Vacationing in Italy with his family last December, Lincoln-Sudbury boys’ lacrosse coach Brian Vona met with Giacomo Bonizzoni, the team manager for the Italian national men’s lacrosse team, for lunch in Rome on Christmas Eve.
“Benvenuto a casa ,” Bonizzoni said in Italian to Vona, who has family in the Calabria region of Southern Italy. Then, over a drink, Bonizzoni offered Vona, who speaks some Italian, the opportunity to become head coach of Team Italy.
“[Unlike] all the other coaches I talked to, [Vona] wasn’t interested in money or endorsements,” said Bonizzoni. “On the contrary, he said he was interested in the development of the sport. I think he can be the man that makes lacrosse grow in Italy.”
Vona was an All-American goalie at Newton North for legendary coach Bussy Adam, who stepped down in December after nearly four decades on the job. After graduating from high school in 1986, Vona went on to play collegiately at New Hampshire then professionally for the Boston Cannons. Now 49, and a managing partner at Ken Vona Construction, Vona in January accepted an unpaid position as Team Italy’s head coach.
Those who get involved with lacrosse on an international scale are rarely in it for the money. All of the Italian players, coaches, and members of the board of directors are unpaid and players even have to contribute funds toward the team budget for international competitions.
The officials and coaches working across the globe to get this niche sport off the ground, and onto the radar of the International Olympic Committee, do it — in the words of Bonizzoni’s personal motto — “Per amore del gioco.” For the love of the game.
Since he took over as head coach at Lincoln-Sudbury in 2000, Vona has poured countless of hours into the game he loves. By helping to construct a comprehensive youth program, Vona turned L-S into a perennial powerhouse that won three straight state Division 1 titles from 2015-2017.
On Friday night, L-S will face St. John’s Prep in the D1 North final, with a chance to advance to the state championship for the fifth time in seven seasons.
Shortly after the season, Vona will fly (on his own dime) to Portugal, where he will coach the Italian Developmental Team in the Lisbon Cup. He will organize tryouts this August in Long Island, N.Y., and consider a handful of Italian-Americans to join Team Italy ahead of the 2020 European Championships in Wroclaw, Poland.
The Federation of International Lacrosse allows national teams to roster four players without passports, who have lineage to their host country dating back two generations or fewer.
There are plenty of talented Italian-Americans currently playing collegiate and professional lacrosse in the US, but importing talent is not Vona’s primary goal. Currently, there are no professional lacrosse leagues in Italy and no youth leagues for children under 15, making it difficult to construct an experienced roster.
“The point isn’t just the games,” said Vona. “The point is to develop lacrosse in Italy, to start a youth program, and get lacrosse into the schools. I’m still a newbie with all of this, and it’s exciting. It’s a huge undertaking, but it’s cool to see the sport grow and to see a lot of people in it for the right reasons at the international level.”
In June 2017, Vona’s Warriors edged Steve Lydon’s BC High Eagles, 8-7, for the Division 1 state championship. The following year, Lydon led BC High to its first state title before moving to England with his girlfriend.
Around the same time Vona was considering Team Italy’s offer in December, Lydon, the former Providence College star, was hired as Team England’s senior men’s head coach on a four-year cycle, culminating with the 2022 World Championships in Coquitlam, British Columbia.
For countries such as Italy that are working to develop domestic lacrosse, England’s program serves as a benchmark.
Team England has won 9 of the last 10 European Championships and is one of the competitive programs outside of North America, in part because of the presence of a domestic league and youth development program.
Lydon is hard at work selecting his staff, scheduling exhibitions, and running tryouts to determine his roster for Euros next summer. While England might be further along than other countries, running a national program is far from easy.
“There’s a big organizational component to it that you took for granted as a high school coach,” said Lydon. “A lot of these players are coming from different backgrounds. These guys are working 9-to-5 jobs, some have families, some are students. We’re trying to pull everyone together. But once you get on the field, coaching lacrosse is coaching lacrosse.”
Funding is limited for now, but that could change with the IOC strongly considering lacrosse for the 2028 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles now that there are over 50 countries with official programs.
Last summer, 46 countries met in Israel for the largest World Championships to date. It was also the first time the event, which originated in 1974, was not held in the US, Canada, England, or Australia.
Amongst the surprising new programs were Team Latvia, coached by Boston University assistant Max Silberlicht, and Team Phillipines, coached by Lincoln-Sudbury assistant Justin Rodis.
Silberlicht’s younger brother, Yakov, the captain of Team Israel, gave the opening address before eventually leading the host nation to the tournament quarterfinals.
After coaching with Team Latvia for eight years, Silberlicht recently accepted a position as head coach of Team Israel, replacing Boston resident Bill Beroza, who was a former captain and assistant coach for Team USA. Silberlicht won’t emigrate, but will work closely with his brother, who is an Israeli citizen, to facilitate the growth of the program.
“Every team has their own unique challenges,” said Silberlicht, who helped connect Vona with Team Italy.
“No matter what, I think you need a strong in-country presence. I found we made the biggest strides when I had a leadership core in [Latvia] that was driving the process. That’s how you find sustainability.”
While many of these programs are moving toward creating a more sustainable domestic program, incorporating talented Americans can go a long way toward gaining positive exposure.
Karsten Nyarady, a sophomore at Tabor Academy, was the youngest of over 1,500 players competing at Worlds when he started for Team Hungary last summer. Nyarady’s grandfather fought in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, so he relished the opportunity to represent his heritage.
“That was probably the greatest experience I’ve had in my life,” said Nyarady “For me and my teammates to represent Hungary for the first time and set the stage for younger players that are growing up with the game, is amazing.”
Harvard freshman Oliver Hollo (Team Hungary) and Canton’s Andrew Song (Team China) were amongst the many college athletes that also competed on that stage.
For programs such as Team Phillipines, which is truly in its infancy, incorporating those experienced young players has been invaluable.
Rodis, a native of the Phillipines and 2005 L-S graduate, actually founded the national team while playing in a men’s league in Texas with several other Filipino-Americans.
With a roster full of Filipino-Americans that had acquired passports, Team Phillipines was able to turn a few heads in 2018 by edging Italy, 12-11, in overtime before falling, 11-8, to Israel.
“Our biggest challenge is awareness,” said Rodis. “With our success at Worlds, we made some noise and carried that home. We need to keep the spark and interest up with guys around the world.”
There is no singular way to build a national lacrosse program. Another 2010 L-S grad, Brendan Mullin, is currently living in China, and has been hired to oversee the development of youth lacrosse in China while serving as the national team’s head coach.
Former Billerica star Ryan Danehy, the current offensive coordinator for Bucknell’s football team, recently accepted a gig as head coach of Team Turkey and president of the nonprofit Turkey Lacrosse Association.
All of these programs aim to increase their level of competition ahead of key international events, but for the coaches that are willing to volunteer their time and money, it’s truly about the love of the game.
“Honestly, I’m getting older, and it’s a good natural next step for me,” said Vona. “I’m really excited to do it . . . to have a chance to build something again.”