019, the NCBS hosted its inaugural title game as the OCBLL's Rivermen defeated the CCBLL's Fighting Bison.
Like the leagues in Ohio, Colorado and Connecticut, the UCBLL will draw from some of the country's most successful colleges and universities. The region includes over a dozen lacrosse schools, including Syracuse University, Canisius College, RIT, Le Moyne College, Nazareth College and Onondaga Community College (OCC).
American NLL star Joe Resetarits, who plays for the New England Black Wolves, would have jumped at the opportunity to play in the UCBLL if it was available when he was home during the summers from the University at Albany.
"You see the league expanding and more Americans coming into the game," said Resetarits, who grew up in Hamburg, NY. "There are a lot of guys in college who want to make that jump and do whatever it takes to get to that next level. This is the perfect exposure for them to learn the indoor game and see how much of a different game it is. It will also help your field game in the long run."
With the National Lacrosse League's growth to 14 teams, the NCBS, which produced Trevor Baptiste of the Philadelphia Wings, could serve as a training ground for Americans eager to play professional indoor lacrosse.
"I got to hone and understand the different skills," said Baptiste. "I would have never had a shot of playing in the NLL if I wouldn't have played in the CCBLL first. Even with a summer in the CCBLL under my belt, I was still behind in the NLL. There was still a lot I had to learn, like the fundamentals, understanding the flow of the game, and that it's a ton of fun."
Baptiste learned the nuances of the box game in the Colorado Collegiate Box Lacrosse League. In 2018, he even helped the Fighting Bison win the Morrow Cup. That led to his selection in the first round (14th overall) of the 2018 National Lacrosse League Entry Draft. Receiving an All-Rookie Team nod, after setting the league's rookie faceoff record, was a sign of things to come. Last season, he finished second in the league in faceoff winning percentage while leading the circuit with 249 wins.
The University of Denver four-time First Team All-American admitted that the CCBLL was why he has achieved so much success in the NLL.
"I want to emphasize the importance of the NCBS. Without that starting point, this whole journey would have never happened. It's a really cool journey because when you look at me and my field game – and me in lacrosse in general, which was just the field game at the time – I was a junior going into my senior year. I was a three-time First Team All-American, and you feel you are at the top. It's like you are peaking.
"Then you get into this box game, and it takes you back to your freshman year in high school where you are learning the fundamentals. It was almost like I was restarting (my career), and it was a refreshing experience. With box, you can see improvement right away, and it made me more excited to play, not only box but field. It made me a more well-rounded player."
The UCBLL also gives kids playing in local box lacrosse leagues something to shoot for as they progress through youth lacrosse to high school ball. Brad Gillies, who runs Roots Box Lacrosse in Rochester, has seen tremendous growth in his Roots Box Lacrosse League, which he runs in conjunction with the Knighthawks. Gillies also coaches the Jr. Knighthawks teams and would love to see a new crop of Americans playing in the NLL.
"The UCBLL will be a great opportunity for Upstate players to not only improve their game, but those looking to make the jump to the NLL will get crucial box experience to help give them that chance," said Gillies, who plays for the NLL's Halifax Thunderbirds.
Are you interested in playing in an NCBS league in Colorado, Connecticut, Ohio, California or New York in 2021? Click here to submit your name into the 2021 NCBS player pool. A representative from your selected league will contact you soon with more information on how you can be considered for an NCBS roster this year.