Written by Jason Hannigan, HEADstrong Foundation intern
Mike Bender, the Director for the HEADstrong Lacrosse Club of the Lehigh Valley, is, in his words, pretty athletic, but nothing too special. Bender’s journey in the sport, however, tells an entirely different story.
Lacrosse has afforded Bender, a former standout and Adidas All-American player at Emmaus High School, many exciting opportunities in life, taking him from his native Lehigh Valley to a nationally-ranked program at The University of Maryland, where he featured prominently for the 2015 National Runner-Up Terrapins.
Bittersweet was the word Bender used to describe the Terps’ heartbreak in the 2015 National Championship game, at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. Bender, then a senior, and his team fell to The University of Denver, 10-5.
Nevertheless, the end of what Bender called the “culmination of his collegiate career” was just the beginning of his coaching and directing duties.
Bender had already dipped his feet into the coaching waters while playing for the Terps, helping to instruct, coach and string sticks for youth players at camps and clinics with HEADstrong Lacrosse.
Later, it was a former roommate at College Park who presented Bender with the coaching opportunity of a lifetime, one he could not pass up.
Soon after, Bender traveled to Hong Kong, where his ex-roomie had landed a position with the National Team. Bender was shown around the territory and, following a good impression at a mini-camp, offered a position as an Assistant Defensive Coordinator for the Hong Kong Under-19 Youth Team.
Fast forward three years, including a coaching cameo with the U19 team at a World Championship in Vancouver, and Bender has been promoted to assistant coach with the Hong Kong National Team, whom he hopes to help guide on a successful showing in the upcoming 2018 Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) Championship, which will be played in the Mediterranean resort city of Netanya, Israel from July 12-21.
Hong Kong will be competing in the FIL Championship along with 48 other nations, spanning six continents. Hong Kong is an ambitious, but young and realistic program, whom Bender has pegged to finish as high, if not higher, as the top-20.
Bender and Hong Kong are set to take the biggest stage in lacrosse, a moment Bender imagined would come. After all, he has been inspiring his players at HEADstrong to aim this high for years.
“I try to reiterate the same message to my players at HEADstrong and my high school team, especially telling the younger guys,” Bender said. “You don’t need to be the biggest, fastest or strongest. Lacrosse is a sport that you can individually improve to the best of your ability.”
Bender said he is personally looking forward to learning from his experience on the sidelines in Israel, and hopes to bring back an international perspective of the game to his players at HEADstrong Lacrosse.
“One of the greatest perks of working with the [Hong Kong] National Team is helping to grow the game,” Bender said. “You travel all over the world, and the players just love the sport we take for granted and have access to so easily here in the States. I’ll try to bring back the overall passion and respect for the game.”
For Bender, lacrosse is the sport that keeps on giving, with HEADstrong Lacrosse and the Director’s outlook being no different. Bender, like the club he helps manage, continues to give back to and strive to become the best role model for local youth lacrosse players.
“I still have a long way to go in regards to coaching, understanding the ins and outs … but the biggest thing is learning to regurgitate what I have learned in a way that different level of players can understand it,” Bender said. “It’s a challenge, but that’s what drives coaches; that’s what drives me.”