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In the summer of 2006, the world’s best lacrosse players descended on London, Ontario. For Stephen Keogh, who like most Canadian kids played the field game for maybe a month each summer to prepare for the box lacrosse season, the World Games offered a chance to inspect an odd brand of the game that had so intrigued him on television. He and his friends had watched in equal parts amazement and bewilderment as crowds of 50,000 packed stadiums in the United States to watch the NCAA lacrosse final four. Until he saw those games on ESPN, Keogh had no notion that college lacrosse existed. Prodded by those TV revelations, Keogh and a couple buddies drove the two hours from their Toronto hometown to witness the field game phenomenon when the World Games came to Canada in 2006.
That year, Canada defeated the United States 15-10 to claim international superiority in a game played largely at American high schools and universities. And Keogh, an impressionable teenager, was mesmerized. “You see the (NCAA) national championships, the semifinals. I know every box lacrosse kid is glued to the TV when that happens. I think that gives everybody the goal to want to be on TV. It helped motivate a lot of kids,” Keogh said. “And then the World Games — it was awesome. It was in Canada. There were a lot of people there. I saw some of the greatest — Gary Gait played, John Grant, Jr. played. And I think that influenced a lot of people A lot of people tried to learn the field game. And that’s helped grow it a lot.”
Keogh would eventually attend prep school in the States and sign with Syracuse, where he currently leads the No. 2 Orange in goal scoring. He and fellow Canadian Cody Jamieson have accounted for 30 percent of SU’s goals this season. And they are emblematic of the surge of Canadians that are dominating the American college game.
Of the top 10 points producers in Division I lacrosse, six are Canadian. Stony Brook, a program that will make its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2002, owns the nation’s No. 2 scoring offense and shoots a national-best 41 percent. Four of Stony Brook’s top five goal scorers are Canadian, including one of the five Tewaaraton Trophy finalists — Kevin Crowley. Canadian Curtis Dickson, another Tewaaraton finalist, leads the nation in goals (62). Logan Schuss, a freshman attackman from British Columbia, led Ohio State in points (24-24). Travis Comeau, a freshman attackman from The Hill Academy in Ontario, tied for Georgetown’s goal-scoring lead (25), despite starting just seven of 13 Hoyas games. Hofstra’s Canadian pair Jamie Lincoln and Jay Card sit 1-2 in points for the Pride. Denver attackman Mark Matthews leads the Pioneers in goals.
“You talk to different coaches and they all say, ‘We gotta get a Canadian,’" Stony Brook coach Rick Sowell said. “I’ve been comparing the Canadian lacrosse invasion to the number of international basketball players in the NBA and how it changed the league.”
“You ask any high level Division I coach what the two most important things are and it’s speed and the ability to score goals,” said Cortland coach Steve Beville. “Stephen Keogh is not fast. But he’s a dynamic scorer. The Canadians are tremendous goal-scorers, tremendous offensive players. They’ve developed these great, great hands, they’re tough and they have great finishing ability. We look for that in players all the time. And the Canadian kids are better finishers and scorers right now as a whole than the U.S. kids.”
The Hill Academy’s Ryan Burnham, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound close defender, has committed to Syracuse for the 2010-11 season. His coach, former Georgetown and Canadian national team star Brodie Merrill, said Burnham “still has academic issues to settle.” But if those issues get settled soon, here’s what Orange fans can anticipate with Burnham:
“He’s extremely skilled,” Merrill said. “He’s got great – exceptional – stick skills. We use him on our man-up here because he’s got a great outside shot. He defends very well. He’s a very smart player. He still has to work on his speed and quickness.”
Five years ago, fewer than 50 Canadians played Division I, II and III lacrosse in the United States. Now, 195 Canadians play here, said Jason Donville, a hedge fund manager who has extensively researched and blogged about Canadian lacrosse. Robert Morris’ roster features nine Canadians. Bellarmine, based in Louisville, has 12 Canadians; Canisius has eight. Most of them are scorers. By Donville’s calculations, 83 percent of the Canadians playing NCAA lacrosse last season were either midfielders or attackmen.
“Somebody seemed to figure out,” Donville said, “that Canadians had a certain style that was very impactful in the NCAA.” Everybody traces that style to the box, the strain of lacrosse that originated in Canada. To field lacrosse connoisseurs, the cramped quarters of the box, with its ice hockey boards, its permissive physicality, its tiny cage and cartoonishly padded goalie, seem claustrophobic and crude. But lacrosse insiders cite those very qualities as perfect breeding grounds for the college field game.
Canadian kids shoot on a 4-by-4 goal, with a goalie outfitted in gargantuan pads that make him look like a hockey goalie on serious steroids. They spend hours trying to aim the ball into the tiniest crevice. The college field game features a 6-by-6 goal and goalies that wear such scant protection they appear almost unadorned.
“It kind of looks like throwing a ball into the ocean,” Keogh said. “The Canadian box game,” said SU and Canadian lacrosse legend Gary Gait, “really does teach you the fine art of scoring and shooting.” It also hardens its players to the brutality on the crease. Cody Jamieson estimates that “95-98 percent of the Canadian kids down here played hockey growing up, too.” Canadians, Jamieson said, have steeled themselves to the elbows, the cross checks, the shoves — all of the commotion that grinds players on the crease.
Ask a college coach to evaluate his Canadian talent and every one will include toughness on that player’s list of attributes. “I think it just comes from the hockey mentality and the box lacrosse mentality of getting hit and hitting guys back,” Jamieson said. “It’s just the nature of the game. In field lacrosse, you can’t cross check — and in box lacrosse you definitely can cross check. It’s a rough game and it makes you kind of like a blue-collar guy. That’s all part of the game in box lacrosse and it makes it a little bit easier down here because everybody’s not used to getting rough and dirty.”
Some, though not many, of the Canadian imports play defense. Brodie Merrill, the Georgetown and Canadian national team star, said he first picked up a long pole when he tried out for the Under-19 Canadian national team. “I wanted to make the team,” he said, “and nobody was playing defense.”
Merrill evolved into the field game’s most influential long pole. He predicts that as the game continues to grow in Canada, more defenders will emerge to counter all those scorers. Jason Noble, the freshman close defender who starts for Cornell, said he was handed a 6-foot pole when he arrived at The Hill Academy, the school Merrill’s father founded to accommodate athletes who sought a proper academic and athletic foundation for an American college education. Noble said he played defense with a short stick on his Canadian club team. His high school did not offer lacrosse. Noble transferred to “The Hill” in 11th grade, he said, because he believed that the school would offer him more exposure and more preparation for either a scholarship or financial aid to an American college.
“It opened my eyes,” Noble said, “that there was a whole ‘nother school system in the States with more competitive lacrosse.” The Hill Academy, founded four years ago, is already the talk of college lacrosse. Merrill said his family opened the school to match talented Canadian lacrosse, hockey and volleyball players with American colleges. One of The Hill’s lacrosse players, defenseman Ryan Burnham, has orally committed to SU. The Hill, an accredited academic institution located in the Toronto-area town of Vaughan, has also helped bridge an important gap for Canadian athletes hoping to play in the States. In previous years, Canadian players who expressed interest in attending American colleges often failed to take standardized tests or core courses necessary for NCAA eligibility. Gait said when he attended high school in British Columbia in the 1980s, “nobody talked about that.”
“They’re being much more proactive about what it takes to be a Division I athlete,” SU coach John Desko said. “They’re much more familiar with the (NCAA) Clearinghouse — what it takes, how many core courses they have to take, what GPA they have to have. Sometimes it’s easier to send them to prep schools (in the U.S.) just for that reason. It’s almost too hard to figure out in Canada which are core courses and which aren’t. I’ve talked to people from Canada and on the (Native American) reservations for years and I think they’re being much more proactive. There’s a need for it and I think that’s why you’re seeing places like (The Hill Academy).”
Beville knows all about The Hill. The Cortland coach makes no secret about his desire to land a Canadian scorer for his program, the defending Division III national champion. But Beville knows that financial implications make Division I a more enticing destination. Of the 195 Canadians in the States, 107 play for Division I lacrosse teams, where the majority of the scholarship money resides.
Scholarship money varies at different institutions, though Ivy League schools do not award athletic aid. Fully funded Division I teams can divide their 12.6 scholarships however they see fit. Some players receive full rides; others might receive a portion of their tuition. That money is essential for many Canadians who do not qualify for U.S. federal aid for college. Jason Donville said it would cost $15,000 to $18,000 to send his son, Brennan, to McGill University in Toronto because the Canadian government subsidizes college tuition. College tuition at many American institutions excessively exceeds that amount.
Donville said that most Canadian parents bargain with American colleges like this: “I would have to pay $18,000 to send my kid to McGill. Can you come up with the rest?” Most schools — even those in Division II and Division III, Donville said — “can come up with some very attractive packages.” Brennan Donville, a lacrosse goalie, will attend Cornell next season. Jason Donville admits that he’s more financially secure than most Canadian lacrosse parents. But even at a non-scholarship Ivy School, he said, “there are ways to work the system” to help defray college costs.
The potential for lacrosse scholarships and financial aid packages have spawned a budding feeder system of field lacrosse in Canada. Cornell’s Jason Noble played for Edge Lacrosse, one of Canada’s most influential developmental programs. Edge is an elite travel program that encompasses seven age divisions and includes approximately 140 kids. Edge teams mostly visit the U.S. to compete with American kids in the field game.
Rick Sowell sees a growing number of Canadians at U.S. tournaments and camps. He spotted one of those Canadians — a somewhat “porky” Jordan McBride, who was still maturing physically but possessed the exceptional hands and scoring ability that college coaches crave. Sowell was coaching at St. John’s — the only team, said Sowell, that recruited McBride. When Sowell took the Hofstra job in August 2006, the first recruit he called was McBride. It so happened that McBride’s good friend — Kevin Crowley — also wanted to play lacrosse in the States.Those two Seawolves accounted for 94 goals and 31 assists this season.
“The next thing I know, both kids are coming to Stony Brook and that’s where the pipeline started,” Sowell said. “It’s been crazy how fast it’s developed. And this Canadian invasion is not going to slow down.”
Donna Ditota can be reached at 470-2208 or email@example.com