For the second straight year, the United States Box Lacrosse Association saw one of its own selected near the top of the National Lacrosse League Entry Draft. On Sept. 17 at Xfinity Live in Philadelphia, former Cali*Lax standout Ryland Rees was chosen with the second overall pick by the expansion-era Rochester Knighthawks.
“It’s been something that I have been looking forward to since I was 3 years old,” said Rees. “I couldn’t be more excited.”
In 2018, faceoff specialist Trevor Baptiste went 14th overall to the expansion Philadelphia Wings after an impressive collegiate field and box career. Baptiste honed his indoor skills in USBOXLA’s Colorado Collegiate Box Lacrosse League (CCBLL).
Like Baptiste, Rees has become one of the faces of USBOXLA, having played and coached for the country’s largest and most recognized box-specific governing body operating today. But Rees hails from north of the border, and his lacrosse career began in the Port Coquitlam, BC, which resides 16 miles outside of Vancouver.
At a young age, he was mentored by his grandfather, Ronald Hemmerling, who played for one of the most dominant teams of his era, the Vancouver Carlings. In 1964, they won every conceivable trophy available, including their second straight Mann Cup. That team was enshrined in the BC Sports Hall of Fame for Lacrosse in 2005.
“I started box lacrosse when I was 5 and have been playing ever since,” said Rees. “I knew I was playing lacrosse from the minute I was born.”
Rees can thank his Hall of Fame grandfather for his work ethic, as he spent countless hours in the backyard working on his offensive and defensive skills. He completed the tasks with precision as he emulated his idol, professional field and box champion and perennial all-star Brodie Merrill.
It was while honing his box skills in British Columbia that he got the opportunity to play for an upstart team from California. Little did he know then that he would be a part of a revolutionary American box program called Cali*Lax. It’s a program that would help usher in an organization that we now know as the United States Box Lacrosse Association or USBOXLA.
Rees and Ty Goff were recruited to play for the Pee Wee team by Coquitlam, BC, native Ty Yanko and the rest is history.
“He needed two players from the area to go to Calgary and play in a tournament with them,” said Rees. “We went and played in one tournament in Calgary, and then we started playing in all the tournaments in the states. All of a sudden, we were part of the Cali*Lax team.”
Rees spent three seasons with the San Jose-based program, before heading behind the bench to coach the next generation of box lacrosse stars with Cali*Lax and Team USBOXLA.
“Ryland has been an integral part of our national team, Team USBOXLA, on the coaching staff for the last two years,” said Santos. “Ryland understands the current skills of American field players and can easily relate to them. He’s great at defining transitional and back door play. Most of all, Ryland is a great person who truly cares about the game and the players.”
This past August, he flew out to The Rinks in both Huntington Beach and Irvine, Calif. to work at USBOXLA Nationals, which in nine years has grown from 15 to over 100 teams. Prior to his coaching duties game action, he hit the floor with some of the greatest names in the game at the USBOXLA Academy clinic.
At the two-hour event, 160 kids learned from USBOXLA Co-Founder and President Matt Brown, six-time NLL champion Colin Doyle, and longtime University of Denver head coach and lacrosse icon Bill Tierney. Greats like NLL Hall of Fame goaltender Dallas Eliuk, former NLL MVP Athan Iannucci, and past NLL standouts John Gallant and Jamie Shewchuk were present as well. Toronto Rock forward Tom Schreiber was also front and center to instruct the future stars of the sport. Joining the instructors that day was Rees.
“Last year I coached a team down there, and it’s crazy how far those American players have come and how big USBOXLA has become,” said Rees. “It’s surreal to see how it’s come along.”
Ryland was one of the original Cali*Lax ALL-STARS players who started playing in his minor Pee Wee year. That age group stands as the best USA-based youth box lacrosse team ever, going undefeated in their Canadian tours for their entire midget years.
All three players earned college lacrosse offers, with Rees playing at Stony Brook, while Goff went to Pfeiffer University and Yanko to Hobart College. The trio was part of an incredible Class of 2015, which produced 13 collegiate players.
In 2018, Goff became the first of the group to sign with a National Lacrosse League team, as he joined the Vancouver Warriors. On Sept. 17, Rees achieved his lifelong dream by being selected in the 2019 National Lacrosse Entry Draft by the Rochester Knighthawks. It’s amazing what Rees, at just 22 years old, has achieved in his lacrosse career even before playing his first NLL game.
“Ryland inspires our Cali*Lax ALL-STAR players and is an example where our jersey can take them,” said Cali*Lax coach and USBOXLA co-founder Shaydon Santos. “He’s an All-World defender and had an amazing collegiate career at Stony Brook and is now a No. 2 NLL pick overall. He was part of our very first box lacrosse programming in the United States, and the success of that team mobilized a bunch of programming across the country.”
In college, as a long stick midfielder for the Stony Brook Seawolves, Rees was named the 2019 America East Defensive Player of the Year and a First Team All-Conference selection in both 2018 and 2019. Just months before the NLL Draft, he made his professional field lacrosse debut with the Boston Cannons of Major League Lacrosse and was chosen to play in the 2019 MLL All-Star Game.
In the box game, he was a standout Junior “A” defenseman for Port Coquitlam from 2014-18, before being traded to the Coquitlam Adanacs. With his new team, he formed instant chemistry with the hard-working bunch and helped them advance to the Minto Cup. At the top Junior “A” tournament in Canada, Coquitlam knocked off the Brampton Excelsiors to win one of the most coveted trophies in lacrosse.
Internationally, Rees also achieved success as he twice represented Team Canada, most recently winning a silver medal at the 2018 World Field Lacrosse Championship. He also won silver with Team Canada at the 2016 U19 World Field Lacrosse Championship.
It was in Israel that Rees improved his draft stock by earning All-World Defenseman honors. It’s where future Knighthawks General Manager Dan Carey, who was on Team Canada’s staff, first met the kid from out west with limitless potential.
“I had the pleasure to work with him with Team Canada and see him up close and personal in Israel last year,” said Carey. “He’s a professional and a character kid. Ryland is a very talented player and a great athlete. He is going to be a world-class defender/transition player in this league (NLL). We are excited to have him. He is a welcome addition to the Rochester Knighthawks.”
Rees was the crown jewel in a Knighthawks’ draft that included 10 players. It was a fantastic build-up to one of lacrosse’s biggest nights. Many experts had Rees going in the Top 2, and they were right. Rees tried to remain grounded as he handled the pre-draft interviews and heard about the draft projections.
“It was pretty crazy to think,” he said. “I grew up not always being the best player. That kind of groomed me to be the kind of player I am today. I am always one of the hardest working guys on the team.”
“Seeing those mock drafts, I didn’t look too much into it. I just saw it and didn’t read into what everyone was saying,” he added. “I was more focused on what the coaches were telling me and saying to me. I listened to people who have always believed in me. I paid attention to teams who wanted me as part of their organization. Being able to go No. 2 was awesome, and Rochester was a spot where I wanted to end up.”
Rees thanked his grandfather for guiding him to the threshold of professional box lacrosse. It’s Ronald Hemmerling who always told his grandson that “there is always someone better than you.”
“Growing up, he would come over and tell me that and bring me out back,” he said. “I would have to hit targets on the net or crosscheck a punching bag. Every day he was over and outside with me for hours telling me different quotes. But that’s the one that stuck out with me.”
Playing and training with that blue-collar mindset has motivated the next defensive star to never take things for granted. Ryland knows the real work lies ahead as he transitions to the NLL, and he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“The draft is just to figure out where you are going to put in the work,” he said. “I have been doing my training, and I will keep going at it to get ready for fitness testing and training camp. I am trying to go to Rochester in the best shape possible. I want to make an immediate impact, hopefully, and help the team for their new season.”