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When I was growing up as a kid out here in British Columbia, I always looked forward to playing in the bigger tournaments in Vancouver. It was a great opportunity for our Saanich Tigers to go play and test ourselves against the daunted mainland clubs. Sometimes we won, many times we lost – I can’t really remember ever winning a minor tournament other than the 1988 Canada Day Tournament in Calgary when I was a 12-year-old in pee wee.

While every loss stung a little bit more as I got older, it paled in comparison to the experiences, memories and bonds that I built during those times. Those things stood out the most. For the near sixty kids that proudly and honorably wore the stars and stripes on their chests this weekend in Coquitlam with Team USBOXLA, the lessons they will take away from their time playing some of the best teams in the province will last a lifetime.

The Trevor Wingrove Memorial Tournament has become one of the most prestigious events in all of B.C. lacrosse and is played in memoriam of the former Coquitlam player who lost his battle with cancer at the age of 42 in July of 2010. When I was young kid it was called the Dogwood Tournament and it was just as much of an honor to play as it was to coach in it, which I did with my Juan de Fuca Pee Wee A1s two years ago. Over the years, teams have been traveling from all over B.C. to attend as the growth of the game has continued to climb. It wasn’t until I was 17-years-old the first time I played a team from Prince George. Now kids are playing against teams from Edmonton and Calgary.

“This will give our very best players a chance to have their skills tested against some of Canada’s best in this sport”

In 2016, the 32nd edition of the Wingrove/Dogwood Tournament became an international event as USBOXLA invaded The Palace on Poirier with three teams, one for each division – Pee Wee (11-12), Bantam (13-14) and Midget (15-16) – ready to battle.

It was a massive eye opener for every one of those kids and their parents.

USBOXLA co-founder and University of Denver Associate Head Coach Matt Brown may have summed it perfectly when he recently said, “It is my belief that in order to compete on the world stage with Canadians you need to match talent at a young age, and it’s these skills, the ones developed by playing legit box, greatly outweigh traditional field development. This will give our very best players a chance to have their skills tested against some of Canada’s best in this sport.”

They were tested early and often all weekend, but in just that short amount of time, you could see the adaptation process beginning.

It had to be incredibly tough for so many of the players this weekend to come up here and step inside the box; it was night and day. CJ Lauretani, an 11-year-old from Pelham Manor, New York, soaked up every drop of the B.C. tour experience, instantly recognizing that this wasn’t the box game he was used to playing back home. “The thing that surprised me the most was the physical play around the goal, but also how good the refs were,” he said. “It was hard learning what was legal and what wasn’t.”

Don’t worry CJ, I’ve been in the game for over thirty years and I’m still trying to figure that out. To be honest though, the refs did a very good job this weekend in all of the games. Some of them even made sure to take the extra time to talk with the USBOXLA kids in order to help them better understand the calls that were being made.

Lauretani and his teammates appreciated that. “I got called for a four minute, un-releasable penalty for a small push in the back (Note: a double-minor for back-checking) at half court,” he said. “But once we learned the rules, the refs were very good and called it the same way in all games.”

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When you’re used to the field game, which the majority of this group is, adjusting to the physical nature of box lacrosse can take a bit. You can never replicate the experience of getting body or cross-checked into the boards unless you’ve actually absorbed that contact in a game. Some of these kids had probably never been hit that hard before and it’s jarring if you’re not expecting it while cutting through the middle. But every time they got knocked down, the resilient nature of the American kids popped them right back up and back in for more.

When I spoke with Chris Johnson – father of Declan and Mac – I asked him what he thought one of the biggest differences was from what he and his sons had been used to. For him, it was the concrete. Just think about that a for a second. Some of these kids had never played on the hard stuff before. How do you teach a goalie how to stop a bounce shot off of concrete when you’re playing on turf? Or how to handle the second bounce on a bounce-pass? Or even how to fall without smacking your knees together?

Maybe it was a bit of frustration showing after dropping all three games, but the push-back and grittiness I saw from the Midget Team to end their tournament was what will make men out of these kids.

Shaydon Santos, who founded USBOXLA alongside Brown in 2010, has worked diligently to build up not only the talent level of these kids, but their physical play as well. That’s what this game is; physical by nature. “You have to be able to be able to take a hit and give it back,” he said, something he’s starting to see his players respond to it.

“I’m gonna be the next Eric Martin coach”

Santos asked a bunch of his players, “Who is going to be the next Eric Martin?” One kid got back to him and said, “I’m gonna be the next Eric Martin coach.” The world needs more players like Eric “Meat” Martin, so good for that kid.

“Meat” came in at #13 in USBOXLA’s incredible break down of the Top 30 American ballers, and for good reason. “Martin was one of the league’s most athletic, aggressive, unique and unrelenting defenders who played a smash mouth style that we’re told Americans today just can’t play,” the article stated. Watching the kids this weekend in Coquitlam, I have no doubts that there’s another Martin, Jay Jalbert, Brian Langtry, Sal LoCascio, Regy Thorpe or Casey Powell.

We may already have the next Colsey in the fold too. Ryan Colsey is the son of former NLL player Roy Colsey, who just so happens to be the only American born player to ever score 50 or more goals in a season. Playing out of Superstar Lacrosse and the American Lacrosse Academy, Ryan has taken to the indoor game just like his father, scoring five points this weekend for the Pee Wee Team.

Michael Rosen from the Bantams has been with USBOXLA for two years now, so this weekend may not have been as much of surprise, but the playing ability of the kids would have been. The size, speed and game sense of the kids up here is that much greater than he’s used to playing in New Jersey for Leading Edge. He and his teammates could probably get away with a lot of their “field moves” back home more often than they would here. How many times do you think these kids have seen a double pick?

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By the way – it was great to see Rosen and many of the other kids scooping up some of the Adanacs swag that was being sold all weekend. Rosen got himself a #18 Adanacs jersey as well as a full sized wood stick. Conversely, the RudeBrand USBOXLA merch stand was busy all weekend selling all sorts of gear and the local kids ate it up –  including me!

At one point during the weekend, one of the coaches continued to preach to his team, “You will never seem them switch hands, ever. They’ll never do it.” Again though, it’s two different sports, so it’s not always going to come easy for these kids to pick up the little nuances of the indoor game that seem so foreign to the field-raised US players.

The coaching staff USBOXLA has put together is a fantastic one full of current and former NLL and international players from both sides of the boarder. They’re getting the best possible coaching you could ask for and that’s helping the learning curve greatly.

These kids aren’t that far off either. Some of them have really embraced the indoor game and look like real box players. That’s how quickly the USBOXLA kids are picking up the game. In two years, Rosen went from being brand new to the sport of box lacrosse to one of this past weekend’s more experienced players, loving the game more and more every time he steps on the floor. I can’t count how many times I had parents and kids tell how much they loved the sport.

Brian Bruininks from Seattle, who’s two sons Wilson and Henry both played for Team USBOXLA in Coquitlam, said that his kids, “… would play spring box over field if they could.” That was a very common message from the entire group, but it’s unfortunate that there’s a notion going around that if their kids start to play box, they won’t get noticed by some of the NCAA coaches.

Note to parents… a large number of NCAA coaches have a sweet tooth for box trained players. This can only improve your son’s skills, abilities and chances of having success at the collegiate level.

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The Trevor Wingrove was a new experience for many of the parents as well. They got to see how their kids matched up, realized there’s still more work to be done, but the weekend also fueled their passion for the game. “It’s addicting,” one parent said.

One of toughest things the kids had to deal with was the fact that they didn’t really knowing each other. Lauretani told me that he only knew two other kids on his team before coming out west for the weekend. Add that on top of all the other factors, and you can understand why there were some growing pains early on for everyone. Even the coaches didn’t know all their player’s names, having to rely on the name-bars on the back to the uniforms (sweet sweet uniforms that they were).

While this tournament wasn’t ultimately about wins and losses, the moment the Pee Wee Team watched the score clock hit zero, had to have been one of the greatest memories they will take back with them. A 7-6 win over the Langely Thunder would be the lone W for the three USBOXLA teams, but at the end of every game, the kids held their heads high and stuck with the time honored tradition of the post-game handshakes and fist-bumps.

It was about building friendships that will last a lifetime, meeting other kids from across the US that have the same passion and fire for the game as you do. There are seven thousand kids playing in 32 states under the USBOXLA umbrella and those numbers continue to grow.

Of that seven thousand, there is a small scattering of girls involved as well, but at this point, there isn’t a need to create a separate girls division. Santos hopes that one day that won’t be the case. If and when that happens, Kahlen McConnell of Olympia, Washington could be a future captain.

“There are seven thousand kids playing in 32 states under the USBOXLA umbrella and those numbers continue to grow”

The 14-year-old was the only girl to make the trip and has immersed herself in the indoor game. The guys didn’t take it easy on her, and she was just fine with that; she loves the hitting and the speed. She was introduced to the game by her father, but never played women’s field lacrosse. She’s a box girl through and through.

From the moment I started hanging out with this group of kids and parents I was instantly impressed with their attitude, respect, professionalism and pure love for the game of lacrosse. Their stick skills are as good as anyone’s and they were probably better in transition because they are also incredible athletes. One area American players continue to excel at in the NLL is in transition. With more and more of these types of players flocking to the indoor game, we could see a mass influx of two-way beasts like Paul Rabil, Joel White, Max Seibald, Chris O’Dougherty and Jalbert.

No matter where you call home, only good things can come from playing in these types of big tournaments for the next generation. USBOXLA continues to give their group so many great opportunities to travel and take on the best there is, and it won’t be long before they are making more and more appearances in Canada. Plus, with the recent success of the Denver Elite and Cali*Lax ALL-STARS teams at the Canada Day Tournament in Calgary, the world should be on notice.

The Americans are coming, whether you like it not.

See you in all in San Jose.

Photo Credit: Sherri Thomson