After 17 years playing box lacrosse, it’s muscle memory for Blake McDonald to hold the stick in his dominant hand. So when he had to figure out how to explain to a fifth grader why he shouldn’t switch hands, he was stumped at first.
As McDonald, 25, went through the basics, teaching kids of all ages to play the sport he loves, he didn’t realize that he was also becoming be a better lacrosse player.
The results of his coaching came to fruition when he attended the Philadelphia Wings open tryout last week. As he competed against over 85 other players from around the world for a chance to go to the Wings’ training camp, McDonald realized he felt smarter on the field than when he walked off it as a senior at Davenport University in 2020.
“Which is weird because I haven’t been playing as much as I did growing up [because of the pandemic], obviously,” McDonald said.
The coaches took note, too, and extended McDonald the one and only invitation to compete at their training camp, starting Oct. 29.
“Blake McDonald stood out to us over the weekend with his level of skill and exceptional lacrosse IQ,” coach Paul Day said in a release. “He played strong, physical, and fast and we believe he has the ability to adapt to a professional game and develop as a talented defender.”
The Wings have spent years building a team that can realistically compete for a National Lacrosse League (NLL) championship, Day said. They feel like they’re there, but Day said they were looking for young defenders like McDonald to develop.
With so many elite players on the Wings roster, there weren’t many opportunities for the players who tried out to make the team. McDonald knew that, so he tried to do all the “small things” right. Especially since if he happened to earn an invitation, he knew that would be the only way he could keep up with Wings stars like Blaze Riorden and Ben McIntosh.
Day knew there wouldn’t be many opportunities for players, but he still felt it was important to invite them out. He found himself a “diamond in the rough” by doing so.
The Wings held an open tryout before, three years ago when they were an expansion team. This year, they decided to hold one again because of the pandemic. They were the only team in the NLL to do so.
Since COVID-19 shut down the NLL, the Wings have not had the chance to see two rounds of draft picks play. The Premier Lacrosse League returned, but Riorden, who plays in both leagues, said it was harder for the NLL to return because it’s indoors and teams constantly cross the Canadian border. Players like McDonald also didn’t get the same level of exposure or opportunities to try out, so Day knew there could be untapped potential out there.
Watching other leagues return helped Day prepare for the upcoming season. He saw how players can go down at any point if they receive a positive COVID-19 test. In addition to letting him see his draft picks, it also allowed him to check out players he could call upon if needed. At the end of camp, Day encouraged all the attendees to continue playing in other leagues, coaching and even reffing because they never know when an opportunity could arise.
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The tryout consisted of two days of practice followed by a game on the third day. Day decided to have Riorden and 2019 draft pick Kyle Marr coach the teams.
“Coach Day kind of surprised me and Blaze with that one,” said Marr, who briefly played with the practice squad before the league’s shutdown.
All three “coaches” came away with the same takeaway — judging by the level of competition at the tryout, their sport is growing exponentially.
“I’d say the talent here at this open camp was tenfold compared to what it was three years ago because the game is growing, and we’re going to be the benefactors of that,” Day said.