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Iroquois, Canadians, and the College Field Lacrosse Game

The inventors of the game -- and those they have influenced -- are changing the college game for good.

Rob Carr

Strong long form journalism with respect to web-based lacrosse sites is almost as rare as web-based lacrosse sites that fail to have an opinion or display pieces on early college recruiting. When it appears, though, it is oftentimes a glorious respite from the form and function that generally dominates daily publishing; substantively valuable work that weaves narratives seamlessly and cogently addresses an issue or subject is the kind of writing that foundationally impacts how lacrosse stakeholders -- fans, players, coaches, and otherwise -- care and think about the game. Joel Censer's recent contribution to Lacrosse Magazine -- "For Iroquois Nationals, Lacrosse is More Than a Game" -- serves those purposes and pursuits nicely, and it's arguably the best piece of work that you'll read in the early part of 2013.

The underlying thrust of the piece -- the Iroquois Nationals re-establishing itself as a force in field lacrosse after years of marginalization (both due to internal and external forces) -- is sublime in its approach and attaches itself emotionally to the roots of the game and the contemporary position of lacrosse on three levels: domestically on reservations, at the American collegiate level, and internationally. It is a tremendous read and I highly recommend printing it out and reading it after dinner tonight if you haven't done so yet, but for the purposes of this site -- a site dedicated to NCAA Division I college lacrosse -- there are two aspects to Censer's piece that I want to pull apart and highlight: (1) The Iroquois Nationals' box foundations and how it is impacting college field lacrosse; and (2) The Iroquois Nationals' box foundations and how it has influenced Canadian players, and how that relationship impacts college field lacrosse.

There's no question that Native Americans and Canadians that have grown up in the box and honed their skills in that harsh environment have substantially changed how college field lacrosse is played. How Censer describes the movement, though, nicely illustrates what these players -- players that haven't been running 110 yards their entire life -- bring in terms of traits, how they transfer to the field game, and the growing desire to harness these abilities:

Despite various efforts to promote box lacrosse in the U.S., the sport has not spread far beyond reservations and working-class Canadian suburbs. But while field advocates may have once looked at the blue-collar indoor version with disregard or contempt, college coaches today see stripped rinks as fertile recruiting ground.

Conscripting box players is not an entirely new phenomenon. Paul and Gary Gait, twin brothers from British Columbia who are considered the greatest field lacrosse players ever, dominated at Syracuse in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But over the last decade, a growing number of college coaches have started outsourcing offensive duties to Canadians. In 2001, only one of the top 40 scorers in Division I grew up playing indoors. By 2010, that number swelled to 15. Even Johns Hopkins, Virginia and Georgetown — traditional powers with the pick of the lacrosse recruiting litter — now import box-trained talent.

What makes boxla distinct — the close quarters, the smaller goals and the shot clock — are the same things that develop superior stick skills. Because the ball rarely escapes past the Plexiglas and there are only six players in the rink at a time, everyone touches the ball frequently. Having to catch and throw in tight spaces with limited time encourages efficient mechanics and soft touch. Shooting on comparatively tiny goals where there’s just a sliver of open net forces players to learn how to effectively fake and move goalies.

“[Canadian and Iroquois] stick skills are on a whole different level than what the typical American field player sees,“ Onondaga Community College (OCC) coach Chuck Wilbur said. “These guys throw and catch passes that aren’t supposed to be caught.”

I'm not ashamed to admit that I hate watching box lacrosse. The game is violent to the point of ridiculousness, the fighting is pointless, the cramped quarters -- at least to me -- limit athleticism, and some of the awesome defensive qualities of field lacrosse don't translate all that well to the box. That aside, I am fully on board with the incredible offensive abilities that players that grow up with box training bring to the field game. Without the box, Zach Palmer attempting one-handed shots with no angle or space doesn't exist on Homewood Field; Mark Matthews doing Mark Matthews Things -- that's an official, copyrighted designation; don't steal it -- doesn't make Denver stand up and roar; John Grant, Jr. becoming arguably college lacrosse's most potent offensive weapon in the last 15 years is only an aberration. These guys -- on the heels of players like the Gaits and Stan Cockerton and the rest -- have changed what is conceptually possible in the college field lacrosse game, and that's a good thing. Which brings us to this:

It's important that American players start to develop the skills that the Iroquois Nationals and Canadian players now have and that college programs push to impart these skills on their players in totem. They are invaluable on the offensive end of the field to combat defensive players that are bigger, stronger, faster, and operating in defensive systems that constantly adapting to player attributes. The residue of this, of course, is that an increase in the population of Canadian and Native Americans (players with sharp box skills but truncated field skills) in college lacrosse means that more programs need to press their offensive strategies around these skills. The consequence is offensive field lacrosse that is heavily flavored with box lacrosse principles, and you can see a lot of these principles . . .

With less than 20 square feet of net, players need to get to three or four yards dead center to score. So box offense relies, not on the alley dodges so prevalent in field, but on two-man games, picks, screens, flips and slips. This teaches guys how to create space using more than their legs, and generally makes Canadians particularly crafty goal scorers. It also translates well to the college game where well organized defenses and hyper-athletic longsticks are the norm.

. . . continuing to build momentum in college along with traditional field stratagems. This hasn't sat well with everyone -- notably, Leif Elsmo eviscerated the growing trend in a piece on -- but it should be (in the overall) embraced. The game is growing not only in participation, but evolving in how it is played. The flavor of the game is stronger than it's ever been, partly due to the influx of Canadian and Native American box principles, skills, and players. This isn't slowing down any time soon -- in fact, college coaches are infatuated with play north of the border to a degree that almost makes you wonder if a fourth hotbed (Canada) should finally enter the conversation along with Maryland, Long Island, and Central New York -- and rather than fight it, it should be appreciated and accepted. Even if you're like me -- a noted hater of box lacrosse -- it's hard to argue that the box, due to the Iroquois Nationals and the Canadians they have influenced, isn't an important and exciting contributor to college field lacrosse.