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3d Lacrosse: Thinking Inside the Box

May 20, 2014, 3:55 PM UTC
Fortune

FORTUNE—This weekend the University of Denver will be battling in the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Tournament. Back when Jamie Munro took over the men’s lacrosse team there in 1998, he didn’t have much to work with. The wan program (Division II, until Munro arrived) resembled more of a club team than a college one. It barely had any money, and even less competitive edge, it appeared.

What the former Yale assistant coach did have, though, was an utter belief in Canadians, and their style of indoor play called box lacrosse: “The rules of that game and the environment of that game create a completely different player,” says Munro, who first learned of it as a 25-year-old indoor pro for the Boston Blazers in the 1990s (when the team belonged the Major Indoor Lacrosse League).

Munro’s box-infused strategy — both in how he coached, and in who he recruited (a lot of Canadians) — helped him transform the Pioneers into a perennial Top 20 team in Division I, with two Top 12 finishes to its credit. By the time Munro retired from college coaching in 2009, he had also helped raise $10 million for scholarships, facilities, and other costs.

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Yet even those victories are starting to look like a warm-up compared to Munro’s next act as CEO of 3d Lacrosse, a $7 million-a-year training business aimed squarely at one of the fastest-growing youth sports in the U.S. Founded in 2009, 3d’s mix of club teams, workshops, events and other services draw some 25,000 girls and boys per year. Among the current class of high school sophomores, four of the top 25 male lacrosse athletes play on 3d teams.

“We’re trying to scale a player development model across the country,” Munro says, “and it is changing the way people look at the game.”

Indeed, Denver-based 3d doesn’t just aspire for regional traction, but rather national dominance. Munro and president and chief operating officer Greg Waldbaum have established operations in nine hubs in six states, including Massachusetts, California, and Oregon.

“The power center has, I think, been broken up and you don’t have to be based in the East to be part of the game,” says Waldbaum, who is planning to expand 3d into Texas and the Midwest next.

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The customers who sign up with 3d — whether a client like Connecticut’s Greenwich Youth Lacrosse, purchasing training workshops for its own coaches, or families in search of a club teams for the kids — are buying an education in Munro’s methodology, branded the “box/field hybrid development system.” Think of it as the turbo-charge of indoor Canadian play turned out into the sport’s great outdoor expanse. Players practice in much tighter confines, and with smaller goal nets, than they normally would.

The foreign set-up forces players to sharpen their offensive skills (more pick-and-rolls, less simply outrunning your opponent) and to take smarter shots on the goal. Box “teaches a level of IQ that field lacrosse players just don’t get,” Munro says.

Waldbaum witnessed the difference up close, back in 2009. A self-described serial entrepreneur, Waldbaum had started a successful chain of animal hospitals in Colorado, which he sold to Nasdaq-traded Veterinary Centers of America in 2010. But when it came to coaching his then-fifth grader’s lacrosse team, he’d hit a wall. “I was running into my maximum skillset of coaching lacrosse,” he recalls.

On a lark, Waldbaum called up Munro to see if he could work with the kids, now that he’d hung up his Division-1 hat. The training went so well that six months later the pair put their heads together about how they might expand Munro’s services. Waldbaum was also impressed by another Munro creation: During his college coaching tenure, he, along with his wife Sara (now 3d’s director of events) launched an annual tournament and recruiting event called the Denver Shootout.

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Last June, the event brought 4,000 players to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. This past March, another popular 3d event— spring break training — drew 1,500 kids down to Florida. And come summer, the company will field 90 club teams across the country.

Waldbaum says that, fundamentally, what the company offers is a platform “for kids to get better.” Equally important, though, is the goal of creating a customer-oriented experience for parents and young players. “There are very few providers of really organized programming,” he says. 3d is building its reputation as much on rigorous training, as attention to details like good-looking uniforms and smooth travel logistics.

Talent-wise, college recruiters obviously like what they see. A joint venture called 3d Blue Chip hosts 2,100 of the top 8th, 9th, and 10th graders (and some juniors) to train and try-out for scouts each winter. According to data compiled by Inside Lacrosse, of the 44 high school freshman boys already committed to college, 50 percent have participated in 3d Blue Chip.

As the company continues to expand its talent pool, Munro believes 3d can become an increasingly valuable asset to college coaches. “Our goals are to be one of the most credible ratings and rankings organizations that there is,” he says.