Lacrosse Advocates Are Making Big Plays in Detroit

A new box lacrosse program in Clark Park is bringing the sport to youth in the city. Founder and coach Liam McIllroy says the organization is relying on guidance of local community members to shape the program.

Detroit’s Clark Park is hosting a box lacrosse program for kids this fall.

Liam McIllroy is the founder of that program. He also coached lacrosse at Cass Technical High School and is the Director of the Detroit Box Lacrosse Association.

He says lacrosse players develop hand-eye coordination, strategy and a high level of physicality — the same elements that attract athletes to soccer, football, basketball and hockey.

According to McIllroy, box lacrosse is a modified version of the sport. 

“Box is a five-on-five game that is played in an enclosed space,” he explains. “So, a rink — normally a hockey rink or if you’re at a park and you see a fenced in basketball court, you can adapt and play there as well.”

Box lacrosse has a legacy in the city.

“Detroit actually had a professional box lacrosse team called the Detroit Turbos,” says McIllroy. “I think they ran from about ’89 to ’93 and they played down at Joe Louis. Very, very popular version of the game played in Canada.”

McIllroy says the benefit of playing the smaller scale game is that it’s easier than standard field lacrosse for people who may be unfamiliar with the sport to learn. 

“Box is sort of this new, but not really new, method of introducing the game of lacrosse at a very accessible level, as well as sort of expediting the rate of learning and how to play the actual game,” says McIllroy.

There have been a variety of efforts in recent years to make lacrosse more popular in Detroit. Lasky and Chandler Parks have had programs. Detroit United Lacrosse launched a high school travel program. McIllroy says another program in southwest Detroit was started by the coach of the University of Detroit Mercy. U of D Mercy is the only Division One college lacrosse team in the area.

Detroit Box Lacrosse Association
Detroit Box Lacrosse Association

The Indigenous Roots and Modern Perceptions of North America’s Original Sport

The oldest organized sport in North America, McIllroy says the indigenous roots of lacrosse mean how the game is played depends on where it’s played.

“We play in Detroit…southeastern Michigan, which is indigenous land belonging to the Council of the Three Fires, also known as the Anishinaabe people,” he explains.

“The style of play native to this region is actually slightly different than the type of lacrosse that is normally played throughout the United States — what you would see in college or professionally. We play more Eastcoastern in style, more of the Haudenosaunee type where you have a larger stick, you have a bigger pocket.”

McIllroy says the style of play in the Great Lakes region uses one stick in one hand instead of two sticks held in both.  He says that different regions inherit different styles of play from different indigenous cultures makes lacrosse special.

“You wouldn’t necessarily see that in a sport like football or basketball or anywhere else,” McIllroy says. “It’s usually the same ball, same hoop, same you know field goalposts. But in lacrosse, it sort of adds to that big and rich indigenous history that I don’t think enough people know.”

 “We are relying on the efforts and guidance of the local community members. … We have to operate and act very intentionally. You have to be a part of the community that you’re working in.” — Liam McIllroy, Clark Park Youth Box Lacrosse Coach

McIllroy acknowledges lacrosse is perceived as a white, upper-class sport. And, he says, the teams he coaches at Cass Tech have experienced racism on the field.

“You do see growth in cities like Detroit, but optics haven’t shifted a ton,” McIllroy says. “That’s gonna obviously take time and that’s what we’re working on here.”

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  • Sascha Raiyn

    Sascha Raiyn is Education Reporter at 101.9 WDET. She is a native Detroiter who grew up listening to news and music programming on Detroit Public Radio.