UTICA, N.Y. — The recent expansion of the National Lacrosse League has resulted in a rise in the number of U.S.-born players competing at the highest level in box lacrosse. That’s a good thing for U.S. men’s box team head coach Regy Thorpe, who led the U.S. to a bronze medal at the men's world box championship in 2019 and nearly had the USA playing in the gold medal game for the first time ever.
Just look at the 23-man roster that will compete for the 2023 World Lacrosse Men’s Championship in field lacrosse this summer in San Diego. Nearly half of the roster (11 players) was active on NLL rosters this season. That’s up from just two that were actively playing in the NLL ahead of the 2018 field world championship in Israel.
The U.S. should have one of its deepest player pools ever, but that doesn’t deter the players who love box lacrosse from chasing the dream of wearing the red, white and blue. At a recent player ID camp for the U.S. men’s box team at the Utica University Nexus Center, the home of the 2024 World Lacrosse Box Championships, players came from literally all over the country for the chance to get noticed.
“It's great to see these guys and the commitment,” said U.S. assistant coach Brian Hobart. “As a longtime traveling around the country box lacrosse kind of guy myself, it does warm my heart to see these guys that just want an opportunity. Guys sleeping in an RV in the parking lot last night, coming out here and just putting forth their best effort. It's great to see.”
One player hoping to catch the attention of the staff is Max Wayne, the USILA Division III Player of the Year at Christopher Newport in 2022.
Box lacrosse is relatively new to him, but he’s hooked.
“I started playing and it's super fun and then on top of that, I figured it would really help my off-ball defense and my stickwork in field,” Wayne said. “I figured I might as well as give it all I've got and see how it goes.”
That attitude and his physical presence got him an invite to training camp for the NLL’s Georgia Swarm. He got cut, but landed in the Professional Box Lacrosse Association before the league folded after he had played in three games. He kept at it and signed with the practice squad for the NLL’s New York Riptide. He ended up playing in the final two games of the season for the Riptide.
Playing professional lacrosse has long been a dream.
“It was always in the back of my mind ever since I was a freshman in college,” Wayne said. “I thought that might be possible and then the PLL emerged. That was great for the sport, but that wasn't too great of news for me personally because I figured that just cut out half the spots in professional lacrosse [with the MLL merging].”
Undeterred, the 6-foot-4 defenseman kept improving and gaining recognition on one of the best Division III teams in the country. Then the pandemic hit.
“After COVID hit, losing a season really reignited my passion for lacrosse,” Wayne said. “Not that it ever faded that much, but it just made me appreciate it that much more. I knew I was coming back for a fifth year.”
The summer before his final year at CNU, he went to a PLL game and it inspired him further.
“I thought, I really only have one chance to make it to the PLL, so I might as well try to be the best player I can and just do everything I can to try to make the PLL,” Wayne said. “That way, if it doesn't work out, I'm not going to have any regrets and I'm not going to go back and beat myself up and wish I tried harder or anything like that. So that’s kind of the mentality I had my whole fifth year.”
He was upfront with his coaches, including CNU head coach Mikey Thompson, a former Virginia player and coach. Wayne asked Thompson to do anything he could, from sending highlight tapes to using his connections, to try and help him get noticed by the PLL and then Wayne set about his business playing for the Captains.
“He didn't really keep me in the loop because he really wanted me focused on the season,” Wayne said. “Winning a championship was the number one priority, so going into draft night I really honestly didn't think I was going to get a shot. When I got picked, that was a total surprise to me. I had no idea. My coach had an idea and shared that with the team, so the guys were kind of ready for that, but I really wasn't. I was truly surprised when I saw that come up.
“I mean it was quite honestly the best day of my life so far you know, it was just a dream come true,” Wayne said. “But at the end of the day, I still haven't cracked a PLL roster yet. I got pretty close with the Atlas, but never made it on the gameday roster.”
He’s beginning the 2023 PLL campaign on the Cannons preseason roster where Thompson is now an assistant coach.
“I think it's a great opportunity, so I'm just going to try everything I can to get that spot this year,” Wayne said. “Hopefully, I can really launch my pro lacrosse career this year.”
The PLL is in the immediate future, but he has a desire to go further in box as well.
“After getting in the last two games with the Riptide, I feel very motivated that I have a great opportunity to play box at a really high level,” Wayne said. “My coaches are saying I just need to play as much as I can to make up that experience. That's where I really lack obviously. I'm still new and I need to play as much as I can. Playing for the U.S. box team would be super sweet and I figured I'm probably not on their radar. I thought this was a great opportunity to get on their radar. I'm sure everyone else here had a similar thought process.”
It's both the dream of the U.S. team and the love of box that drove the players to compete at this camp. Hobart fully understands the allure of box lacrosse.
“It's just the nonstop action,” Hobart said. “I love the physicality, the finesse. When it's played well, it's a beautiful game.”