CANADIAN BOX PLAYERS ARE TRANSFORMING COLLEGIATE FIELD LACROSSE
October 20, 2023By: Adam Levi
Canadian box lacrosse players are transforming the way the field game is played at the collegiate level. These world-class athletes are proving just how valuable it is to have box skills wherever you’re competing.
Here’s an obvious statement: Box and field lacrosse are different. But does that mean that they must both live in their own bubbles instead of coexisting or blending together in some way?
Traditionally, box has always been played one way and field was played another way. Nowadays, with more and more Canadians crossing the border to get an education down south, the field game has changed, in some cases quite dramatically, to adjust to the Canadian box style.
Back in the day (a few decades ago and beyond), Canadian box players were harder to find at the American collegiate level. Today, whether in DI, DII or DIII there’s a handful of the best up-and-coming Canadian box prospects at many of the nation’s top programs. That has changed because of the efforts that schools like The Ohio State University have made to get Canadians to join their rosters.
Since Nick Myers came into the role of Head Assistant Coach at The Ohio State University in 2005 – Myers is currently the Head Coach of the Buckeye’s men’s lacrosse team – he has been traveling up to both British Columbia and Ontario to scout fresh talent. The mark those Canadians have left on the program is undeniably positive.
Not only did players like Brock Sorensen, Logan Schuss, Austin Shanks and Jake Withers have amazing collegiate careers in Ohio, they did so as some of the best leaders the program has seen over the past couple of decades.
“For a long time, you had to get up [to Canada], and you had to get in different barns to network people,” Myers said. “You really had to make it a priority, and Ohio State has always done that. Because we have, I think we’ve created a very Canadian-friendly roster, and we try to be very selective… That’s been kind of our secret. It’s been to go up there and find high character guys, grinders, and guys who are really going to come down and value their education.”
In 2013, OSU finished their season at 13-4 and went all the way to the NCAA DI Quarterfinals thanks to the help of known Canadian NLLers such as Schuss, Jesse King and Turner Evans. A few years later in 2017, OSU made it to the NCAA DI Finals. They accomplished that with a new handful of now-NLL studs such as Withers, Shanks, Tre Leclaire, Jeff Henrick, Eric Fannell and Johnny Pearson – that magical run in 2017 was the program’s first ever trip to an NCAA Finals.
Current NLLers Holden Cattoni, Jake Withers, Jake Fox and Austin Shanks when they played for Johns Hopkins & The Ohio State University
Myers insisted that the hybrid style they play at OSU has benefited the team greatly, but there’s a fine line when meshing styles. Canadians are bred to play a faster-paced, more physical and more creative style in a tight-knit space that keeps players on their toes. Incorporating that into the field game can be challenging when you have Americans on the team, and Americans make up the majority of collegiate lacrosse rosters.
Myers believes that in order to make it work, you need to let each player be himself. The goal is not to change the way they play and think about the game; it’s about adapting and finding ways to make the styles work together.
“You have to be careful that you’re not making Canadians more field players,” Myers said. “I want our Canadians to play as much box as possible and be as Canadian as they can be, and I want our Americans to be as American as they can be. I think blending the two styles is a beautiful thing.”
Even at the pro field level, the presence of Canadian box stars is undeniable. When I asked Coach Myers if box players were changing the way the field game is played, his answer was very clear.
“The easy answer is, yes – a hard yes,” Myers said. “If you look at the PLL championship game… If you look at the Waterdogs and you look at the Archers, they both have a sprinkle of really good Canadians. You don’t want too much of one thing or too much of the other, you want to find the perfect balance.”
Former University of Denver star and now San Diego Seals sensation, Wes Berg, explained what the adjustment was like for him to pick up the field game. At Denver, then-Head Coach Bill Tierney and then-assistant Coach Matt Brown (now Head Coach) have long found ways to blend the box style.
Matt Brown with the Arizona Sting
Brown grew up in British Columbia and played in the NLL with the Arizona Sting, so he knows how valuable box skills are and what they can bring to the table.
“Fortunately, the switch from indoor to go and play outdoor is a lot easier in terms of your skill set translating,” Berg said. “In box, you have a few six-on-five plays, a few power play plays, and a few set plays, but when I was at Denver, I always joked that I should have a QB sleeve out there because there’s so many sets and then each set has a different wrinkle on it. So, it was a lot more like football where you had to learn where to be.
“We played more of a two-man, open set with a whole bunch of box plays, and then would go in and use more of a traditional American offense like dodging down the wings. We played a hybrid type of style that worked for a long time.”
That hybrid style of Tierney’s and Brown’s is used by Tierney’s nephew, Seth, who is the Head Coach at Hofstra University on Long Island. Seth Tierney played in the NLL in its early years – he was a member of the New York Saints in 1992 and 1993.
He’s experienced what it’s like to play field and box and knows how box skills can enhance one’s game. What the younger Tierney noted about the benefits of box was that there is a lot that can be learned by playing the indoor game, both on the physical and mental sides of the game.
“The stick work, the reaction time, the up-and-down, the angles that you can learn playing box lacrosse, it’s real,” Tierney said. “Anybody that doesn’t feel like the box skill game or the IQ game is helpful, in my opinion, is wrong. You can learn a lot with a lot more touches, and the patience – you have to work for certain shots, you have to look for certain passes. And, there’s an element in the grit and toughness in the box game.”
Much like what Myers noted, Tierney emphasized that in order for box strategies to work in the field game, you need to have box players on the team. In recent years, Hofstra has benefitted from having a few very talented box players, including a guy who was just drafted 5th overall in the 2023 NLL Entry Draft and another who was drafted 21st overall in this year’s draft.
“You can only make something from what you have in the ingredients cupboard,” Tierney said. “If you’re going to recruit Canadian ingredients, then you need to make sure that the way you play bends towards the way they play, as well. As of recent, Ryan Sheridan, who was just drafted by Panther City, as well as Justin Sykes, who is a senior with us now, was drafted, as well. So, we’ve had some good fortune of late when making a hybrid-type offense when Canadian players are involved.”
To use Coach Tierney’s phrasing, the amount of Canadian ingredients that are finding their way into the American Collegiate lacrosse recipe are bountiful, and the pool of players is growing every year. Box and field lacrosse are no longer separate entities; they are slowly melding into each other. Canadians have shown the lacrosse community that the box style can bring forth plenty of success.
With Sixes being introduced to the world at the 2028 Summer Olympics, people will see a new style of lacrosse that has many of the eye-popping, adrenaline-pumping elements of the box game in a field lacrosse setting. The game may look different, but box lacrosse strategies and ideas will be showcased on the world stage by the top teams on the planet.
This wouldn’t be as prominent if American college coaches weren’t accepting and then adapting to the Canadian players they are welcoming.
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