When US-born goalie David Mather showed up to this year’s USBOXLA Nationals in San Jose, things seemed a bit different. Actually, a lot different.
There were more teams, more players, more coaches and more of just about everything than what he remembered four years earlier. “It’s amazing to see what the Nationals have grown into,” said Mather. “There really is nothing else like this.”
When the World Indoor Lacrosse Championship bronze medal-winning backstop played in this same event several summers back, there weren’t all that many clubs coming to Cali. “There was us, Denver Elite, Cali*Lax and than a handful of locals,” he said. “To see teams as far east as Connecticut, multiple clubs from Texas and so many other states represented this year, well, it’s awesome!”
Heading into this year’s Nationals, USBOXLA staff were well aware that the 2016 edition would be the biggest in the association’s history. Already moving the Nationals from Los Angeles to San Jose’s massive Silver Creek Sportsplex to accommodate an anticipated bigger turnout, organizers were forced to book another venue weeks before the Nationals started in order to have enough room for all the coming-soon action.
“You could sense something big was happening,” said former National Lacrosse League star and current Denver Elite coach Jamie Shewchuk. “Even before you got to the venue, you knew USBOXLA was there.”
“From the moment I pulled up to the rink I was blown away,” declared 2016 NLL Media Person of the Year Teddy Jenner, who was attending the Nationals for the first time. “That massive banner draped over the building, which is no small building, looked so impressive.”
Jenner, who once played for a since-departed Anaheim NLL franchise, had practiced at Silver Creek almost a decade back, but like Mather, things seemed a lot different. “Once you got into the area and saw hundreds of kids on five different floors and hundreds of others watching and waiting… I just wasn’t really expecting that,” he said. “I’ve been to lacrosse tournaments my entire life and I’ve never witnessed anything like what I saw at the Nationals.”
This year’s Nationals included a novice division for the first time, ‘B’ divisions to offer more opportunity to clubs around the country, as well as a pre-tournament, USBOXLA Academy-hosted clinic, the always amped-up Rude Brand Kill’r Shootout and a Saturday night All-Star series between Team USBOXLA and a tournament best-of roster. “There was just always something happening,” added Jenner. “Even when players weren’t playing, they were constantly engaged.
“It was an amazing atmosphere. You didn’t want to leave the area. It was incredible from start to finish.”
That start included the previously mentioned clinic, which like the competing clubs, included instructors from all over the country and Canada. University of Denver coaching duo Bill Tierney and Matt Brown were there, Vermont’s new head coach Chris Feifs, as well as the likes of Toronto Rock captain Colin Doyle, USBOXLA co-founder and event organizer Shaydon Santos, Shewchuk and former Colorado Mammoth teammate John Gallant, and Mather.
“We had three rinks going on at once, said Shewchuk, “We put the kids through their paces. There were some kids that were newer to box lacrosse, so it was good to get them in an environment like that.”
While the players themselves must have been somewhat star struck by their teachers, even Mather, who jumped from rink to rink to give the goalies some pointers, was impressed. “It was cool to see Matt Brown coaching in that environment,” he said. “The way he runs a practice is really something else. Just watch him run a session once and you’ll know why his Denver programs are as good as they are today.”
At the conclusion of the clinic, the tournament was underway.
Clubs from Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington and Canada competed at novice, pee wee, bantam, midget and high school elite levels, and the game play was non-stop, literally. “On the Saturday, I coached my first game at 8am and my last one at 10pm,” said Mather. “It was a pretty full 14-hour day,” joked the Seattle stopper.
As they have in the past, Denver Elite, a USBOXLA charter member, dominated much of the weekend, garnering a tournament-leading five medals – one gold, three silver and one bronze. “We had eight teams competing and well over 100 players in California,” said Shewchuk. “It was the first year for novice at the Nationals too and it’s so great to see kids that young playing real box lacrosse throughout the US.”
Jenner, who in addition to playing collegiately in the US and professionally on both sides of the border, has also coached youth box lacrosse in British Columbia. He was impressed with not only the number of American youth competing at this year’s Nationals, but the quality of play too. “Obviously box is in its infancy in a lot of places, but the American talent across the board was really good,” he said. “You could see some of the clubs that have been doing this for a while were stronger in a lot of aspects, but I gotta tell you, I was impressed with many of the teams there.
“This just wasn’t happening before USBOXLA started up. It just wasn’t. These American kids are playing legitimate box lacrosse and it’s just amazing to see.”
While US-based teams made up a majority of the tournament, Canadian clubs also took part, this year a trio from British Columbia making the swing down to San Jose – Junior (Vancouver) Stealth, Chilly Willy and BC Outlaws. “The Canadians give us a benchmark to work towards,” said Mather, who after playing in the Seattle area, has since suited up for both British Columbia Junior ‘A’ and Senior ‘A’ sides. “If the US wants to be competitive in box, that’s the level we need to be at in every age group.
“Practice and scrimmages are one thing, but when you play some of these Canadian teams, you can see where you need to improve, what the best in Canada play like. The Canadians have been playing box since a really young age. The game is engrained in their DNA. That is good for our kids to see and learn from.”
USBOXLA has not only attempted to develop their players like they do in Canada, they’ve also taken the same route with their referees and rules. Player safety through proper officiating has been as important to the association as player development, and at the 2016 Nationals, USBOXLA officials took another step in their overall development.
This year’s event hosted a level two certification course for their most elite officials, designed to challenge referees to ensure gameplay is by the exact standards of the US Box Lacrosse Association Rules and Situational Book. 14 officials from four different states, as well as an NLL-experienced ref from Canada, took part in the Friday morning session.
“The refs were enthusiastic, eager and ready to dive into their next level of training,” said USBOXLA Eastern Director of Officiating Adam Gardner, who headed up a course that included rule knowledge and application, group video review and discussion, proposed rule changes and additions to 2017 rule book and on-floor mechanics and focus calls. “Our focus calls are all about protecting the players,” Gardner added. “This is apparent with all check from behinds as five-minute majors, boarding called tightly to avoid large impacts, while minor interference and loose ball battles anywhere near the boards is also called closely.”
Long ignored prior to USBOXLA forming in 2010, officiating is a top priority for USBOXLA and an area not taken lightly. “Every official at our event was supervised at least two times throughout the weekend,” said Gardner. “We worked with them to take their game to the next level and worked with players and coaches on communicating rule interpretation and player safety.”
Safety is clearly paramount, but so is having a blast playing box lacrosse.
On Saturday night, things really got turned up when the Rude Brand Kill’r Shootout started. For those that weren’t fortunate enough to witness this event, if you grew up watching the And 1 Mixtape Tour, think that, just box instead of b-ball.
With Jenner on the mic and what felt like the entire Sportsplex pressed up against the rink glass, over 150 shooters lined up for their shot at a crisp hundred-dollar bill. The rules are pretty simple. The shootout is split into two divisions – bantam/midget and novice/pee wee. Top goalies at the tournament stood guard while each player attempted to get their shot by them. You could miss once, but after failing to find the back of the net for a second straight time, you were out of the competition. The winner of each division got paid, literally.
“It was insane,” said Jenner. “The line to get onto the field seemed never ending. Players were just flooding onto the floor. I’ve never seen anything like this. It was just absolutely amazing.”
Down to five shooters in the younger bracket, Jenner started challenging players to snipe specific shots to make things even more interesting. The Atlanta Revolution’s Evan Suh was one of those the event’s MC dared to be different. “I told him to go backhand,” said Jenner, who wasn’t sure the state-side sniper would bite on his bait. “He ran down the floor, does this pivot, goes backhand and just absolutely roofs it top corner. The entire place went bananas!
“His teammates came screaming onto the floor and piled on him to celebrate his win. It’s a moment I’ll never forget. Seeing his buddies jump on him after scoring that goal was just brilliant. The shootout was really special.”
While box lacrosse is definitely about skill, toughness and an ability to adapt, it’s also about what Jenner just described.
Shewchuk, who grew up playing the sport in Alberta, knows exactly what Jenner is talking about. “I believe that field and box lacrosse are culturally different,” said Shewchuk. “Americans are slowly but surely starting to realize that.”
In Canada, summers are spent playing box lacrosse, something Shewchuk feels Americans could benefit from greatly both on and off the playing field. “Club lacrosse all summer can be very stressful, it can be very expensive and it’s always about me, me, me,” he added. “Where am I going to school? What coach is going talk to me?
“With box lacrosse, you don’t have that. At Denver Elite we stress being a really good teammate. I don’t care who you are, where you come from or whatever else. If you’re at one of our sessions, playing in a game or representing us at the Nationals, you are a Denver Elite player and part of our family first. It’s not just about you. It’s about the team and the entire experience.”
Like players and parents have in Colorado, California and elsewhere under the USBOXLA umbrella, once Americans experience this very different, box-centric approach to the sport, they always fully embrace the off-floor benefits box lacrosse can provide. “I think from a cultural standpoint, that attitude takes a lot of the pressure off of them and they can just play, not worry about all that other stuff,” Shewchuk said. “That’s box lacrosse.”
It was four years between when Mather first played in the Nationals to coaching in the tournament today. No doubt, even just pulling into the parking lot at Silver Creek, a lot has changed. What will the Nationals look like another four years from now? “Hopefully we keep growing and get more and more clubs,” Mather said enthusiastically. “I grew up playing hockey in the US, where you’d win state, then move onto the regionals and then the nationals.
“It gets to the point where you can’t invite everyone because there are so many teams in each state. It would be great to eventually see teams within their state battling for a spot at the USBOXLA Nationals.”
Shewchuk sees similar growth happening, not just at the three-day event, but all over the country. “I feel like in the last two years USBOXLA has grown exponentially,” he stated – the association currently sitting at over 7,000 members in the US and projecting over 10,000 at this time next year. “In five years, I see box getting bigger and bigger, better and better. Within USBOXLA we have people that grew up living and loving this sport, teaching the game and establishing a real culture for box lacrosse in the US.
“We want our players to experience the sport the same way we did. USBOXLA is making that happen.”
The Nationals – by far the biggest youth box lacrosse tournament in the US past, present and undoubtedly future – are just that. A Canadian box lacrosse inspired culture shock that gives Americans a glimpse of what real box lacrosse is all about.
What took place in San Jose in recent weeks is the same thing that happens in places like Whitby, Victoria, Calgary and any other Canadian city that lives and breathes box lacrosse.
The 2016 edition of the Nationals is proof that box lacrosse – legitimate box lacrosse in fact – has arrived in the US, and guess what, it’s only getting bigger.
Photos: Jeremy Garcia