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Rush’S Stars Highlight Box Lacrosse’S Meteoric Rise

The Edmonton Rush are National Lacrosse League champions for the first time after defeating the Toronto Rock in the Champion’s Cup Finals to cap off the NLL’s 29th year. With the Rush’s title coming just a couple weeks after the thrilling conclusion of the NCAA championships, the lacrosse spotlight shines especially bright on players playing both versions of the game. Star players helping lead the Rush on its quest for the Cup once starred playing field lacrosse at the collegiate level. Those players, who come from a box lacrosse background, are not only finding success in the outdoor game, they’re dominating it.

Though the nature of the two versions of the sport are very different, players that practice both disciplines are succeeding at unprecedented levels. According to a recent study by Yale University’s lacrosse department, there are several noteworthy trends including the fact that seven of the top 10 career goal scorers in the NCAA played a significant amount of box lacrosse during their development.

While only 4% of current NCAA lacrosse players have a box background, the study found that nearly half (48%) of the top 50 NCAA goal scorers in history played box growing up. This year, two of the five Tewaaraton Award finalists, college lacrosse’s version of the Heisman Trophy, have deep roots to the indoor game.

Those two finalists are Wes Berg and Lyle Thompson, both top prospects for this year’s 2015 NLL Draft. Berg finished seventh all-time in NCAA goals scored with 188 and recently led the University of Denver Pioneers to the NCAA Division I title this past weekend, after entering the tournament as the Big East champs. Lyle Thompson is a Tewaaraton finalist for the third-straight year. He won the award in 2014 along with his brother Miles, a star rookie in the NLL this past season, as they became the first Native American players to receive the prestigious honor. Lyle Thompson is the all-time scoring leader in NCAA history with 400 career points (175+225). This past summer, he helped the Iroquois national team to its best-ever finish in an international tournament, taking home bronze at the 2014 FIL World Championships.

It’s no secret that the box lacrosse invasion into the field game is here is stay. University at Denver head coach Bill Tierney preached the game’s benefits in terms of translating to the outdoor game after his box-heavy team won the national championship.

“I would have every kid under the age of 12 play box lacrosse exclusively or at least a majority of the time,” Tierney said. “The number of touches of the ball and the ability to develop better stick skills in a game of box lacrosse far surpasses what happens on a field. Learning how to pass and catch in traffic, understanding how to shoot, and developing a sense of physicality are all positive traits developed by the box game.”

Several current Edmonton stars were big-time players in the field game as well, using the skills they learned growing up playing box lacrosse.

Jeremy Thompson, Lyle’s older brother, played 32 games at Syracuse University, putting up 53 points (33+20). Thompson is currently a crucial part of Edmonton’s transition game and serves as the team’s face-off man as well.

2015 NLL Rookie of the Year favorite Ben McIntosh is fresh off his college days with Drexel University, where he scored 100 goals, and added 42 assists in 62 games. McIntosh’s 2.67 goals per game average his senior year ranked 16th among all D-I players while his 3.61 points per game was good for 25th in the nation.

Mark Matthews, who has led the Rush to the Cup Finals with a combined 128 points (58+70) between the regular season and the playoffs, played his college days at Denver University, playing with Berg in his final year. In four years, Matthews put up 217 points (156+61), and was the all-time career points leader at Denver, until Berg passed him for the distinction. Matthews, who helped lead the Pioneers to the Final Four in 2011, eventually became the first overall pick in the 2012 NLL Draft and won NLL Rookie of the Year.

“I owe everything I have to box lacrosse,” Matthews said. “You learn a lot of different things compared to the ‘run-down-the-alley’, and only passing when a guy is ‘barenaked’. The stick skills and the stuff that we learn when we are younger, learning to catch it in tight spaces, that really helps in the field lacrosse game.”

Also on the right side for the Rush is forward Zack Greer, who had the most impressive college career of any player on the roster. Greer scored 248 goals between Duke University and Bryant University, making him the NCAA’s all-time leading goal scorer. The NCAA only officially recognizes 204 of those goals as Bryant was considered a reclassifying institution during his final year. But his 204 goals are still enough to keep him as the college game’s all-time leader in goals.

Both Greer and Matthews were gold medalists as a part of Team Canada’s victory in the 2014 FIL World Championships.

There’s no doubt that experience playing both the indoor and outdoor games have allowed these players to excel in lacrosse overall. But it’s now clearer than ever that their dominant skillset stems from how they first learned to play the game…in the box. They faced their biggest challenge of their pro careers, using all the lessons and experience gained, to achieve the ultimate goal of raising the Champion’s Cup. And they did.

By Mike Wilson (@RushBeat) for NLL.com. Photo by Dale MacMillan.