Editor’s Note: Ryan Conwell’s story below is not a “How To Guide”, nor does it provide ALL the resources you might need to build your own box lacrosse facility, but it DOES provide a framework, and points of reference, and it’s a must read for anyone looking to grow the box game here in the US!
One of the biggest hurdles our sport faces, in its pursuit of sustained growth, is the enormous up front cost programs must take on in order to start playing. Player equipment aside, the infrastructure required to play “real lacrosse” includes field time on marked fields, goals, nets, coaches, websites, refs, padding, uniforms, league fees, etc. These factors and more can change depending on where you are and what is already in place. While many towns support public basketball courts, baseball/softball backstops, and tennis courts, publicly funded lacrosse goals are still quite low on most priority lists.
When we look at trying to grow box lacrosse in the US, this problem is only magnified.
Finding time in an indoor facility where you compete against seemingly every sport you can think of for field time is a challenge to say the least. Add to that the task of trying to find the correct type of indoor facility that allows players to play box the way it is “meant” to be played; in a manner than actually facilitates the skills gains of quick reaction time, tight quarters, and more touches. Indoor facilities come in many flavors. Some have just netting around them to stop errant balls from bouncing all over the building. Many have boards around the field, but no Plexiglass above them. Most are made for indoor soccer and have the open goal areas right behind where the lacrosse nets go. The list goes on with the small or large variations in playing areas that you will see around the country.
This of course means that lacrosse teams are forced to make the best with what they have, and adapt rules as needed. Some are lucky and have true ice rinks that do not keep ice open for the full year and can play in there. This is of course how box lacrosse first came about and why it is the official summer sport in Canada. Then there are those programs who get tired of just “making due” and take the issue on directly. In a slow, but growing trend, teams are starting to actually build their own box lacrosse facilities made specifically for this purpose.
It may not need to be said that you will not see this as a line item on a first year team’s to-do list, but it is absolutely an item that programs will want to evaluate in order to continue their players’ development as they move forward. I do not believe it is controversial, nor an opinion, to say that box lacrosse helps field lacrosse players develop into better overall lacrosse players. The trouble is when you have to make too many concessions based on where you can play, players are not able to gain the benefits of box lacrosse, or perhaps just not as many benefits.
As previously stated, one solution that many programs are now turning to which solves nearly all of these problems is to build their own box lacrosse floor. While this may seem like an option only for the richest of programs, I am going to share the story of one upstate New York program that has undertaken this effort and is getting ready to bring their dream of a true box lacrosse experience to their town.
Liverpool, NY is a suburb of Syracuse with a long, rich history in lacrosse. They are one of the largest High Schools in the area (graduating over 500 students per class) and every year are matched up against the likes of West Genesee, Fayetteville-Manlius, and many other perennial powerhouse programs. Liverpool is pretty much the definition of a traditional lacrosse hotbed program. And a cornerstone of lacrosse in Liverpool has always been playing box. The youth in the area historically would play field in the summer, but once you are about to enter high school, you are then invited to play box lacrosse. I speak with some authority about this because this is exactly the path I followed as a player en route to being a Liverpool graduate myself. The box that they play in, by the way? Fenced-in basketball courts.
Yes, that photo above really is where they play. Concrete, chain link fence, and the basketball hoop supports that occasionally became defenders. I should mention that Liverpool is a school district that is not flush with cash, but they are pretty well funded and do take care of both students and athletes. For example, in my time there, I saw one of the early turf fields go in, complete with an instant replay scoreboard, a totally redone technology & arts wing, as well as several other improvements around the school. Much of this was paid for by outside donations at the time.
Overall, Liverpool is a somewhat typical middle class suburb. While there are certainly families with plenty of disposable income, there are also many without. So while the school does provide many resources, a state of the art lacrosse setup is not going to be one of them. So how did this come about?
I spoke with John Sardella, who has been involved with Liverpool lacrosse for quite awhile and became the driving force behind the effort to bring a true box to Liverpool. It all started close to 18 years ago when a former Liverpool player passed away, and left a donation to the program to build a lacrosse arena. Unfortunately, this generous gift was well short of the $50,000 needed to build a pressure treated lumber box.
As time passed, Sardella decided to take another look at options. He asked: “Do we buy a used box, like an old hockey arena and put it outdoors? Do we build a pressure treated box arena? I got quotes for all of that and it’s quite pricey, until I found out about the portable box system…and the price was actually cheaper than any other box.” He then continued: “The portable system gives us so many more options that we can pretty much put it up anywhere in Liverpool, including bringing it inside the gym, putting it on the turf, and the price is $30,000”. That is where Sardella’s background of being a school Principal comes in. To raise that sort of money, he drew on his experience trying to finance new playground projects throughout the district. “The key to playgrounds is you do fundraising, you get donations, and you write grants. And those are the three big pieces.”
For fundraising, they ran a golf tournament for a few years that brought in a few thousand. The typical route of contacting members of their youth lacrosse groups (boys and girls), alumni, coaches, and other families involved with the sport were of course asked to pitch in if they could. They then had a few grants approved to give them a little bit more. What put them over the top were local businesses and organizations like Price Chopper (grocery store), Edward Jones (financial services), Graph-Tex (lacrosse retailer), US Lacrosse Upstate NY Chapter (lacrosse group), and Paratore Signs (printing & signs).
Now, $30,000 is still a large sum of money, but as with most things, the cost of the box comes down to the options you choose. In Sardella’s case, they had their fundraising goals, but anything over that amount would mean additional options such as bench areas, scoreboards, etc. I then spoke with Chris Guertin, who runs the company that produces these boxes (Sport Resource Group), and he emphasized the number of options that are available to programs. They supplied the portable box used the 2015 World Indoor Lacrosse Championships in the Carrier Dome which required counterweights and ballast on the end boards because of the high plexiglass backing behind the goals. They also produced the walls used by the NLL’s New England Blackwolves at the Mohegan Sun whose setup actually bolts into the concrete floor. He said many program opt to forgo the Plexiglass and go with fencing or netting above the boards for a more cost effective option.
When Guertin was asked about how many programs are looking into systems like this, I was actually surprised by the number. “I’d say in the past twelve months, we’ve probably done a dozen of these, and we’ve been in conversation with maybe five times that many.” I was then curious about where these orders were going. My guess was that it would only be programs in the northeast that have already had a history of playing box. This is true for some of his customers, but he has recently sold to a school in the Denver area, they have a big installation in McLean, Virginia, they’re in Florida, in Texas, and also have shipped a unit to Penn Yan, NY. According to Guertin, the common tie to most of the programs he sees doing this is a coach or person involved is typically from the northeast, and is trying to spread the box game as a development tool.
Penn Yan is an interesting one because they have a long box history and have been one of the best programs in New York State for years, despite being in the class reserved for the smallest schools in the state. Recent notable alums of theirs include Brett Queener and Mike Manley, who both have spent time in the NLL in addition to their excellent MLL & NCAA careers at Albany and Duke, respectively. Brian Hobart, who coaches their high school’s varsity team supplied a few photos of the box they had been using and have now replaced with one of the new portable walls.
Probably the most fascinating installation that Guertin mentioned to me was actually from McLean, Virginia where they take over the school’s football field every weekend. Once the last game or practice finishes on Friday night, the lacrosse group moves in and starts assembling their boxes. They are in use all weekend long, and then they take them apart before the next week starts. He has been told that their only limitation is space. If they had the room, they would be running two or three more boxes at the same time all weekend.
While many programs around the country are taking this jump and buying their own box, Liverpool is not just following a trend. A big reason why they believe so strongly in box as a tool for development has to do with their on the field results as well. The Liverpool head coach believes strongly in it, as do some other alumni that I reached out to such as Dominic Castiglia, Brandon Spillett, and Chris Hettler.
Hettler went on from Liverpool to play goalie for Colgate before playing with both the Boston Cannons of the MLL and the Boston Rockhoppers of the NALL. He currently is the Varsity coach at the Derryfield School in New Hampshire as well as an assistant with the German national team. Of his early box experience being beneficial, he said “Goalies were encouraged to handle the ball and come up on offense and create a 5v4 offensive situation to improve the flow of the game, cause kids to work on their defensive rotations, and work on offensive man up and off ball movement. A fast paced run and gun culture was encouraged. This really had an effect on my game by causing me to learn how to handle the ball in clearing situations with pressure on and off me. It also really developed my ability to throw pin point outlet passes in traffic and even developed my shooting with a goalie stick. My confidence in the clearing game and ability to be a threat outside the cage developed in the ‘Pool box leagues.”
Spillett was on the other side of the goalie/shooter equation. A 2001 graduate of Liverpool, he went on to play at LeMoyne, where he helped the Dolphins to their first NCAA Championship. After college, he spent time with the Rochester Rattlers, Boston Cannons, Rochester Knighthawks, and even played with the Vermont Voyageurs in the recent Lacrosse All Stars North American Invitational. When asked how box influenced him as a player, he shared a good story about how his involvement grew over time:
“I was always a fan of box lacrosse because it focuses on my favorite parts of the game. It’s fast, physical, relied on strong stick skills, and in high school we got to play both O and D. I remember watching my father play down in Lafayette and even though I didn’t realize it at the time, I know it helped shape me as a player. I loved watching the speed of the game, the finesse required to score, and how much the ball moved around on offense. My first taste of true box lacrosse was after my first year with the Rattlers when the Knighthawks invited me to a tryout. I showed up with an outdoor Cascade helmet, arm pads, gloves, and my stick. Luckily another player had an extra set of rib/hard shell pads for me to borrow. I made the practice squad, learned a ton from the existing players and coaches, and I truly fell in love with the box game.”
One of the more recent graduates from Liverpool is Castiglia. He graduated in 2015 and was on the first ever USA U19 Indoor team that competed in 2015. He now plays for Utica College, where he was making immediate contributions as a Freshman last year and is looking forward to his second collegiate season. “One aspect of the game which took some time to adjust was the physical part of box. Box lacrosse is very physical. Defensive players can cross check, slash and anything else they can do to strip the ball from you…So when it comes to the physical part of field lacrosse, playing attack and being defended by a long pole, I sometimes encourage the D-Pole to hit me, just to frustrate him into making a mistake and ultimately running right by him.”
So how will this box be worked into Liverpool’s development going forward? Mike Felice, who took over the Varsity program in 2011 thinks it will do a few things for the program. They will gain the obvious benefits of box lacrosse, but also offer their players something that most neighboring towns do not have. “I think that is going to hone their stick skills a little more. Tighter spaces, quicker passes, quicker movements, things like that are going to really propel our stick work into the direction that we need to go to be a top team in our league.” But as he looks forward to the youth levels, who were instrumental in getting the funding for the box in the first place, he added “These kids are going to grow up in this program, having the box there in 3rd grade, in 6th grade. It’s going to bring a level of excitement to our program. There are not many around. You have Shove Park in West Genesee, Tully had one, Penn Yan has one, but not many others, so it’s something that’s a little more unique.”
They are also still unsure about going to fully padded goalies, full cross-checking, and playing “real box”. Some of this has to do with gaining the benefits of the small goal and tight quarters while still coaching field concepts. According to Felice: “We don’t know if we’re going to have the goalies suited up like a hockey goalie or just using regular field equipment. I think we’ll go with a little bit of both just so the guys know their shooting has to be a little more accurate when they have the padded-up goalie. I think it will depend on what our emphasis is for that practice.” This is a larger debate that goes well beyond Liverpool as the “hybrid” approach of combining box and field seems to be very popular south of the Canadian border.
Regardless of how far down the box path Liverpool goes, the fact is they will be keeping their commitment to box lacrosse as a central component of their program’s DNA. They are not the only ones, and I hope their journey inspires other teams around the country and world to at the very least consider this approach. If you are involved with a program that has considered a similar project, hopefully Liverpool’s approach has given you some ideas on how to get it done. If you have not, maybe this just became a way to build excitement about lacrosse in your area. Either way, it is just one of many ways that you can help #GrowTheGame.