I learned very early on that when trying to play at a high level, it’s difficult to ever take a day off.
Even though sometimes you may have time off, you need to continue to push yourself to elevate your game. Playing through the offseason in Canada, this was how I transitioned into the player I am today.
Many people don’t believe me when I say this, but I didn’t play traditional lacrosse until I stepped foot on Chapel Hill’s campus. Growing up in Ontario, Canada, we only play a variation of lacrosse called box.
Box lacrosse is different in that there are only six players on the floor for each team at a time. The game is played in an enclosed area with boards, with players rotating in and out depending on if it is an offensive or defensive play. Overall, the game has the same guidelines but leads to a slightly different style of play.
Although I had played box most of my life, I didn’t really think about playing at the next level until much later than most.
As I finished my sophomore year, I received a call that I would be given an opportunity to play for the prestigious boarding school, The Hill Academy in Ontario. I knew this school well because it was highly regarded for its ability to get kids into the top NCAA schools. I was honored to receive the opportunity and thought this might be my ticket to playing in college.
As every kid hopes for, I just wanted an opportunity to get recognized.
After a successful first year at the Hill Academy, I was invited to compete in the Great Lakes recruiting tournament, which pulls most of the lacrosse talent from the Midwest into one location. Knowing there would be scouts from all of the top universities, I worked as hard as possible to show teams that I was worthy of a scholarship.
With the end of the tournament came an opportunity to speak with the North Carolina staff. Although they liked what they saw, they informed me that I would have to take a prep year as my graduating class was already full. This was a tough decision for me, as I had other options, but once I went on a visit, I knew that UNC was worth the wait.
Deciding to take a prep year at the Hill Academy, I headed to UNC that following year.
I’ll be honest, the first year of college lacrosse is a humbling experience. Coming in against guys who are three to four years older, you feel overmatched at times. It also didn’t get any easier as I was competing against elite talent in my senior teammates Joey Sankey, Jimmy Bitter, and Chad Tutton.
Needless to say, this didn’t leave a lot of playing time for an incoming freshman like myself.
However, it did give me time to develop while playing against the starters, as I was on the scout unit. This time allowed for me to see how the starters conducted themselves, as well as sharpen my skills against our best players. By the end of fall ball, I had improved enough to compete for a spot on the second midfield line.
Unfortunately, just as I was making my way into the position, our winter break came. Now, this sounds great for most undergrads, but staying in shape away from school can be difficult.
Instead of continuing to work out, I chose to take the month off to rest. But when I arrived back in Chapel Hill after our break, I came in overweight. Stepping back onto the field, I knew I had lost time at the position and my game had taken a step back.
I realized from that point on, if you really want to play at a high level, it’s vital to stay in shape all year long. You always need to be ready to perform whenever you are given the opportunity.
And with that opportunity, I wasn’t ready.
After a tough freshman season, I went back home and got straight into an offseason workout plan because I wasn’t going to let my game fall behind ever again. Working construction in the mornings and playing box lacrosse in the afternoons, my summer allowed me to get in the best shape of my life.
Coming back into my sophomore year, my hard work paid off. I was given the opportunity to start on an experienced attack line that included Luke Goldstock and Steve Pontrello. With the experience of the line, I played with a group that could teach me about the game and allowed my play to excel. Immediately, I set out to prove to my team that I belonged and would help us win.
After a season of ups and downs, we snuck into the NCAA tournament. And when I say snuck in, I mean we were slotted in one of the unseeded spots and given no shot.
But for me, this was a natural position to be in. Growing up playing box, it seemed like every year my team was one of the bottom seeds going into the playoffs. We never actually won, but I had still seen that beating some of the top teams was possible if the team truly came together.
Following the words of Coach Breschi, we saw that there was no pressure on us to win and played every game like it was our last. We were able to go into every game feeling loose, giving us confidence that we could keep advancing in the tournament.
After winning three tough games against Marquette, Notre Dame, and Loyola, I looked up and realized we would be playing the #1 seed in the final: the University of Maryland.
Although we had played every game without much pressure, this was still the biggest game of my life. With the magnitude of this game, I was thankful to have the support of my friends and family in Philadelphia. Five of my best friends from home drove through the night from Canada, while my family made the trip down as well. No matter what, I just wanted to make them proud.
After a tough game, we did the unthinkable. We knocked off the #1 seed as an unseeded team. The game came down to the end, but we finished strong, barely winning 14-13.
It almost didn’t feel real.
Even as the seconds ran out, I still couldn’t believe it. It didn’t become completely real until after the game when I was hugging my mom and dad in the stands. Coming a long way, we had done it.
We were National Champions!
With the game being on a Monday, I flew back to Chapel Hill to celebrate with my team for a few days and enjoy the moment. But as that week progressed, I still knew that there was more left to achieve.
That Thursday, I boarded a plane to fly home for a box lacrosse game I had that evening. I wasn’t going to let myself slow down. We were just getting started.
Always remember that no matter where you are in your career, there is always more to do. If you ever find yourself with time off, just remember there is always a way to improve your game. From box lacrosse to a National Championship, I just try to keep moving.
Chris Cloutier | Contributor