It was at a lunch during the 2016 U18 #bctour that Greg Bice sat down with fellow Team USBOXLA coaches Shaydon Santos and Ben Prepchuk and asked, “Explain to me how this whole thing works.”
Bice, a former Ohio State and Major League Lacrosse standout defender who now operates Resolute Lacrosse in Central Ohio, had never been to British Columbia before. And while he’s immersed himself and his club in real box lacrosse through the US Box Lacrosse Association, he had also never seen how Canadian youth box lacrosse teams operated, until now.
While many waited to see final scores from this year’s series of games, what Bice pondered before breaking bread with bench staff was exactly why USBOXLA brings national and club teams to Canada every summer. To expose Americans to what box lacrosse in the US can look like.
It’s why Santos and University of Denver Associate Head Coach Matt Brown established USBOXLA in 2010. They wanted to one day be able to take what Bice saw in B.C., what they themselves experienced growing up and playing lacrosse in Canada, and make it a reality in the U.S.
With trips like this one, USBOXLA gets closer and closer every year to achieving that goal.
The coaching trio, who’s staff also included top American goalie David Mather, were leading a group of some of the most talented US-born, under-18 box lacrosse players into B.C. for the association’s yearly, week-long tour of the province.
Over the past several months, USBOXLA has been combing over hundreds of applications from players all over the country wanting to secure a spot on this prestigious roster.
The team was made up of athletes from nine different states: California, Colorado, Kentucky, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah and Washington. And no, that wasn’t a mistake. Not only is there legitimate box lacrosse going on in Las Vegas, USBOXLA member Lacrosse Force is doing an outstanding job spreading the game in the NHL’s newest neighborhood.
Goalies: Cade C. Lichfield (BYU) and Skylar “Moose” Whinery (Colorado College)
Defense: Stevan Kriss (Washington & Lee), Justin Taylor (Uncommitted) and Jackson Thuma (Denison)
Transition: Daxton Allison (Uncommitted), Aaron Boyd (Denver), Richie Connell (Uncommitted) and Austin Mello (Vassar)
Offense: Keaton Collier (Uncommitted), Logan Dempsey (Adams State), Drew Erickson (Denver), Dru Miller (Quinnipiac), David Moyett (Marist College), Austin Popovich (Robert Morris), Thomas Tenney (Denver) and Landon Trout (Bellarmine)
Santos often refers to this trip as, “One of the most demanding U18 tours in American lacrosse.” For good reason too.
The grueling tour matches up U18 Team USBOXLA against top Intermediate ‘A’ teams playing in British Columbia, a province easily considered one of the country’s lacrosse leaders alongside Ontario. There are teams that are deep into their regular seasons when the Americans arrive. Not only have they been training, playing and getting better for several weeks, many of them have been teammates since they were pee wees and even younger. After gathering as a group for the first time ever on Saturday, the boys are already playing their first game of the tour 24 hours later.
This year they opened against the tied for first Coquitlam Adanacs, an eventual 13-5 loss and a game goalie Skylar “Moose” Whinery withstood nearly 70 shots in. Even for box lacrosse, that’s a helluva lot of rubber to have pelted at you for an hour.
“Moose”, who played for the U18s last year, has already garnered attention from Junior ‘A’ clubs in both B.C. and Ontario, learning his lacrosse fundamentals under Brown and his Denver Elite program at the Colorado-leading training center LXTC.
“’Moose’ stood on his head all week,” said Prepchuk. “He saw a lot of shots, especially early on, and was easily one of our best players.”
On Monday the boys would break, well, sorta. With no game on their schedule, they would practice and spit strategy (which they did everyday during the tour whether they played in the evening or not), trying to get on the same page offensively, defensively and everywhere in between.
It’s a difficult task not only for the players, but the coaches as well.
“We kind of just showed up and started,” said Prepchuk of the tour’s straight into the fire – an inferno even – theme. “Playing these teams for anyone is difficult, because they’re very good, so imagine doing that with virtually no practice or preparation. That definitely factored into how we fared, but we all knew that going in.”
After dropping another result, this time to Langley in Game 2, Bice could see considerable improvement creeping into their game right around that time. “It’s definitely tough to find team chemistry in such a short period of time,” he said. “I think when we got to Richmond in the middle of the week, we kind of started to find our stride a bit.
“We asked all our guys to go out and compete and give us everything they had, and each and every player did that. We couldn’t have asked for much more from this group. They were amazing and it was honor to coach them.”
Team USBOXLA played the Roadrunners on Wednesday night in Richmond, a 13-10 win highlighted by an outstanding offensive effort from Austin Mello, who buried four goals in the uplifting result. “He’s a big, unassuming righty that stuffed in a bunch of goals for us throughout the entire week,” said Prepchuk. “Americans might still have the rep of not wanting to play inside, but Mello was constantly getting in there, getting in those dirty areas and making plays for us.”
If you’re reading this and it seems like the team is playing a lot of lacrosse, it’s because they are.
The group’s schedule consisted on matches against established centers like the already mentioned cities of Coquitlam, Langley and Richmond, with games against two of the most iconic clubs in Canadian box lacrosse history still to come – New Westminster and Victoria.
“It definitely is a draining tour,” said Bice. “By the time we got to Victoria on that last day, the stress of the schedule definitely showed on the floor, but that’s what we anticipated.
“We went out to B.C. to play as many top teams within that week as we could. Sure it would be nice to win every game, but that’s not the sole purpose of this tour. What we gain on and off the floor over seven days on this tour far outweighs our record. Development and growth is much more than what’s up on the scoreboard after three periods.”
While scoreboard watching wasn’t high on the agenda, what the Queen’s Park Arena board read on Thursday night was a tough pill to swallow for the Americans. Playing on one of the most famous box floors in not only Canada but the world, Team USBOXLA was in New Wesminster – home of the Salmonbellies – for Game 4.
Owning a healthy lead heading into the final period, New West would knot things up late. With the scoreboard seemingly at straight zeroes, the ‘Bellies would score the winner with just 0.7 left on the clock, sneaking away with a 10-9 win against the US squad.
“Our kids were dead tired by that last game against Victoria,” said Prepchuk. “It’s grueling. I’d compare it to playing in a Junior ‘A’ or Senior ‘A’ national championship, which really is an absolute grind. It was a tough week for the boys, but they definitely enjoyed it and came out of that tour better for it.”
The group would take a morning ferry to Vancouver Island from the mainland, playing their final game against the league-leading Victoria Shamrocks about 12 hours after their match on New West’s historic sea-foam floor.
While competing right up until the end like true warriors, the strong Shamrock side would snag the W after a 17-7 final, but you’d never know the team lost a single game based on their always upbeat attitude and approach in every city they played.
“I saw nothing but smiles on our boys’ faces during the entire week,” said Prepchuk.
The team became pretty inseparable almost from Day 1.
“Whether they were at the dorms watching TV or swimming at White Pine Lake, they never broke off into smaller groups or left anyone out,” added Prepchuk. “They were a team in every sense of the word. We may have just met days before, but if you saw us off the floor, you’d think these guys had been teammates for years. The comradery between them was special and really good to see.”
On the floor, the coaching staff was able to get a handle on how the country’s current top box players stacked up against Canada’s best. “I think our kids showed they are tremendous athletes,” said Bice. “You look at some of the games we lost and we weren’t that far off in a lot of ways.
“The Canadians had a superior box IQ and better stick work, which we know are areas we’ll continue to develop and improve on back home. At the end of the day though, I thought our kids did an outstanding job and I was extremely proud of what they accomplished.”
As Prepchuk mentioned earlier, American box players – youth to the pros – have gained a reputation over the years as being soft in comparison to the harder-hitting Canadians, but every year the U18s help buck that trend. This summer there may have been no better example of that than the play of hard-nosed defender Stevan Kriss.
“He was the heart and soul of our team,” said Bice. “Stevan is a quiet guy, but once he got on the floor he was so tough and let his game do all the talking. He competed unbelievably hard for every loose ball and played tough from start to finish. He was so key to our defense.”
No doubt though, the Americans have some supremely skilled players too, forward Landon Trout turning a ton of heads all week. “He’s just so smooth with his stick,” said Prepchuk of the Bellarmine commit, who actually plays for Bice at Resolute.
“He is the best box player to ever come out of our program, by far, it’s not even close,” said Bice. “He’s extremely slick and his stick-work is just unreal.
“Plus he plays really gritty and tough. He isn’t afraid to break in the middle but is just as dangerous from outside. I’d love to see him be able to spend the next couple of summers playing box in Canada and hopefully stick with the game for his whole career. I think he could really be good.”
Bice may get his wish. This year three USBOXLA players are plying their trade in places like Coquitlam and New West, and Prepchuk says Canadian clubs were already eyeing Trout and others for future seasons up north.
Back to Bice’s original question… How does Canada do it? Yes, they’ve been doing it for a helluva lot longer than USBOXLA, but longevity is just part of it.
“We talk about how great Canadian’s stick skills are in the college and pro game, but to go to Canada and actually see in person how their entire system works, what these kids do … it’s a completely different take on it all,” said Bice, who a week later was still mentally unpacking uniquely Canadian concepts from his overwhelmed melon. “There is so much for the U.S. to learn from Canada and how they operate, how their process works at the youth level.”
The differences between field and box lacrosse are crystal clear even to the first-time observer. It doesn’t take genius to figure out that one is played on a massive grass field and the other on concrete in indoor rinks. What Bice witnessed in B.C. was something not so obvious.
“Player development in Canada versus the U.S. is definitely different, and I’m talking field or box,” Bice added. “I was so impressed with even just watching the kids show up to a game.
“The coaches don’t have to tell them anything. They’re already on the floor, starting warm-ups, doing drills like they’ve done it a million times. Before the game has even started these kids have touched the ball an obscene amount of times. I love the whole approach and mentality.”
Still processing everything he saw, Bice’s brain has been in overdrive since coming back home to Columbus. “I’m already thinking of ways to incorporate everything I saw into our own program,” he said. “We might have only been there a week, but I was able to pick up so much from just observing.”
Currently, Resolute’s box training takes place mainly during the winter months, but that may change as early as next year. “We’re trying to think of ways of providing our kids box lacrosse training for even longer during the year, into the spring and summer,” Bice said. “Box lacrosse will only make our players better, so clearly we need them playing more of it, especially at the younger age levels.”
While mirroring Canada’s box lacrosse approach was exactly what Brown and Santos set out to do seven years ago when the association first formed, what’s the logical next move(s)?
Prepchuk, who like the USBOXLA co-founders grew up playing north of the border and in the National Lacrosse League, believes tours and tournaments like the one the U18s just polished off is paramount for the game to grow in the U.S.
“Everyday USBOXLA is expanding and getting better,” declared Prepchuk. “The more and more we do these tours and take our players to tournaments like the Trevor Wingrove in Coquitlam and Canada Day in Calgary, the better we’ll become.
“They get to play and compete with kids that have been playing box since they picked up a stick. They get to see what they do on-and-off the floor. That experience is really important.”
Currently USBOXLA has in excess of seven thousand members across the country, Prepchuk running one of the two clubs currently operating out of Arizona. “The feedback we get from our players and parents after these trips is unbelievable,” he added. “It’s undeniable how much they love the sport of box lacrosse.”
One of the top tournaments on USBOXLA’s calendar every year is the Battle in the Box, hosted by Brown’s Denver Elite group. Prepchuk’s Arizona Outlaws made the trip this past June.
“I had parents and players on my team saying they couldn’t believe how much fun Battle in the Box was,” he said. “Now I’ve got players in Arizona who don’t even want to play field, all they want to do is play box lacrosse. They love it!”
So what are the next steps? Prepchuk says USBOXLA just needs to stick to the script and keep doing what they’ve already done better than anyone in the country… play real box lacrosse.
“Getting the game to the masses is what we need to do, and it’s happening with USBOXLA,” he said. “Once the players and parents have an opportunity to see what real box lacrosse looks like, the game really just speaks for itself.
“These kids are becoming better overall players and having fun doing it. The U.S. really needs this. Get these kids on the floor and they’re hooked.”
USBOXLA’s seven thousand and counting members strongly agree with that sentiment. Stay tuned.