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Americans in the National Lacrosse League Part III: Searching for Stoppers

By Paul Tutka, 12/14/16, 5:30AM PST


It’s been 2,818 days since Jeremy Ogden played just over a minute’s worth of action for the Colorado Mammoth during the 2009 National Lacrosse League regular season.

Who cares? Well for one, Ogden probably does, but…

… it’s also the last time an American goalie has played in the NLL. While a few US goalies have found practice roster spots in future seasons, not one has made the jump to being even a regular backup let alone play in an actual game since that March 28, 2009 contest.

On a positive note, Ogden didn’t let in a single goal that night. He didn’t face a shot either, but a 69 second shutout is still a 69 second shutout no matter how many balls were rifled your way.

Again, like mentioned in Americans in the NLL Part I, when we say “Americans”, that’s exactly what we mean. We’re not looking at loophole guys or dual citizens that grew up playing in Canada. We’re not trying to build a WILC roster here. We’re talking red-blooded, field-first US citizens, period. No cheating (more on cheating and shortcuts later).

In that same 2009 season, highly regarded American goalie Erik Miller did play a bit for the New York Titans, ending an impressive ten-year career that winter. Mickey Hover, who isn’t even listed in the league’s historical goalie database, also spent a game backing up Rob Blasdell during the Philadelphia Wings’ regular season finale loss to the Rochester Knighthawks.

The decline of American goalies in the NLL has been on an even more dramatic decline than the runners (see USA vs. Canada vs. Iroquois roster spots since 2010 in Eric Martin Q&A or read about last year’s lonely 13 in Part I).

While many older statistics on are missing (only list five goalies as having played in 1992, a season that included seven teams and presumably a minimum of 14 stoppers) or incomplete (historical database doesn’t include a single goalie stat from 1987 to 1991), even with a less than perfect stat pool, the downward trend is crystal clear… professional indoor lacrosse is losing American goalies at an alarming rate.

Background of NLL Goalies (by %) Since 1992


Well, like we addressed in Part I, Americans of any position face two unavoidable issues in today’s pro lacrosse landscape… experience and availability. The influx of Canadian players and even Canadian franchises – almost always fully stocked with Canucks – since the late 90’s hasn’t helped either, but that’s essentially an experience issue too.

Being an NLL backstop isn’t a fake it till you make it kinda gig. While uber-athletic, new-to-box, American-born runners can stumble their way around in a transition-centric role trying to figure things out, an NLL goalie doesn’t have that luxury. The transition for a goalie with little to no box experience from field to indoor is a hundred times harder to pull off. Lately, it’s been impossible.

While the overlap of schedules between the NLL and Major League Lacrosse can also pose a problem, the availability issue is very much a secondary hurdle here. Unlike Part I, it’s probably not even worth mentioning when it comes to the tenders. Not now anyways.

Nothing field-only collegiate goalies learn while growing up on grass will prepare them for a life indoors, outside of maybe their eccentricity. The positions are too unique and require a vastly different skillset. Retired players like Miller or NLL Hall of Famer Sal LoCascio are two of the very few that have successfully made that almost insurmountable transformation.

During the early years of the NLL (aka the Eagle and MILL) in the late 80’s and early 90’s, Americans owned a majority of roster spots, including between the pipes. Canadians had yet to discover or pay much attention to the NLL in those days, so Americans had opportunities they don’t have today. They may not have been playing textbook ball, but it didn’t really matter in 1987.

Over the past decade, a number of second-tier or semi-pro loops have sprouted in the US, usually disappearing after a single season, sometimes sooner. The NLL even at one time flirted with the idea of NLL2, a US-only secondary league similar to the American Hockey League or NBA D-League. The intent was often to provide American adult males with little to no box experience an avenue to essentially learn how to play box lacrosse. The ultimate goal was always seemingly to eventually snag an NLL job after learning the nuances of the indoor game. It rarely if ever happened however.

Those nuances are ones that Canadians, the nation that now hogs more roster spots in the NLL than ever before, learned and perfected since they were toddlers.

If Canadians are forming their significantly superior box lacrosse fundamentals from their early childhood to adolescence, why has the focus in the US for so long been on adults and not youth? With fewer Americans in the NLL than ever before and a national team that has done no better than bronze at the World Indoor Lacrosse Championships since its inception in 2003, clearly cheating the system hasn’t worked.

Building box lacrosse from the ground up – following the same proven formula as Canada – isn’t easy or something that can happen overnight. You can’t cheat or rush proper development, and for the first time in US lacrosse history, legitimate youth box lacrosse is taking over the nation under the guidance of the US Box Lacrosse Association.

It’s a trend that will unquestionably benefit the NLL in coming-soon seasons.

In 2010, University of Denver Associate Head Coach Matt Brown and former NLL captain and Champion’s Cup winner Shaydon Santos established USBOXLA. With clubs located in California, Colorado and Washington that first year, USBOXLA members can now be found in 30 states, with membership ballooning to ten thousand by the end of 2016.

Within that ten thousand, approximately 500 members play in net. Outside of a small handful just doing it because no one else will, about 400 of those American kids are playing as box lacrosse goalies for one reason… they love it.

23-year-old David Mather loves being a box goalie too.

The Seattle-based backstop might be best known for his unbelievable penalty shot stop on Lyle Thompson during the 2015 WILC in Syracuse, but he’s also one of the first goalies to graduate from a USBOXLA program and achieve some serious success.

In addition to playing for Team USA just over a year ago, Mather has also played both Junior ‘A’ (BCJALL) and Senior ‘A’ (WLA) in Canada. He was a standout netminder at the Stealth Academy when the Washington Stealth (now Vancouver Stealth) were based in Everett. The group was one of the first USBOXLA members and run by since retired pro Lewis Ratcliff.

“I was a season ticket holder every year the Stealth were here,” said Mather. “I’ve made trips up north to see them in Langley too. I was a big fan of the team.”

Although he only discovered the sport while in high school, Mather’s strides have been impressive and an example of what’s possible if American youth are turned onto the game during their formative years.

“There’s a lot of American talent coming up and the only thing they need is an opportunity to play,” said Mather. “USBOXLA is giving these kids an opportunity that wasn’t previously available.

“Box goaltending is very unique. I think it’s a very different and misunderstood position, but it’s good to see so many Americans trying it today. Things are headed in the right direction.”

Since graduating from the Stealth Academy, Mather has also spent time coaching with Ratcliff, the Seattle Starz and Team USBOXLA. This past summer he attended the USBOXLA Nationals in San Jose, a tournament he played at during the association’s very early editions. He liked what he saw. “There are youth goalies playing in the US right now that are just as good if not better than Canadians at the same age level,” he said. “I think their time is coming.”

Mather isn’t the only one that’s been impressed with what he’s seen from USBOXLA-trained goalies.

In 2015, the Colorado Mammoth joined forces with USBOXLA to form the LXTC Mammoth Elite Box Lacrosse League. As part of the program, area youth were also offered clinics provided by USBOXLA-certified instructors and Mammoth players.

Dillon Ward is one of those players. The 2016 NLL Goalie of the Year finalist is considered not only one of Canada’s best box goalies today, he’s also the country’s premier field stopper. Ward won gold with the red and white at the 2014 World Lacrosse Championships, a tournament he was also named Most Outstanding Goalie and MVP in.

The Mammoth’s show-stopping starter has seen firsthand what exposing American youth to box has done for their development both in and out of the crease.

“It’s great that kids in the US are playing box, and now getting properly coached for box rather than putting down box nets and just calling it box,” said Ward, referencing the heinously hybrid version of the game often taught to youth prior to USBOXLA forming. “What I love is being able to work with goalies who are eager to learn a new sport and help show them proper basic mechanics.

“Even after working with kids for five minutes you see how easy of a position it can be to pick up. And now seeing kids who have been playing box for multiple years, well, there are some great goalies coming up in the US.”

One of those goalies is Skylar Whinery, better known as simply “Moose” to anyone that’s played or even just met the promising USBOXLA pupil for the first time.

Moose is currently one of the most experienced and skilled youth goalies in the country, having trained at Brown’s LXTC-powered Denver Elite program (a charter USBOXLA member co-founded by Brown and Bill & Trevor Tierney) and starring for multiple Team USBOXLA sides during demanding tours of British Columbia. He’s also garnered attention from Junior ‘A’ teams in both BC and Ontario, and like Mather, spends time coaching an even younger generation of goalies in the country.

The Colorado College commit is one of the 400+ playing the position in the US and loving every second of what a previously very foreign role provides him.

“I love the level of action being a keeper,” said Moose, who started playing box lacrosse in sixth grade. “I like seeing the entire game. Box lacrosse is played at a very fast pace. I always have to be ready for a shot. I like being the last line before a team tries to score. I want that on my shoulders.”

Even just ten years ago, few American kids even had the opportunity to play as a box goalie, let alone sing the position’s praises like Moose does today. Even fewer likely thought of ever playing in an NLL crease, but in 2016, you better believe most if not all of those 400 enthusiastic USBOXLA goalies envision just that.

“I have dreamed of playing in the NLL since watching my first Mammoth game,” Moose said. “I grew up playing baseball, football and basketball.

“After traveling to Canada in the seventh grade for the first time to play box, I was hooked. I have been so fortunate to have the best box players taking shots on me. Coaches like Jamie Shewchuk, Matt Brown, John GallantJamie Lincoln and Shaydon Santos have all helped me and kept me on my toes. I’d love to play in the NLL just like they did.” checked in with other top USBOXLA goalies and asked them…

Q: What made you want to try playing as a goalie in box lacrosse?

“I started playing field goalie at U8, so playing goalie in the box felt natural to me. When my dad singed me up to play out as a pee wee, I couldn’t resist getting suited up in all the gear and keeping the balls out of the goal. I asked Coach (John) Gallant if I could suit up as goalie. In his Canadian accent and with a smile he said, “Sure!” That’s when it all began.” – Ben CecilDenver Elite & Team USBOXLA Bantam

“I decided to play goalie in box because my travel team at Fusion Elite played box and they suggested that I try goalie. Even though box goalkeeping is extremely different from field, I ended up loving it!” – Axell BeskarPenn*Lax All Stars & Team USBOXLA Midget

“I got invited to play on the Junior Mammoth when I was nine. When I went to the first practice and was taught how to play, I really liked it!” – Chandler NaymanDenver Elite & Team USBOXLA Midget

“I decided to play goalie because I’ve always been taller then every other player and I knew it would be an advantage. I had played defense previously, so I knew how to control them and get them to play effectively.” – Cade LichfieldSeattle Starz & Team USBOXLA U18

“I had been going to Colorado Mammoth games and started playing field lacrosse. I saw Tye Belanger and Dillon Ward playing. That’s when I knew I wanted to be like them.” – Robby Mielke, Denver Elite Novice

“My dad has been my youth coach and always had goalie equipment in the garage for our team. My brother Colby always made me put on equipment so he could practice shooting on our box goals. One day our goalie was out of town and I stepped in to play the game. I enjoyed it and I played well. Now I try to find as much running time with my youth team as a I can because I play so much between the pipes competitively.” – Kurtis LensingDenver Elite & Team USBOXLA Pee Wee

Q: What do you like about the position?

“The challenge it brings every game. In my opinion, playing goalie in box lacrosse is difficult. Moving around and staying in position while wearing bulky equipment is more difficult than it looks.” – Lensing

“I like that I can see the whole game in front of me. I like being the last line of defense and helping my team know where the ball and other team’s players are.” – Mielke

“I like playing as a box goalie because it’s very challenging, demanding and rewarding. Going to Canada and playing against the best players and teams is very humbling, but I love it because it drives me to get better so I can continue to play at my highest level.” – Cecil

“Wearing all the pads and not getting hurt. I am able to fearlessly move in front of high-speed shots and block them with my body.” – Beskar

“As a goalie, I love being the leader of the team and taking control. I also love playing such a key role on the team. It drives me to always give my best in games and practices. I never want to disappoint my teammates or coaches. The best part is the feeling you get after making an amazing save in a close game.” – Lichfield

“Being a box goalie is incredibly unique. It’s basically like its own game inside a game. Your performance can be a big factor in determining the outcome of a game. There are times when a score is close and you know you have to make a bunch big saves to win. It’s a lot of pressure and not for everyone, but I love it!.” – Nayman

Q: Although field and box goalies play vastly different games, do you find playing box has helped you outdoors?

“They are definitely played differently, but box has made my reflexes quicker when playing field. It’s instinctive to use my body to stop the shot in box and I have incorporated that into my field playing.” – Moose

“I started playing goalie in box in grade eight, and continued to play defense in field for a few years. During my sophomore year, my team’s field goalie had a severe injury and was out for the season. Because I was the only one with any experience or a bit of bravery, my coach tossed me a goalie stick and put me in net. Both of my skill sets have complimented each other as I’ve continued to play. I owe my success in field to the shots I’ve taken in box, and my speed in box to shots I’ve taken in field.” – Lichfield

“I believe box has helped me a lot in field goalkeeping. It’s taught me to not be afraid of shots and to always get my body in front of the ball as a backup if my stick misses.” – Beskar

“It does help. It helps my speed, positioning, agility and with the quick ball movement in box, it helps me track the ball better in field.” – Mielke

“I play attack and goalie in field lacrosse. When I play goalie outdoors I get bored sometimes because I only see a dozen shots a game. Where as in box lacrosse I might see 20-30 shots a game. The shots in box lacrosse are much closer and harder. The box game is so fast. Things slow down when playing outdoors and I feel like I can see the ball and the play develop much easier from the goal. Playing box goalie is all about angles and positioning. When I play field lacrosse I now hold my position longer and it allows me a better opportunity to make a save because I’m much more comfortable.” – Lensing

“Being a box goalie has helped me a lot with field. It has made me better at using my body to make saves. It has also helped me stand my ground and not go for fakes.” – Nayman

Q: Is playing in the NLL something you strive for?

“Ever since going to my first Philadelphia Wings game in middle school I have wanted to play in the NLL. That’s one of the main reasons I play box. I hope to be able to play in the NLL after college.” – Beskar

“It for sure is! I would love to be able to play as a pro box goalie when I grow up.” – Mielke

“I hope and dream to one day play in the NLL. I know it will take a lot of sacrifice and commitment. Even being able to play at the Junior ‘A’, ‘B’ or Senior level in Canada would be a tremendous honor. As a five-year season ticket member for the Colorado Mammoth, it has been a blast watching all the great players and teams at the Pepsi Center. I hope the game continues to grow and flourish, and maybe one day I will be in the box playing for the fans in the NLL.” – Cecil

“If the sport takes me that far then that would be insane. I haven’t put that much thought into it, I’ve kind of just enjoyed the experience and the memories that it has created.” – Nayman

“I’d love to play in the NLL. I’ll be 13 in February and I feel like there is so much ahead of me. I have a lot of future goals and lacrosse is one of them, but who knows what will happen. I want to continue to play and just see what path I end up taking.” – Lensing

Photos: Erik Miller image Zach Heffner/Verdict Digital, Team USBOXLA images Sherri Thomson and Dillon Ward image Jack Dempsey/Colorado Mammoth