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Why box lacrosse is booming in Colorado

By Paul Tutka, 03/16/18, 1:15PM PDT


The LXTC Mammoth Elite Box Lacrosse League had nearly 400 players and 40 coaches participating (Photo: Lacey Den Hartog)

Some still see National Lacrosse League players as part-time professional athletes. While that narrow-minded narrative could very easily be debated, something no one can deny is the full-time effort, heart and commitment to the sport nearly every single NLL player past or present possesses. 

In fact, it’s that third characteristic – commitment – that the US Box Lacrosse Association was built on. 

Not knowing either was even attending the 2010 Canada Day Tournament in Calgary, Alberta, University of Denver Associate Head Coach, Matt Brown, and 12-year NLL player, Shaydon Santos, were certainly surprised to run into one another there. They knew who the other was, but their previous relationship was nothing more than that, let alone either knowing the other was attempting to get youth box lacrosse going in the U.S.

Brown was attending the tournament with a bunch of box lacrosse newbies from Denver, while Santos had teams from the San Jose area, just a handful of Cali kids in Canada for the first time. This unexpected encounter is where the idea for USBOXLA was born, the two eager Canucks starting the association shortly after connecting in Cowtown. Instead of competing against one another, they collaborated their efforts for the betterment of American box lacrosse.

At the time, well under one hundred American youth were playing what most would consider legitimate box. Today, USBOXLA has approximately 18,000 registered members playing for sanctioned clubs in over 30 states. 

While the idea of USBOXLA – America’s first box-only governing body – was first formed in 2010, you’d actually have to go back a ways to see where the seeds for USBOXLA, and many of its current member clubs, were first planted. 

A former Mammoth player himself, Matt Brown feels the impact of transplanted players has helped the sport surge (Photo: Sherri Thomson)

January 3, 2003. The Colorado Mammoth played their first NLL game ever on that date. The franchise had a few failed stops prior to landing in Denver, having played a combined 16 seasons in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. Their future changed drastically in Colorado, and those out-of-the-red results didn’t take long to materialize. 

Not only did the Mammoth win that 2003 season opener, a dramatic 13-12 double-overtime victory over the defending champion Toronto Rock, they loaded the Pepsi Center with 16,121 feverishly rabid fans that felt like they’d been supporting the franchise for decades, not days. 

The game was delayed for nearly half an hour due to a seemingly never-ending lengthy line into the area, the Mammoth selling over 6,000 tickets in about an hour, which was a record for the facility at that time. 

Success. And not just of the visible variety. Other significant seeds were being planted during those days, even if nearly no one was aware. 

That very first Mammoth roster had a handful of players, that today, are important pieces of the USBOXLA puzzle and growth of the game nationwide. While many former and current Mammoth players serve as USBOXLA club and national team coaches, on that 2003 roster alone, seven players, both Canadian and American, are affiliated with USBOXLA in some capacity today. They include: John Gallant, Jamie Hanford, Fred Jenner, Brian Langtry, Ben Prepchuk, Trevor Tierney, and John Rosa, who entered his first USBOXLA event just this past month in Columbus, Ohio. 

In fact, when you combine all the NLL seasons current USBOXLA coaches have participated in, you’d be looking at over 300 years in the box big leagues. While not all pro athletes make great coaches, the ones currently helping spread the sport with USBOXLA, most definitely are.

“When you look at all the players from over the years that not only played for the Mammoth, but then ended up living here too, that infusion of talent is a big reason why proper box lacrosse development is on the rise in Colorado,” said Brown, who himself played for the Mammoth during his NLL career. “I think that is a really big piece of it. 

“Former players like John Gallant and Jamie Shewchuk, and current ones like Dillon Ward and Jeremy Noble, are now an everyday presence in this market and have decided to give back to the community through their box lacrosse knowledge and instruction.”

From peanuts to the pros, the Colorado lacrosse community is doing box right. Brown’s USBOXLA-sanctioned club LXTC and the Mammoth are ensuring the box being played in Colorado is the same as what Brown, Santos and so many other USBOXLA coaches grew up playing in Canada. 

Players in the Colorado-based youth league are provided a safe, skilled and structured environment to play in (Photo: Lacey Den Hartog)

“That was always the goal,” said Santos, who runs his own leagues in California and currently serves as the USBOXLA President. “I think a lot of NLL players saw how poorly youth box was being done when we were playing professionally in some of these American markets.

“It was often unsafe, lacked structure, and provided no skill to the kids playing. I remember one school around me even banning box after sticks were dropped off and barely any instruction was provided. It was dangerous. The goal of USBOXLA was to end that. Box lacrosse is the best sport on earth, if you do it right.”

Last month, the third successful season of the LXTC Mammoth Elite Box Lacrosse League came to a close. It is by far America’s biggest youth box lacrosse league, providing an outlet for nearly 400 players and 40 coaches to experience, learn and love the sport the way it was intended to be played. 

“USBOXLA and LXTC are doing youth box the right way, and you can see they take pride in that,” said Mammoth General Manager, Dan Carey, who grew up playing lacrosse in Peterborough, Ontario, and like Brown, spent time suiting up for the Mammoth. “That pride, that professional approach, that knowledge all trickles down to everyone involved in the program.

“We had a lot of smiles in that league from players, parents, coaches and referees, and it’s because everything was being done the right way.”

While the LXTC-powered Colorado Collegiate Box Lacrosse League captured considerable attention during its inaugural season last summer, it’s the grass-roots work being done in a league like this one that will allow the game to flourish even further. 

“For years, people within the sport were looking for shortcuts on how to develop Americans for today’s NLL, or future senior men’s players to compete at the World Indoor Lacrosse Championships,” said Santos. “That growth and development doesn’t just magically happen at the top. 

“It starts right here, at the youth level, and I think everyone involved in the LXTC Mammoth league should be commended for the work they’ve done. This league is the blueprint for youth box lacrosse in the U.S.”

Coaches in the league are provided the proper box education so they are able to instruct players the right way to play (Photo: Lacey Den Hartog)

With USBOXLA membership growing rapidly, and only so many former NLL players living in American markets to go around, how do clubs like LXTC ensure proper coaching, instruction and development continues? Unlike other box organizations currently operating in the country, USBOXLA ensures proper development of the game, players, officials, and although not mentioned nearly enough, coaches too. 

For years, decades even, versions of box lacrosse were being taught to American youth by adults with little to no box lacrosse experience. This broken system turned hundreds if not thousands of players and parents into critics of the game they thought they were playing, instead of the faithful fans we now see today. 

USBOXLA clubs, like LXTC, provides perspective coaches with little to no box background the teachings and tools to first learn the game correctly, and then instruct correctly too. 

“It’s really encouraging to know that we not only have American coaches that are willing and interested in growing the box game, but also the caliber of coaching that is being developed here in Colorado,” said Carey. “If you don’t have the right coaches who are committed to learning the game the right way, you’re going to have players lose interest in the sport. It’s that simple.  

“That structure, that instruction, that education is so key to providing players a skilled, safe and fun environment to learn box lacrosse the right way. That’s what is happening here in Denver.”

As mentioned earlier, 40 American coaches participated in this year’s LXTC Mammoth Elite Box Lacrosse League. Think about that for a second. That’s 40 individuals who now have a box lacrosse background and can teach the sport properly to a multitude of American youth. That number will only grow in Colorado next year, and in Arizona, and in Minnesota, and in Nevada, and in countless other states USBOXLA clubs continue to pop in up.

League coaches included everyone from former NCAA DI players to dads wanting to help coach their kids (Photo: Lacey Den Hartog)

“I coach because I love the game,” said Austin Lanpher, who in addition to serving as the Head Boys Lacrosse Coach at Cherokee Trail High School, also coached in the LXTC Mammoth league this past winter and has been coaching USBOXLA-sanctioned box for the past four years. “I am a student of the game and really enjoy learning all the nuances of box lacrosse. 

“I still have a ton to learn, but my progression has been about as fast paced as the box game itself. It’s really amazing to see how much the game of box lacrosse has truly developed in the Metro Denver Area over the last five years. These are no longer field players messing around playing box. These kids have real box skills, and their lacrosse IQ continues to impress the more they play.”

While skill development through proper instruction is critical, coaches in the Colorado league also realize players new to the sport need to enjoy what they’re doing if there is hope of them playing in future seasons. “I continue to learn how important it is to focus the kids and families on having fun together more than anything else,” said coach Kyle Belvill, who’s son Luc also plays for Denver Elite and Team USBOXLA. “I enjoy bringing kids and families together to have fun and get them excited about playing box.”

The USBOXLA tagline, “Play box. Get better. Have fun!” is more than some memorable marketing copy, it’s truly what the association hopes everyone involved in the sport comes away with, no matter their skill level. 

“I had limited knowledge of box lacrosse prior to my son playing on a novice USBOXLA team that traveled to Canada in 2014,” said David Link, who has spent the last three years coaching in the Colorado-based youth league, and also owns and manages the CCBLL’s Stoneflies. “When this league first started, I thought it would be fun to get a group of kids together during the winter and join. I couldn’t find a coach, so by default I was the coach.”

“Now in my third year as a coach and working with the same-aged kids moving up a division every year, setting aside the fact that the players are older, the caliber of play in this year’s eighth grade division has been fantastic.” 

All coaches in the LXTC Mammoth Elite Box Lacrosse League are USBOXLA-certified (Photo: Lacey Den Hartog)

As a former NCAA DI player and 30-year field lacrosse coach, like many of the NLL players in the USBOXLA coaching system, Kevin Younger is also hoping to help further spread this sport in his state. “I feel a huge obligation to give back to the game that I love and feel the best avenue for me to do that is by helping grow it through coaching,” said Younger, who’s sons also play within the LXTC system. “I love the interaction and sharing of the game that I get to do with my boys while playing box.

“Plus, as a field coach, I can already see players that played in this league over the winter benefiting from it now that they’re outside. There was just a tremendous amount of growth, skill development and overall lacrosse IQ improvement for these players I had the pleasure to coach this year.”

Would any of the stories shared by coaches Lanpher, Belvill, Link or Younger have been possible had the Mammoth not set up shop in Denver prior to that 2003 season? Would USBOXLA have been born if Shaydon Santos hadn’t moved to San Jose to play for the Stealth a year later? Would countless other USBOXLA clubs have been formed if NLL players hadn’t moved their entire lives to play the sport they love in states they had previously never set foot in?

“I think these transplant players and their commitment to the sport at the youth levels has been so important for the growth of box lacrosse in not only Colorado, but other parts of the country as well,” said Brown, a Burnaby, British Columbia native that has called Denver home for well over a decade now. “If that never happened, I’m not sure we’d see the strong participation numbers we have today.

“I think we have to give a lot of credit to those guys. Without them, we wouldn't be where we are today."