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LAX 101: Prominent Universities of NLL Players

Collegiate sports play a large role in the success and development of professional sports teams. In almost every professional sport, there are “feeder” or “powerhouse” schools that have a reputation for producing the most “pro-ready” athletes. Many of these schools also have a reputation for their athletes not only making it to the professional level after their collegiate career ends, but as well as achieving success once they turn professional.

This can be seen in football with schools like Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Clemson, etc. This is seen in basketball as well with schools like Duke, North Carolina, Michigan, Villanova, etc. When it comes to lacrosse, this trend also follows with certain programs producing more pro players, but when it comes to the National Lacrosse League in specific, it is a little different.

In the United States, college lacrosse is field lacrosse specific, compared to the NLL which is a box league. Yes, the main principles of the game remain the same, but as seen in my previous article, Box v Field Lacrosse, there are many keen differences that not all players are prepared for or know how to handle. Luckily, in collaboration with USBOXLA and the National Collegiate Box Series (NCBS), more Americans are getting the chance to play high level box lacrosse before their collegiate career ends with prospective opportunities to crack NLL lineups.

There are over 100 colleges represented on NLL rosters, with more than 75 of them being United States universities and part of the NCAA. Division I teams are the most represented out of all the US universities, with the Big East conference having six schools with at least one player in the league. The ACC, America East, and CAA follow next with five schools with at least one player in the league. The A-10, ASUN, Big10, and Patriot League all have four schools with at least one player in the league. The CAA has the most players from a single conference in the league with 20, followed by the ACC with 19, and the Big East with 18.

Although Division I universities are the most represented, there are still a solid number of Division II and Division III schools represented as well. Conference Carolinas and the Great Midwest each have three schools represented in the NLL, with 14 players coming from the Carolinas, and 10 of those players coming from Limestone University. There are also six players from six different Division III schools playing in the NLL, as well as four players from two different Junior College programs.

So if the National Lacrosse League is a box-only league, and US college lacrosse is field-only, then how come to some schools are able to produce so many “pro-ready” box players? After talking to several different collegiate head coaches, they were able to explain why they believe their given university does such a great job at producing players for the NLL. Key factors include their willingness to recruit Canadian players, who primarily play box lacrosse growing up or the style of play which incorporates box strategies.

University of Denver – Division I – Head Coach Bill Tierney

Notable Former Players – Wes Berg, Brendan Bomberry, Josh Dawick, Jack Hannah, TD Ierlan, Jamie Lincoln, Danny Logan, Mark Matthews, Zach Miller, Jeremy Noble, Tyler Pace, Ethan Walker

Coach Tierney actually played for the original National Lacrosse League back in 1974-75, this league has no relation to the current National Lacrosse League, but was a professional box league ahead of its time and set the stage for the current iteration. A large reason why Coach Tierney believes that Denver produces so many players for the NLL is their Canadian pipeline. He stated that around ⅔ of their coaching staff is actually Canadian, with coaches Matt Brown and John Gallant who actually played in the NLL in Colorado with the Mammoth and run the LXTC box program in the area. He says this makes it much easier to recruit Canadian players and build a strong relationship with them, as his coaching staff can relate to them very easily. Coach Tierney believes in box lacrosse and believes that principles from the game can very well be translated to field lacrosse. He also went on to state that the 2015 National Championship team was primarily made up of Canadian players who grew up playing box, and that they played a tremendous role in that championship run.

When it comes to recruiting box-first players, he believes that every school recruits them, but not every school knows how to coach and develop them like Denver. With their hybrid offense, both box and field players are able to adapt and perform at the highest level. Although, he does believe that there are certain traits and disciplines that need to be learned for the field game when they get these box players. One of these is how to learn to slow the game down and not just play with a 30-second shot clock mindset, as this can become too sloppy and high tempo when they have more time to look for a better shot. But when it comes to fast breaks or 1-on-1 in the open field, there is no one he is more confident in than his box guys.

Coach Tierney is extremely proud of all the Denver guys who have passed through the NLL and still currently play as well. He believes box lacrosse is extremely important to help and build all styles of lacrosse in general, and believes that the NLL is “the best professional league to promote box”.

Limestone University – Division II – Head Coach Brendan Storrier

Notable Former Players – Nick Carlson, Shayne Jackson, Riley Loewen, Mike Messenger, Brett Mydske, Tor Reinholdt, Larson Sundown, Roger Vyse, Colton Watkinson, 

Coach Storrier believes that Limestone is able to produce players ready for the NLL not only because of a strong Canadian pipeline, but he believes because Limestone is able to get some of the best Canadian’s out of high school. He even goes on to elaborate on how athletic they are. He stated that the majority of their Canadian guys are already on the “fringe” of being NLL players anyway, and they are able to help fine-tune them (Shayne Jackson was his prime example). Coach Storrier believes that the work ethic and skill development at Limestone is another large factor in having his college guys become ready for the game at the next level.

An early pipeline was created between Limestone and the Canadian box programs, as Coach Storrier states that this started way back when Limestone had guys such as Nick Carlson. He believes that this early pipeline is a large reason why they are able to get so many great Canadian box players and that their success and development show them that they can achieve both their personal and team goals at Limestone.

Coach Storrier explains that the style of play at Limestone also translates very well with the box players, as most of their athletes that go on to the NLL are faster-paced offensive focused. He believes that regardless of field or box lacrosse, the game is still won with the stick. He states that stick skills are of the utmost importance in the lacrosse game, and box guys tend to be very skilled in this discipline.

Stony Brook University – Division I – Head Coach Anthony Gilardi

Notable Former Players – Kevin Crowley, Rhys Duch, Harrison Matsuoka, Jordan McBride, Mike McCannell, Ryland Rees, Challen Rogers

Coach Gilardi believes that Stony Brook is able to produce many “pro ready” guys for the NLL out of college due to their great pipeline, history of great players, and recruiting guys who “strive for success”. He believes that Stony Brook has a great pipeline to Canadian players, and he takes a lot of pride in this. He believes this exists because their recruits see the history of great players from Stony Brook, and how many of their great players are able to not only go on to the professional level but strive there as well.

When it comes to recruiting, they look for kids who work hard and want to take that “extra step” to succeed. He said that they take recruiting box players very seriously, as they are constantly tracking stats of box guys in Canada in their junior careers. He also brought up the fact that just like box lacrosse is growing in the US, field lacrosse is growing in Canada. He goes on to explain that there are now even field lacrosse recruiting events in Canada as Canadians look for opportunities to play lacrosse in the US and receive an education while playing at a high level. This helps get a feel and see how their style translates to the game.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship, guys help us play fast and we play fast so it helps us get ready for it. We bring a tempo they can play with.” said Coach Gilradi on having Canadian box players on his roster. “Canadian recruiting is such a big part of our team and our recruiting, we are constantly looking for the best players.”

University of Virginia – Division I – Head Coach Lars Tiffany

Notable Former Players – Charlie Bertrand, Garrett Billings, Mark Cockerton, Jay Jalbert, Zed Williams

It is without question that The University of Virginia has been a dominant force in the last decade when it comes to men’s lacrosse. Now although this is the case, how are they able to transition their dominant style of play in field lacrosse to box? Well, Coach Lars Tiffany believes that their loose style of play, along with making sure the kids have fun, and well-sought-out recruiting, are all reasons why the Cavaliers are able to produce so many talented lacrosse players in the NLL.

“We are huge fans of free play, we try to incorporate free play into every practice. Obviously, our coaches put together systems and offensive and defensive schemes, but there is a value that we understand in allowing free play” says Tiffany on a large reason why UVA has so much success sending their guys to the NLL.

“Whether it is 3v3 or 4v4, we have our small ball standings, we split up the team into six groups and keep track of these standings. Watching really successful programs, we recognize that the coaches do not have all the answers. Instead of creating a ton of structure, if we put forward very simple guardrails and let the creativity happen in front of us, it is wonderful to see what can happen. This helps our players progress their game and not try to fit in a square peg, we want them to be comfortable with risks and changes.” Coach Tiffany continued.

He then goes on to talk about how at UVA they want to keep the fun, joy, and spirit of the game. He talks about remembering the reason why they started playing the game in the first place, to not take lacrosse as a life or death situation, but more as a choice and something they love. “Having grown up with Native Americans, understanding the spirit of the game, and the most exciting and anticipating part of the game is the next game. It’s not about to win or lose, it’s about being able to play in the first place.”

He explains how recruiting Canadian box players is extremely important and vital to UVA, but he doesn’t shy away from explaining that it has its challenges. The largest challenge is that of scholarships, as most of the Canadian players need a full scholarship as it is very expensive and a toll on their families to have them come from Canada all the way to Virginia. “We have 12.5 scholarships with 45 men, it is hard to really get more than two to three Canadian guys sometimes.” Division I schools have the most opportunity for scholarships while DII is limited and DIII offers no athletic scholarships to its athletes.

Robert Morris University – Division I – Head Coach Craig McDonald

Notable Former Players – Jake Boudreau, Kevin Brownell, Kyle Buchanan, Tyler Digby, Tyson Gibson, Luc Magnan, Kiel Matisz, Brad McCulley, Justin Robinson, Jacob Ruest, Ryan Smith, Mitch Wilde

Coach McDonald stated that with Bear Davis starting the men’s lacrosse program at RMU, it instantly pioneered a Canadian pipeline to the university. With many of their Canadian athletes playing year-round, they get a comfortability and familiarity with one another which causes them to not only do well as a team but grow as individuals. This helps them become successful and helps them develop properly to be able to not only make it to the NLL but excel once they get there. This opens the door for future recruits, as they can see the list of alumni who are able to attend RMU, and then go on to achieve their professional goals as well.

When it comes to recruiting athletes, Coach McDonald wants kids who display a diverse skill set while also maintaining a certain level of toughness. He states that there is a special type of toughness that is displayed by the Canadian’s that really helps their game when they come to the states. “We want the skillset and toughness on the offensive end with transitions and on the defensive end, we want guys that are skilled and have a lot of grit and toughness. It’s awesome if Americans play box, but it is nowhere near the same as it is up north.” explained Coach McDonald.

Another unique recruiting strategy that Coach McDonald brought up is that they prefer athletes who have played multiple sports. He addresses how many of their recruits also play hockey, and he even considers box lacrosse as a different sport as there are many differences between box and field. He believes that there are different philosophies and principles that come with other sports, that help mold and create great lacrosse players. “Lot of guys who only play box don’t really know the field game. We coach them up, but our schemes do a good job of fitting them really well with terminology and formations. If a guy plays hard and is a hard competitor, they are usually able to find their way out there and get more comfortable.”

Coach McDonald is happy about the Canadian pipeline that has been established at RMU and is thankful to keep it going.

University at Albany – Division I – Head Coach Scott Marr

Notable Former Players – Connor Fields, TD Ierlan, Tehoka Nanticoke, Joe Resetarits, Blaze Riorden, Miles Thompson, Lyle Thompson, Corey Small

Coach Marr believes that Albany does a great job at producing players for the NLL due to the caliber of players they are before they even get to Albany. He states that they recruit athletes who have a large amount of experience playing the game of lacrosse playing their whole life. They come in with a high IQ for the game, and Albany presents them with a similar style of play with “a tight game and a lot of inside stuff with catching and passing.”

He believes that recruiting box athletes is extremely important for their teams’ success, especially when it comes to the offensive side of the game. “I have three Canadian freshmen right now who are all box players. You love having kids on your team who can handle the ball and make quick decisions, they all move well with and without the ball. It’s a constant movement, we recruit our offensive guys a little more from the box.”  explained Coach Marr. “We are really fortunate and proud of the guys who make it to the next level, we got guys playing back in the early 2000s still playing, the longevity of our guys and our skill level is just being displayed at a more elite level.”

Rochester Institute of Technology – Division III – Head Coach Jake Coon

Notable Former Players – Pat Coyle, Brad Gillies, Alex Crepinsek, Matt Hossack, Casey Jackson, Kyle Killen, Ryan Lee, Jordan MacIntosh, Dan MacRae, Eli Salama, Patrick Shoemay

RIT has been pumping out NLL caliber talent for years and looking at the list of NLL players, they do it at all positions. With their proximity close to the Canadian border helps in persuading young athletes to take a chance at the DIII school. Another key reason is assistant coach, Shawn Wilkins who had a stint in the NLL with the Rochester Knighthawks back in the day.

“Every year we probably have about a 50% Canadian roster,” said Wilkins. “I grew up in Burlington (Ontario) with a box background. I’ve been running a “pairs” offence for as long as I’ve been here. I just think it was really beneficial with the talent-level we’ve had.”

It’s an easy sell when you look at the list of former players and the success they have seen. Add in the fact that RIT has made it to the DIII championship four times in the last decade with two wins (2021, 2022) doesn’t hurt.