Hastings won the first ever YBL High School Division championship on Sunday, defeating East Ridge Black 14-6.
The first season of the Swarm’s YBL High School Division presented by Summit Orthopedics and United Hospital concluded Sunday afternoon with its inaugural playoff round at the Ralia Sports Center. Hastings beat Northfield in the first semifinal match, while East Ridge Black defeated Jaxx in the second semifinal. Hastings and East Ridge Black met in the championship, with Hastings coming out on top to win the 14-team league.
Hastings forward Griffin Birkins led his team’s high-powered attack, scoring 11 goals on the day. Birkins noted that he has learned a great deal from his time playing in the YBL this fall, saying that he’s improved his sense of urgency. “The field is so much shorter, instead of field (lacrosse) where you can run around wide and pass, you can just go (in box lacrosse).” Hastings team captain Ryan Gillard pointed out that by playing on the smaller, indoor field, “you get quick hands, really quick hands.”
The YBL provided an even steeper learning curve for Gillard’s brother and Hastings goalie, Casey, who like many players in the league, were still fairly new to box lacrosse when the season started. “At the beginning of the season, I had no idea how to play goalie,” (Casey) Gillard explained, “but playing in this league I improved a lot.” Gillard only gave up 10 goals Sunday, while his team tallied 33. Scoring is nothing foreign to Hastings, however, which found the back of the net 157 times during their nine-game unbeaten season.
East Ridge parent Michael Conklin, whose son, Jacob, played in the league, described the impact that the YBL has made on his son off the field: “It’s given him a sense of discipline and greater team…the constant speed and interaction (of the box league) allows him to focus better and keep his head in the game.” East Ridge Black head coach J.B. Guiton noted that he has seen his players become better young men through the YBL as well. “I see better attitudes than at the beginning of the season. It (YBL) develops more of a team attitude than other things they’d be doing in the fall, so it really brings them together, makes them a stronger unit, and in the end it’s going to enhance our varsity season.” Guiton expounded on the positive effects that the YBL has on his players’ skill sets, making them faster when the outdoor season comes around. “The YBL brings box lacrosse skills to high school kids, which is going to make us more competitive in the long run. We’ve seen in Canada how box has totally changed the game and Canadian players are dominating division one right now.”
In an effort to help develop players’ box skills, participants in the inaugural high school division were given the opportunity to receive hands-on teaching from Swarm coaches and players through a series of clinics during the season. The YBL also provided each registrant with three tickets to the upcoming Swarm season to ensure that members of the league have the chance to watch box lacrosse at its highest level at Xcel Energy Center.
While the YBL has had a great impact on its players and is currently the largest league of its kind in the country, the program is still in its early stages. Aime Caines, YBL Director and Minnesota Swarm assistant coach, pointed out that league’s participation rate has increased significantly during its five-year existence. “When we started the league we had 180 kids and it has grown in the youth division to over 1,000 kids in the last four years,” Caines said. “Now with our first high school division we have 14 teams and over 240 kids, so it’s getting big.”
Guiton, who coached 7th and 8th grade YBL teams prior to his time with East Ridge’s high school club, expects this trend to continue. “I watched YBL at the seventh and eighth grade level go from a few teams to absolutely massive in a couple of years,” Guiton said. “I anticipate the same thing is going to happen in high school. We’re hearing from players who didn’t sign up that want to already play next year. We (East Ridge) had two teams this year, I think we’ll have four next year.”
The evolution of the YBL is no accident as Caines notes that the association is trying to expand. “We’re looking to grow and start traveling to play other states, so we want to get these kids where they can represent Minnesota and be able to play box lacrosse to show our talents to different states and maybe go to Canada to play.” Jeff Cordell, an assistant coach for Hastings, described the rapid development of lacrosse in Minnesota, saying that in Hastings, they went from having one club team to now fielding a program for every level from third grade through high school. “It’s grown by leaps and bounds,” Cordell said.
After Hastings won the YBL title, the players ran across the field together as friends and champions. With a smile on his face Birkins explained that, “It came together so perfectly. We’re all best friends on the team, we hang out outside of lacrosse and almost none of us go to the same school or knew each other before this season.” In the end, the team came together and rallied around one another, en route to a perfect season.
However, it’s never all about winning for Hastings or Birkins. “At the beginning of the season I didn’t really have any intentions of going all the way,” Birkins added. “I just wanted to have fun and this is the most fun I’ve ever had on a team.”