Minnesota Stars box director and Team USBOXLA Coach Aime Caines (Photo: Sherri Thomson)
In the heart of hockey country, you will find one of the top American youth box lacrosse programs in the country. True Minnesota operates in the State of Hockey and resides in Bloomington, a city that once served as the home of the NHL's Minnesota North Stars.
Like its frozen cousin, box lacrosse has flourished in Minnesota. Founded in 2014, the box lacrosse arm of True Lacrosse, the Minnesota Stars Lacrosse Club, serves as the premier USBOXLA-sanctioned program in the state. The club strives to "provide an opportunity for players in Minnesota to experience authentic box lacrosse."
It was L.C. Moerschel who got the box lacrosse ball rolling for True Lacrosse Minnesota. The Annapolis, Md., native played the box game and utilized box lacrosse principles while playing under former NLL player Chris Bates at Drexel University. True Lacrosse Minnesota set down its field lacrosse roots in 2011, and three years later added the box component.
"When I came into the state in 2011, there were box leagues that were not real box lacrosse," he admitted. "I think that's consistent across the country when they start box lacrosse. I saw a real need to grab the club players and teach them how to play box. I have experience from college, playing for a coach that played in the old MILL (Major Indoor Lacrosse Indoor), but I needed the expertise, so Aime Caines is the guy I went after."
Moerschel, now the Executive Director of True Lacrosse – National, brought Caines into the fold as the Director of Player Development and Coaching. At the time, the two were both coaches at the University of Minnesota.
Caines joined the True Lacrosse family in October of 2015 after an extensive box lacrosse playing and coaching career. That included a six-year playing stint in the NLL and a six-year tenure as an assistant coach with the NLL's Minnesota Swarm. The Windsor, Ontario, native was also an accomplished box player in Canada, playing at the Junior "A" and Senior "A" levels. He also ran the youth programming for the Junior Swarm.
"Aime has spearheaded the charge in this area of the world, Minnesota, to build box lacrosse and teach it the right way," said Moerschel. "He's done most of the legwork. I tried to ignite the fire and get some good players playing box and took them to some tournaments to really see what the game was instead of what they were used to at a local level. It just snowballed from there. We are now replicating the model all over the country with True. We have box teams in almost every place we operate."
Caines has established the Minnesota Stars as one of the top U.S. Box Lacrosse Association (USBOXLA) clubs in the nation in just over six years.
"Aime has made the USBOXLA Nationals an anchor in his programming, playing the top programs in the USA and beyond," said USBOXLA Co-founder and President Shaydon Santos. "Many of his players have been selected to the national program over the years. It's safe to say that when you play the Minnesota Stars, you're in for a great, well-coached game."
Early on in his tenure, Caines reached out to Santos to partner with USBOXLA. It was an opportunity for the Minnesota Stars to jump to the next level and commit their kids to play real box lacrosse.
"My passion was to start real box lacrosse here in Minnesota," said Caines. "I found the Nationals, called Shaydon, and told him we were going to get one team and go down there and see how we’d do."
The Minnesota Stars sent a single Pee Wee team to San Jose, California, to battle the best youth box lacrosse teams in the United States and select Canada clubs at the 2016 USBOXLA Nationals. These 13 kids from Minnesota and one player from True Indiana, and one from True Arizona, laid the groundwork for the entire program's future success.
At the 2016 Nationals, after dropping the opening contest to Denver Elite, the Minnesota Stars found their stride and reeled off five straight wins. In the semifinals, they knocked off a team from Vancouver in a shootout to advance to the Pee Wee Finals. In a rematch of their opening game, the Minnesota Stars edged Denver Elite in a thrilling eight-player shootout to capture the gold.
"That gave us a lot of momentum going into year two," said Caines. "We had tryouts right away, and I opened it up to all age levels, Pee Wee, Bantam, Midget and High School. We were able to make all four teams. Then we came back the next year, and we won every division except High School Elite. They got bronze. It was really exciting to see, from that one team, the momentum that our program had."
The Minnesota Stars have had a meteoric rise since that first trip to Nationals. The program has established itself as one of the most successful clubs in the USBOXLA universe and has the hardware to prove it. In four years at Nationals, the Minnesota Stars have earned five golds, four silvers and two bronze medals. The Pee Wee A team has been one of the most successful teams ever, winning three national championships and one silver in four trips. They also have an astonishing 30-4 record and captured titles at the Good Land Invitational and Wasatch Winter Invitational.
"We have grown tremendously in the six or seven years I have been involved. It's been cool to see," said Caines. "On my midget team, we have a couple of kids who were on that original box team. To see how they have grown has been kind of amazing."
Currently, the Minnesota Stars are six teams strong. Since True Minnesota hired Caines, he has witnessed the club program's vast expansion. That journey started with 150 kids in a facility that could fit a semi-truck.
"When L.C. hired me, it was me and another guy, Max Murphy," said Caines. "We started growing and growing, and now we are up over 700 players in our field program and 100 in our box program. As we have grown, we have had A and B teams. We added a women's program (in 2018), which was very exciting. We also have our Novice team, which is the real little guys."
With the program's expansion, True Minnesota needed additional space for training and a more extensive staff. Three years ago, the program moved to the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington and into the largest indoor training facility in Minnesota. The 22,000-square-foot space is a massive two-unit turfed facility.
"We moved into a bigger facility so that we can do a lot more box in-house. It's a great space and has really come in handy, especially during COVID," said Caines. "We keep the big garage door open, and kids bring their water bottles right to the field. They are masked up and still able to continue practicing. This facility has been a blessing."
With the addition of teams at different age groups, True Minnesota now enlists 11 full-time staff members. All of them boast playing and coaching experience at the collegiate or professional levels. In 2016, True Lacrosse Minnesota hired one of its own, bringing in Plymouth, Minn., native Dan Forsyth. He brought with him an impressive resume, on and off the field, having coached and played at the Division I level. He also coached at the elite high school travel level while running camps and clinics throughout the United States.
Forsyth currently serves as an executive director for True Lacrosse Minnesota while working as the manager for True Minnesota, True Indiana, and True Wisconsin. Since coming on board, he said he was most proud of creating a year-round training model for the athletes and lacrosse-specific players in Minnesota that supports multi-sport athletes but also gives the lacrosse players consistent development throughout the year."
That programming includes field and box lacrosse training. The success of the teams under the True Lacrosse umbrella comes from subscribing to their three principles, which are fundamentals/skills, positional skills, and lacrosse IQ development.
"We stick to those three pillars in our program, and that's how we have seen success," said Forsyth. "Success is proven through the accolades our players have received over the years on the field and box side."
True Lacrosse serves as a launching pad for numerous Division I athletes. From the Class of 2020, 16 players committed to play college lacrosse. The program hopes to see its players excel in box lacrosse as well and get selected in the NLL Entry Draft. That could come to fruition because of the hard work of Caines and his staff.
"He has been a great director for us with an incredible background, playing and coaching professionally," said Forsyth. "One thing in general for True Lacrosse Minnesota – on the field and box side – is that it focuses on bringing in directors with a proven coaching background. We are targeting directors who have supreme coaching backgrounds, and Aime has that with what he did with the Minnesota Swarm. You look at the rest of our directors; almost all of them have NCAA coaching experience along with their playing experience."
With the Minnesota Stars, Caines admitted that his experienced staff and the support network provided by True Lacrosse have made his job a lot easier. Boys Regional Program Director Luke Johnson and Charlie Gee are the two other full-time staff members, and both provide vital coaching and logistical support.
"Luke is my righthand man. He does everything from the training to coaching in the tournaments. He has always been with the program," said Caines. "Charlie Gee does everything for us. He coaches the Pee Wee team and does administrative and travel stuff. We are the staples, and we have our assistants. We also use the True network and resources to make everything work."
At tournaments, Caines said he usually concentrates on one team. At the last event, he coached the Midgets. Yet, he admitted that he is on the bench for every game unless there's a conflict. His sons also play for the Minnesota Stars, as the youngest son, Declan, plays with the Novice team, and his eldest, Carter, is a member of the Pee Wee team.
This year, the boys' teams played in the Battle at the Barn in Indiana and then competed in the fifth annual Good Land Box Invitational from Jan. 30 to Jan. 31. The True Lacrosse event in Wisconsin featured the top programs from all over the Midwest. The sold-out tournament included teams from states like Minnesota, Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. The Minnesota Stars captured gold in the 5/6, 7/8, and Junior Varsity divisions while taking home silver at the High School Elite level.
"We did very well and went to the championship in each division," said Caines. "We swept the tournament before. It's a great venue and only four hours away. Our teams are very successful. We are always up there with very good teams. At the last two tournaments, we won four championships out of eight divisions and made it to the finals with those other teams."
The women's team will return to action in March, when they join fellow powerhouse programs, the Cali*Lax ALL-STARS and San Diego Girls Box Lacrosse, at the USBOXLA Western Girls Invitational. The two-day event will take place at the Arizona Sports Complex in Glendale, March 20-21.
This year, due to COVID, the girls' team is embarking on a two-tournament schedule that will conclude at USBOXLA Nationals in August.
"We had a team last year, but they didn't get to play any games. We just trained," said Caines. "This year, they will get two tournaments this year, so they are pretty pumped."
The Minnesota Lady Stars box program was launched in 2018 after witnessing the potential of the women's game at Nationals the previous year. The team has since competed in two USBOXLA Nationals and captured a silver medal at the 2019 event.
"We were waiting for our game, and there was all this commotion in one of the other arenas," said Caines. "So, me and another coach walked over and were watching. We thought it was awesome. They were hitting each other and playing pick and rolls, and it looked really good. I said, 'We need to do this.' The women at Nationals inspired us to start our own (team) and give our girls a chance.
"We have a girls' field program, and I know a lot of them are hockey players. They are used to putting the equipment on, they have the equipment already, and a lot of them have brothers that play. We knew we could do it; we just had to put our minds to it. It ended up working out, and we got to go to our first Nationals."
This year, the Minnesota Lady Stars and five boys' teams will compete in the USBOXLA Nationals in San Jose, Calif., from Friday, Aug. 6 to Sunday, Aug. 8, in what will easily be the biggest box lacrosse event in American history. Over 130 teams will compete in divisions ranging from Novice to the National Collegiate Box Series (NCBS).
The future is bright for the American box game and the Minnesota Stars are one of the programs leading the way. Long gone are the days of beat-up goalie pads and teams showing up in pinnies. That is evident when you play at a USBOXLA-sanctioned tournament.
"Now, every team is in uniforms, and their goalies are geared up. They are playing the right way and have better coaching," said Caines. "They are embracing the sport of box lacrosse. It's good to see, and obviously, USBOXLA is a big part of it. The Denver Elites of the world, the Minnesota Stars, Resolute and Cali*Lax, I think other programs look at those programs and say, 'Why can't we do that?' I think we are like the trailblazers of this revolution."
"It's good that we have these successful programs, and we have the right training," he added. "If we were playing box lacrosse like back in the day, then that is just for fun. When you play USBOXLA, it's because you want to be an elite lacrosse player."