Mikel Zahralddin has spent half his life traveling to play lacrosse.
During that time, he has taken more than 25 trips to compete in his favorite sport. While his friends might pursue other interests, Zahralddin said he’d rather be “doing nothing else.”
The latest adventure for 16-year-old from Greenville will take him to Southern California, where his parents met more than 20 years ago and surfing is king.
But this weekend’s USBOXLA Nationals in Huntington Beach will have a distinctly Canadian feel.
Canada declared lacrosse its national game in 1859 due to the sports deep ties to First Nations, the country’s indigenous inhabitants. Due to the harsh winters in the Great White North, the field game has evolved into an indoor game known as box lacrosse.
This three-day tournament in sunny SoCal also will be contested indoors, where the sport is fast and furious. The event, which begins Friday, also will be massive. Around 1,000 players are expected to compete in more than 200 games.
Zahralddin’s squad, Iroquois Alliance, is in the high school elite division, where the majority of the boys are juniors and seniors. Many of his teammates from the Road Warriors, the travel team coached by the legendary Iroquois National Team and IMG Academy coach Mark Burnam, will be joining him. But he also is a member of Team USBOXLA, the box lacrosse national team. On Saturday, it will compete against a collection of All-Stars formed from other players in the tournament.
The only national team member from Delaware, Zahralddin actually is one of two players representing the state of Pennsylvania where he attends storied Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square, coached
by former Princeton head coach Chris Bates. Connor Dungey, a rising junior who attends Salesianum High School in Delaware, and lives in Pennsylvania, is also a member of Team USBOXLA.
Both players were trained in box lacrosse at Fusion Lacrosse, founded by professional box lacrosse players Kevin Crowley and Steve Holmes. Holmes, an All-American and team captain at the University of Virginia, and Kevin Crowley, World Lacrosse Championship MVP in 2014, founded Fusion and its elite travel team, Penn*Lax, to pull together both field and box lacrosse instruction to develop better all-around players.
Penn*Lax Silver dominated this winter, going 13-0 while winning championships at three regional tournaments. Zahralddin was the only freshman selected to the team.
Zahralddin’s game is well-suited to box lacrosse due to his quickness, instincts, stickwork and scoring ability. He has played indoors during the Delaware winters to sharpen those skills, given the game demands them even more than field lacrosse.
Box lacrosse is played in a hockey rink, where space is more confined, the ball rarely goes out of bounds and caroms off the sideboards and following missed shots can create quick scoring opportunities. Add a 30-second shot clock and the shot totals are more than double – 100 to 40, on average – than during the field version of lacrosse.
Box lacrosse is fairly new to the travel team circuit, arising during the past half-dozen years. But the tournaments have become a fertile recruiting ground for colleges as coaches look to employ a faster-paced style.
Legendary coach Bill Tierney long has believed box lacrosse is the best way to introduce young players into the game.
“When you watch Canadian kids score, when you see their skill level around the cage, you wonder to yourself, ‘Jeez, are we teaching kids [in the U.S.] the wrong things?'” he said in 2012.
Then coaching the University of Denver after winning six national championships at Princeton University, Tierney retained Matt Brown, a native of British Columbia. Brown coaches an offense rooted in box lacrosse principles. In 2015, Denver became the first school west of the Appalachian Mountains to win a national title. In 2010, Brown and former National Lacrosse League player, Shaydon Santos, founded USBOXLA.
Zahralddin will be a sophomore at Episcopal this year and is not thinking of where lacrosse might take him, beyond this weekend’s tournament. Also a straight-A student, Zahralddin said he will choose a school based on the strength of its academics, not its lacrosse program.
“If I got to play in college that’d be great,” he said, “but it’s just fun playing lacrosse.”