In just 11 seasons, the Michigan men’s lacrosse team has rapidly cemented itself as a competitive program. As with any Big Ten sport, lacrosse’s identity stems from a physicality, intimidation and grittiness that makes it one of the most unique lacrosse spaces to play in.
The Wolverines themselves are led by defense-first coach Kevin Conry, who prioritizes a commitment to locking down opposing offenses. Despite being one of the newest Division 1 teams, Michigan has already established its legacy of defensive prowess.
While many associate the Wolverines with their defense, this program has another less noticed strength: the offensive cutting edge. Specifically, the cutting edge of Canadian box lacrosse.
Powered by the likes of Michigan alumnus attackman Kyle Jackson and rising senior attackman Josh Zawada, the Wolverines’ legacy of Canadian box lacrosse players continues to play an integral role in the program. While it may already have deep roots in Canadian lacrosse, Michigan stands at the forefront of a growing recruiting surge of the box style within the NCAA sphere.
“The game is trying to get into that hybrid Canadian-American kind of mix,” Zawada said. “… The big difference is how unselfish it was in Canada and how they like moving the ball so well, and that’s where they get it in the box game. The game has just transitioned so much.”
College men’s lacrosse is changing, and it’s trending northward to do it.
In Canada, box lacrosse has long been the dominant style.
Invented in the early twentieth century as an indoor alternative to field lacrosse during cold Canadian winters, box lacrosse is characterized by its quick five-on-five style, smaller field of play and smaller nets.
Sourced from converted ice hockey rinks, at times, the game can almost feel like a hockey bout. Unlike field lacrosse, there is no out-of-bounds, and the rinks even retain their patented plexiglass boards to protect onlookers and to provide the business end of bone-crunching checks.
Nevertheless, to play box lacrosse is to simplify the game to its purest form while also requiring speed and precision that cannot be found anywhere else.
For generations of Canadian lacrosse players, this was a way of life. But for American coaches and players just beginning to encounter the style, it’s a brave new world.
And at the forefront of the Canadian pioneers bringing the game south is Ontario’s own: Hill Academy and its alumni Kyle Jackson and Josh Zawada.
Founded in 2006, the Hill Academy has had a meteoric ascension to become one of the elite high school lacrosse programs in North America. The program is famous for its humble beginnings and impressive international schedule, playing — and often dismantling — some of the top teams across North America.
Despite the Hill’s impressive records, though, Jackson and Zawada experienced a high school lacrosse environment unlike any other.
While many traditional lacrosse players in the United States will have a stationary, public or private high school team during the academic year that plays local teams on a fixed divisional circuit, the Hill was a school on wheels. It followed the team’s patented phrase:
Anybody, anytime, anywhere.
“Josh never played a home game when he was at the Hill Academy,” Josh’s father, John, said. “He lived on a bus and they would play all the top teams out of Maryland, in all the storied programs that have a super rich history of top talent in the country. And the Hill Academy spent a week playing all those top teams, and that was just part of it.”
Indeed, the Hill Academy did not have its own dedicated campus until September 2020. Playing on the road was just part of its process.
The Hill’s athletes participated in a rigorous travel, competition and training schedule, all while maintaining high school academics as well.
The Hill experience was not for the faint of heart. Yet for players like Jackson and Zawada, who dedicated themselves to raising the quality of Hill Academy lacrosse for their entire careers, it was a welcome challenge.
“(The Hill Academy) was something that didn’t have a lot of legs,” Jackson said. “It had only been around for five or six years before I attended the school. So it was very new, it was fresh and it was something I was able to build upon which ended up being something that through my experience at the Hill, I really cherished at Michigan.”
For both Jackson and Zawada, the Hill’s atypical, gritty experience was a central contributor to their formation as lacrosse players.
The experience wasn’t just character building though. The Hill’s electric offensive style and emphasis on the rapid box pace left its mark on Jackson and Zawada.
“Throughout the whole entire winter I played box,” Zawada said. “It was just the faster paced game. You touch the ball a lot, it’s all tight quarters and the finishing with the smaller net helps out with the entire game. It’s very unselfish.”
Though they sport different builds — Zawada at 6-foot-2 and Jackson at 5-foot-9 — both play with an unselfishness, speed and intelligence that presents a nightmare for opposing defenses. And that translated directly into their success at the college level.
Although Jackson and Zawada had similar experiences at the Hill, once they arrived at Michigan, their experiences began to deviate.
Jackson valiantly oversaw the transition from a club lacrosse team to a varsity Division 1 program, while Zawada’s Wolverines have had the perennial privilege of being Big Ten Championship contenders. Despite those differences though, they both carried Hill Academy and Canadian lacrosse with them throughout the entire process.
In 2013, during Jackson’s freshman year at Michigan, he rode the highs and lows of a 1-13 season, experiencing a stark contrast from the infallible Hill Academy. While the Wolverines saw little success, Jackson excelled at the individual level. As a true freshman, he led the team in goals (17) and points (26), a testament to the box-style offensive skills he learned at the Hill.
Jackson’s Canadian style is unmistakable. With impeccable footwork, ab-straining angles and slippery elusiveness, he turns even the most simple plays into a highlight. By the end of his collegiate career, he cemented his place as the all-time program leader in points (113) and goals (88).
And Jackson brought more than his style of play from the Hill to Michigan. Evidently, his attitude remained as well. His commitment, resolve and investment into building his high school program carried over to his collegiate experience.
“I just think it’s really exciting to be able to start programs,” Jackson said. “I think that there’s a lot of things that come with that. There’s a lot of losses and a lot of heartache, there’s a lot of troubling times but in the end I myself, along with my classmates at the time, look back on it and now get to see the new facilities that are being built, the new recruits that are coming in, the high end recruits that are coming in.”
Just as he desired to build a new legacy for the Hill Academy, Jackson laid the groundwork for the Wolverines’ lacrosse team that exists today. Jackson strives to exemplify the Hill’s core values of Legacy and Leadership —the two Ls in Hill — wherever he goes.
“It’s not necessarily that we (the Wolverines) were a successful program,” Jackson said. “But it was successful in the sense that everything was new and everything was the foundation of what was to come.”
By the time Zawada began his freshman season in 2020, Michigan lacrosse had evolved significantly since Jackson’s days.
With the hiring of Kevin Conry after his signature national championship run with the Maryland Terrapins in 2017, and the construction of dedicated lacrosse facilities that same year, Zawada entered into an established program that had come a long way.
“When I got to see the facilities that they got to have, while at the time we were in the visiting baseball locker room,” Jackson said. “Being able to just have all of the success that they have now, I look back on (that) and think about not just myself, but everyone that was a part of those classes while I was there for four years who had that impact to allow the players nowadays to have the success that they have.”
And though the COVID-19 pandemic cut Zawada’s inaugural season short, the team officially finished 4-3 — a sign that the hard work from players like Jackson had begun to pay off.
Zawada inserted himself into a role that Jackson once shimmered in, leading college lacrosse in points for a freshman (32) and leading Michigan in assists (16). His presence was undeniable, and his Canadian style was electric — just like his predecessor.
However, with the confusion and uncertainty of the pandemic, the Wolverines were forced into a grueling 2021 season solely against Big Ten opponents, which resulted in a 3-9 finish. It was a tough pill to swallow for any team, but like Jackson, Zawada never wavered.
“There’s gonna be some low points,” Zawada said. “Throughout my career at Michigan, I knew it wasn’t going to be all sunshine and rainbows. At the Hill when we would play teams we would pretty much dominate a lot of them. And I knew it was gonna be a little bit different.”
While Zawada finished his senior year at the Hill with a strong 13-4 record, he has yet to find the same success with the Wolverines.
Nevertheless, like his predecessor, Zawada’s experience with Hill lacrosse prepared him for moments like these.
For Jackson and Zawada, the dedication to building programs is in their DNA.
“I want to be that guy to start Michigan on the path to becoming a dominant program and bringing guys along that want to win.” Zawada said. “I just want to build the program and instill a culture of winning for the guys behind me that are coming up.”
Michigan’s growth is far from over, but if it wants to move forward successfully, Zawada and the next generation of Michigan box-style players can follow the Canadian blueprint.