It was a special weekend for teams of PeeWee and Bantam players from across North America as they played the biggest tournament of their careers in Oakville, Ontario. The first-ever Junior NLL Tournament was held from August 23-25 at the Toronto Rock Athletic Centre with youngsters representing six NLL teams including the Toronto Rock, Buffalo Bandits, Rochester Knighthawks, Minnesota Swarm, Colorado Mammoth and Vancouver Stealth.
Team members along with many of their parents travelled from their home cities to wear the same jerseys as their pro teams, play under NLL rules, and be coached by professional personnel associated with their pro affiliates. Steve Govett, President and General Manager of the Colorado Mammoth, coached the Bantam Jr Mammoth this weekend and summed up the tournament saying, "It was a celebration of indoor lacrosse in North America."
The Junior NLL program provides players a chance to work alongside professional box players and develop their indoor skills. Mitchell Durst, a bantam player in his first year of playing box lacrosse, drove with his grandparents from Minnesota to be a part of the tournament (approximately 17 hours). "I've been learning so much from the coaches because they've been in every situation. They push us hard three times a week, but it's always fun."
Fun definitely was the key element of the weekend for all the players and coaches. Stephen Bruner's son Kellen suited up for the Vancouver Stealth. For Kellen, said father Stephen, the word 'fun' took on many forms this weekend. "The kids really have an opportunity to see the top athletes and professionals, it's fun for them to emulate them. The inspiration is there and it's quite exciting for them."
The Junior Stealth team includes many players who have played box lacrosse for less than three years. Lewis Ratcliff, a twelve-year veteran of the NLL, and a Victoria, BC native, coached both the PeeWee and Bantam Jr Stealth teams this weekend. Many like Ratcliff have been working to develop the game and after three years coaching the team he said, "We're still trying to grow the game (in the Pacific Northwest). I really enjoy working with these kids." On Saturday, the PeeWee Stealth defeated the PeeWee Rock in round-robin play which led coach Ratcliff to say, "For a bunch of kids from Seattle to come in and beat a team from Toronto was special."
Govett added that there were many special moments this weekend. "There's nothing better than walking around the arena and seeing personnel from every team interacting to put the game ahead of all our winter rivalries for the good of the NLL."
Every coach and personnel commented on the smiles on the kid's faces all week long. Durst was laughing heading out the door, despite his Swarm being eliminated and Nathan Mueller, a PeeWee player with the Junior Mammoth, was almost speechless after clinching a spot in Sunday's final. "It's amazing and so much fun. It's mind-blowing because not a lot of kids can say they played on the Toronto Rock's turf, or that they were coached by the same coach of the Colorado Mammoth. I've loved it" he said showing off green braces through an ear-to-ear smile.
Mueller's coach, Bob Hamley, was the Committee Chair for the Junior NLL Tournament. He said, "This tournament really shows the progress of indoor lacrosse throughout North America. This is our future as a league, so we need to continue to promote them as well as our markets. These kids will never forget this experience."
Both Sunday finals featured the Junior Mammoth and Rock teams with the Junior Mammoth winning the PeeWee division and the Junior Rock capturing the Bantam title. Dyson Williams sparked a Rock comeback with two transition goals and said after, "I've played for Team Ontario but this weekend felt different. It felt bigger. It was definitely way cooler."
Winning teams were awarded smaller versions of the NLL Champion's Cup bearing the tournament title and their team names will be engraved on the base. Organizers have already begun conversations in hopes of another tournament next year.
The National Lacrosse League’s first annual Junior NLL tournament crowned Junior NLL Champion’s Cup winners at the Peewee and Bantam levels as a three-day tournament culminated with a pair of championship games on Sunday at the Toronto Rock Athletic Centre (TRAC) in Oakville, ON.
In the Peewee final, the Junior Rock faced the Junior Mammoth and the first half proved to be an incredibly tight one, tied at two until the final minute of play when the Junior Mammoth took a 3-2 lead. The Colorado squad never looked back and went on to score five straight in total en route to a 7-3 win.
The Bantam final once again pitted the Junior Rock against the Junior Mammoth. Toronto’s youngsters were round robin winners over the Colorado club, but the Junior Mammoth were looking to make it a clean sweep and match their Peewee brethren’s efforts of just moments earlier.
Colorado looked as though they had worked their way into a comfortable spot with a 5-3 lead at halftime. However, the Toronto had other ideas, scoring four straight goals to take a 7-5 lead. After all was said and done, the Junior Rock outscored the Junior Mammoth 7-2 in the second half and were Bantam Junior NLL Champion’s Cup winners with a 10-7 victory.