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By Craig Rybczynski, 08/28/21, 10:15AM PDT


San Diego Seals defender Cam Holding coaching the San Diego Royals

Look behind the benches of the National Collegiate Box Lacrosse Series (NCBS) National Championship games, and you will be sure to find a familiar name from the National Lacrosse League. In all, nine current or former NLL players were sprinkled among the five teams competing in the biggest collegiate box lacrosse playoffs of its kind.

“I think it’s fantastic that we had all these pro lacrosse players at Nationals coaching our college teams but also our youth teams,” said Matt Brown, USBOXLA co-founder, who also coaches at the University of Denver. “What an amazing event when you can have guys who are novice age (8 to 9 years old) up to college age, who are going to be trying out for the pros in the upcoming years, at the venue. It’s a pay it forward type of mentality.

“It’s just guys teaching the game they love to the next generation. With our sport, and I said so many times, it’s the Medicine Game. But at USBOXLA Nationals, you really do feel it.”

The San Diego Seals were the most well-represented NLL team, with four players coaching the California Collegiate Box Lacrosse League (CACBLL) champion. The Seals enlisted Wes Berg, Cam Holding, Tre Leclaire and Skylar “Moose” Whinery to coach the Royals.

The Generals also had a star-studded coaching staff with former Major Indoor Lacrosse League player and current Albany FireWolves Partner and CEO Oliver Marti headlining a staff that featured former NLL players Mike Regan and Brian O’Keefe. In addition, the Armory boasted former NLL defenseman Ron Cogan on its bench, while Jack Jasinski of the Panther City Lacrosse Club coached the defending NCBS champion Rivermen.

“It was unbelievable,” said O’Keefe, who played in the NLL for teams in New York, New Jersey and Anaheim. “They are learning the real game of box lacrosse. They want to learn, and it’s helping their outdoor game quite a bit. They are buying, and it’s a lot of fun. There are a lot of great coaches. You see that with the number of professional coaches out there. For guys like me, who played box lacrosse in the states when there weren’t many Americans playing, I have enjoyed it forever. I am thrilled to see kids pick it up.”

The college box game has exploded after initially beginning with the Colorado Collegiate Box Lacrosse League (CCBLL) in 2017. The following year, the Ohio Collegiate Box Lacrosse League (OCBLL) was established with teams based in both Columbus and Cleveland. With expansion, USBOXLA created the National Collegiate Box Series.

O'Keefe's Generals who represented the Connecticut Collegiate Box Lacrosse League

In 2019, the OCBLL's Rivermen won the inaugural NCBS National Championship beating the CCBLL's Fighting Bison two games to one at the USBOXLA Nationals. This summer, the field of league winners increased to include the champs from the Upstate Collegiate Box Lacrosse League (UCBLL), Connecticut Collegiate Box Lacrosse League (CTCBLL) and California Collegiate Box Lacrosse League (CACBLL).

In 2021, the NCBS National Championships included five teams competing in 11 games over three days. The champions from California (Royals), Upstate New York (Armory), Connecticut (Generals), Colorado (Gold Miners), and Ohio (Rivermen) squared off in pool play. The tourney kicked off the night of August 5 with a pair of thrilling games. The Armory (3-1) and Royals (3-1) emerged as the top teams, with the Armory grabbing the top seed after an 8-6 win over the Royals on Day Two. The Gold Miners placed third with a 2-2 record, while the defending champion Rivermen went 1-3, as did the Generals.

The finals were an instant classic as the Royals never led in regulation and erased two two-goal deficits and a three-goal third-quarter deficit. The Royals edged the Armory by scoring with 30 seconds to play and winning it in overtime, 12-11, on an outside shot from Zach Snider. The game wrapped up an amazing National Championship.

“I couldn’t be more impressed with not only the talent they had but the way they conducted themselves,” said Armory coach Ron Cogan. “The way they led the guys with less experience. They led the way and had very positive attitudes; they were great kids loaded with talent. Their futures are so bright. I am lucky to get to know these guys and call them my friends now.”

Cogan and Jordan Jarvis took their team into the National Collegiate Box Series (NCBS) National Championship Game against the Royals. En route to the title game, the Armory knocked off the Rivermen, Generals and Royals. All three games were decided by two or less goals.

“I think it was a great weekend,” said Armory leading-scorer Hunter Lemieux. “I didn’t know what to expect. I never played box in the US. The competition was a lot better than I thought it would be over here. There were a lot of guys with box experience. It was a great tournament overall. It didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but we were right there.”

The future of the NLL was on display as players like Lemieux, Jake Govett (Royals), Jack Hannah (Rivermen), Jackson Reid (Rivermen), and Luke Pilcher (Armory) were named to the All-Star teams. Royals goalie Caleb Mackie was named the Championship Game MVP and a First Teamer.

University of Denver's and the Rivermen's Jack Hannah representing the Ohio Collegiate Box Lacrosse League

“The talent level is incredible,” said Holding, who enters his ninth season in the NLL. “I know the goal of this NCBS is to develop American-born players. In our draft, you don’t typically see any Americans until late rounds. With some of the teams we saw, I already know we’re going to see some guys born and raised in America who play box lacrosse go early in the draft. It’s going to be a first and only going to get better.”

The 2021 NLL Entry Draft will include some of the stars of the NCBS, with Hannah, Lemieux, Reid, Riley Curtis (Gold Miners), and Koichi Nakamura (Armory) among the dozen-plus eligible players. Having the league serve as a feeder system for American talent to the NLL was exactly what Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz and USBOXLA co-founder Shaydon Santos had in mind when they inked a historic partnership in 2019.

After a thrilling championship game, Sakiewicz addressed both teams. However, in the locker room of the second-place Armory, he put the game into perspective for the players.

“I just wanted to stop in your locker room to say a big thanks for your commitment to playing in the NCBS and congratulations on getting to the final,” he said. “You guys are the future of the National Lacrosse League, and we are very committed and honored to support the National Collegiate Box Series. I hope that someday I can call your name to the podium at the Draft and welcome you as an NLL player.”

In 2019, the National Lacrosse League, the largest and most successful professional lacrosse property globally, announced a multi-year partnership with USBOXLA to continue growth at the grassroots level. With 24,000 USBOXLA members nationwide, the NLL will tap into their talent pool for players, coaches, and officials.

Trevor Baptiste was the first player to follow the path from the NCBS to the NLL, as he was selected 14th overall by the Philadelphia Wings in the 2019 NLL Entry Draft. Jack Jasinski and Bryan Hancock recently signed with the expansion Panther City Lacrosse Club, while Skylar “Moose” Whinery signed a two-year deal with San Diego.

Whinery spent two seasons in the Colorado Collegiate Box Lacrosse League and backstopped the Fighting Bison to the inaugural NCBS Championship Series. Two years, later he was behind the bench helping the Royals capture the collegiate box championship. It was a proud moment for Whinery to see the level of American talent in the tournament.

“Being on the back end of the bench is a lot of fun; I’m not going to lie. I enjoy coaching,” said the Denver native. “It’s good to see these guys out here. All the Americans are getting up and down the floor. The competition has been great. I am jealous I am not out here anymore. The talent level has gone up 200 percent. It’s unbelievable. The pace of play is really fast.”

Jasinski, who played in the Ohio Collegiate Box Lacrosse League in 2018, was also envious of the players in the five-team National Championships. Unfortunately, he missed out on his chance to play for a title in 2019 with the Rivermen as he played for the Denver Outlaws of Major League Lacrosse. A native of Birmingham, Ala., Jasinski was behind the bench coaching his former team in the 2021 event.

“You get a little jealous watching it because you want to be out there because there are a lot of guys you have played with a couple of years ago. We talked to the Commissioner, and it’s cool to see how the level of play across the board has grown. With Connecticut, California, and Upstate being first-year teams, all those squads had really good coaching and worked hard to play the game the right way. It gives our guys something to fight for. We won the first two (Ohio championships), and now we have to come back and re-establish ourselves.”

With several one-goal games and daily highlight-reel goals, the excitement level and interest in the college box game skyrocketed. Among the fans watching live and on were NLL executives and coaches.

“I was involved to a certain extent in Colorado with my son playing and my relationship with Matt Brown. So, quite frankly, the extension was a natural one for us to get involved in San Diego,” said San Diego Seals President Steve Govett, whose son Jake plays for the Royals. “I am going to go back and encourage every National Lacrosse League team to have a college program. This is what we have to do to grow the game.”

With hundreds of college players now competing under the USBOXLA umbrella in the National Collegiate Box Series, more Americans will now have another path to the NLL.

“Two years ago, the level of competition was strong but was limited by how many kids were playing,” said Govett. “What’s happened is the skill level has increased. There’s a lot more dedication to the craft. A lot of kids are looking at the National Lacrosse League as a reality through a step like playing college box lacrosse. This is a natural progression. Everybody is proud to be involved. This is the wave of the future for the NLL.”

NCBS National Champion and NCBS MVP goaltender Riley Curtis

NCBS First Team the Armory's Luke Pilcher. Pilcher is also a member of the '21 NCAA D3 National Champion RIT