ALBANY — If they play UAlbany lacrosse, they can win.
That was the point head coach Scott Marr and UAlbany men’s lacrosse players hammered home Sunday night after it was announced reigning national champion North Carolina was the eighth-seeded Great Danes’ opponent in the NCAA tournament first round next Saturday.
“We know if we play our style,” UAlbany junior star Connor Fields said, “we can play with anyone in the country.”
That’s the point Marr makes repeatedly: “It’s about us.”
That’s a line of thinking nearly all teams echo, especially during the postseason — but when UAlbany men’s lacrosse program members say it, it means something different than just a team needing to play its “A” game.
The Great Danes mean they need to bring their unique style of play — their culture — to the field Saturday night at Tom & Mary Casey Stadium, a freewheeling type of lacrosse that is an extension of the team’s easygoing ways off it.
“Scott’s built a very strong brand of lacrosse: It’s UAlbany lacrosse,” said Mark Benson, UAlbany’s athletic director. “It’s got a personality and a brand across the country. When people think of UAlbany lacrosse, the success is obviously part of it, but it’s also a style of play — a fun style of play.”
Marr’s organically crafted that brand for nearly two decades, ever since taking control of UAlbany’s program prior to the 2001 season. It’s an uptempo system that stresses fun, one that relies on its players to give everything they have on the field and its coaches to live with the mistakes that come with the team’s frenzied pace and behind-the-back passes. Go to a Great Danes practice, and there is no yelling. Just laughing.
“We try to be good people here,” UAlbany senior midfielder Bennett Drake said.
“That’s the bigger thing for us,” Marr said. “It’s about integrating [our players] into our system and them knowing how it works at UAlbany.”
The reward for buying in like that? A program that’s become a national-level one out of the America East and leads the nation in scoring this season. Fan support is growing, too. Less than 24 hours after UAlbany learned it was hosting an NCAA tournament game this year, the school had sold more than 4,000 tickets — out of a possible 6,500 — for Saturday’s game against North Carolina.
“[Marr] has created this great energy around the program that’s contagious,” Benson said. “It has its own unique brand and it has a national-level identity.”
Besides Marr, ample credit for that belongs to Lyle Thompson, UAlbany’s two-time Tewaaraton Award winner who starred for the Great Danes alongside his brother Miles. The brothers from Onondaga Nation shared the trophy in 2014 before Lyle Thompson won it solo in 2015 to cap a college lacrosse career many consider to be the greatest ever.
The Thompson brothers arrived at UAlbany at a point when the program was in the midst of a slide. After earning its first-ever home NCAA tournament game in 2007, UAlbany didn’t post another winning season until 2013, when Lyle Thompson was a sophomore and Miles Thompson was a junior.
“That was the whole purpose of picking Albany for Miles and me,” Lyle Thompson said last week. “We wanted to go to a school where we could play together and help change a program — and we didn’t want that [growth] to stop when we weren’t there.”
It hasn’t — and it doesn’t appear that it will. The Thompsons’ success as Great Danes has made UAlbany a destination program for top Native American talent — this year’s team includes eight Native Americans — as well as elite players from across the country. This season’s UAlbany team is talented, but won’t be viewed as a lucky outlier as the program moves forward.
“We have a really solid couple classes in a row coming in here the next couple years,” Marr said. “We feel like we can continue the success we’ve been having.”
Highlighting those incoming classes is Tehoka Nanticoke, an attackman playing this season at IMG Academy in Florida who dazzled last summer at the U19 World Lacrosse Championships as a member of the Iroquois Nationals. Nanticoke was named the top attackman at that tournament.
Nanticoke grew up on the Six Nations reservation in Canada, where Lyle Thompson — to whom Nanticoke’s highlight reel draws comparisons — now lives. Lyle Thompson said he’s shot around with Nanticoke and seen him play enough to draw his own conclusions about the future Great Danes player.
“He’s the real deal,” Lyle Thompson said.
So is UAlbany, a team which was ranked fourth in both national polls released Monday — and could easily be viewed as a preseason favorite to win next year’s national championship. From this year’s squad, 72.7 percent of the team’s goal-scoring can return for next season, while each of the squad’s defensemen have eligibility left. Fields, one of the favorites to win this year’s Tewaaraton, will also be back.
But next season is next season.
This season still has more UAlbany lacrosse left in it — and the program’s greatest player thinks there’s more than one game left to play for the Great Danes.
“This year’s Albany team is the best Albany team we’ve had,” Lyle Thompson said. “It’s better than any of my teams, in my eyes.
“I think,” he finished, “this is our year.”