Steamboat Springs man to coach Croatian national men’s lacrosse team

Leah Vann
Steamboat Today
Steamboat Springs resident Mike Knezevich is coaching the Croatia men's team at the World Lacrosse Championships in Netanya, Israel.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Today

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The 6-foot-6 freshman Mike Knezevich hadn’t figured out his dreams yet when he tried to walk on to the Colorado State University basketball team in 1977.

Then an assistant coach pulled him aside for some tough love.

“Mike, you’re probably not going to make the team, and if you did, you won’t be playing,” the coach said. “But have you thought about lacrosse?”

To Knezevich, lacrosse was a game played in his college dorm hallways, but next Wednesday, it’ll be a game he travels across the world for as assistant coach of Croatia’s national men’s team in the 2018 Federation of International Lacrosse World Championships.

“I’ve been involved in lacrosse for a long time in the state,” said Knezevich, a Steamboat Springs resident. “So being of Croatian descent, I found the contract information from the FIL about three years ago and asked to see if there’s anything I can do to help them out.”

Knezevich played lacrosse all four years at Colorado State, dabbling in clubs before finding his way into coaching.

Coaching was a way for Knezevich to share a sport that anyone could excel at in the state of Colorado, whether it as head coach at the University of Colorado or implementing the first inner-city program at Hinkley High School.

“They have a phrase ‘grow the game,’” Knezevich said. “That’s why I started a couple teams. This was kind of the next challenge, and I could go after it and grow the game. If I’m growing it across the world, not just in U.S., who better than my Croatian area?”

His pitch comes from his experience at Colorado State. Lacrosse is open to any type of athlete willing to work hard.

“Football you have to be big and strong and fast,” Knezevich said. “Basketball you have to be tall. Kids gravitate toward lacrosse, because you don’t have to be the fastest or the biggest kid or the most athletic kid. If you work on your stick, you can be good at lacrosse.”

It’s that kind of mindset that helped him and Bob Heister build the lacrosse program at Steamboat Springs High School in 2011.

“You’re subbing a lot, so it’s not like you’re waiting for kids to get up to bat,” former Steamboat head coach Heister said. “I think it’s a real honor for Mike to be recognized, and I’m excited for him.”

While Knezevich helped with fundraising and the recruiting process in the U.S., he reached out to Croatian men’s head coach Dino Mattessich in January looking for more hands-on involvement.

His emphasis on strategy and stick work is what led Mattessich to hire Knezevich as assistant coach this February. Lacrosse is only seven years old in Croatia, so the team will likely need to be brought up to speed on its technical aspects.

“We have not coached on the field together and based on the communication that we had, and we talked about lacrosse philosophy,” Mattessich said. “They’re mostly Xs and Os — lacrosse strategy. He has good experience with regard to that. So, he’s going to coach primarily the defense … he has hit the ground running.”

While in the U.S., Knezevich has scouted Croatia’s first opponents: Spain and New Zealand. He also recruited the four American-born players allowed on the roster, whom must also prove they also have Croatian lineage.

Mattessich, like Knezevich, is American, but moved to the U.S. from Croatia when he was 6 years old, spending time as a player, coach and athletic director at multiple universities. Knezevich’s lineage traces back to his grandfather.

Now, both will board a flight next week for training camp in Croatia before competing in Netanya, Israel, at the world championships.

No matter what the outcome, Knezevich hopes his coaching will help grow the game he fell in love with.

“We will really push the stick, absolutely.” Knezevich said.

Lacrosse is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world. The FIL Lacrosse Championship has expanded its competition from 38 countries in 2014 to 48 countries in 2018. Knezevich is now a part of that.