ALBANY — Cautiously, senior Connor Fields made his way down the purple ramp at the north end of Tom & Mary Casey Stadium minutes before the start of Saturday’s NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament first round game. Trailing behind nearly all of his University at Albany teammates, Fields — described Friday as “doubtful” to play — used a mixture of little skips and stutter-steps to navigate his way down toward the field.
Once he hit the flat ground of the turf?
The star senior, the one whose right knee has become such a large part of the national lacrosse conversation, took off sprinting to catch up to his teammates as their final wave of warmups started.
Minutes later, he opened his team’s 18-9 pounding of Richmond with a goal.
— Michael Kelly (@ByMichaelKelly) May 11, 2018
A few hours later, fresh off scoring seven points and moving into second place on the NCAA career scoring list with 356 career points, Fields was all smiles after leading his Great Danes in securing their spot in next weekend’s quarterfinals with a win achieved seven weeks to the day since he first injured his knee.
In those weeks?
Fields missed three full games, plus large chunks of others.
Saw his Tewaaraton Award chances evaporate, along with his opportunity to become the all-time leading NCAA career scorer.
Had his body shake with emotion and tears flow down his face, during and after games in which his knee didn’t cooperate.
Shared too many consoling hugs with his head coach Scott Marr.
“But my teammates were there for me,” Fields said. “My coaching staff was there for me, especially coach Marr, every step of the way. Can’t thank them enough. Obviously, it’s like a family here. We say that all the time and we really mean it, too.”
He added: “I’d really do anything for these guys.”
Connor Fields on battling back from his knee injury and all of its setbacks, with no guarantee it would work out for him.
— Michael Kelly (@ByMichaelKelly) May 13, 2018
So Fields went onto the field at Casey Stadium for the No. 2 Great Danes and didn’t hold back. At times, his injured right leg — the program has said he has a sprained MCL — dragged, but it never gave out. He dodged and danced with the ball, and did all the things that has made Fields into the nation’s most electrifying player since his former teammate Lyle Thompson.
“When he has the ball in his stick,” Richmond head coach Dan Chemotti said, “I felt everybody in the stadium — even our defense — I just felt like became spectators, just wanting to watch him play.
“You want a kid like that to play.”
SHOW THEM WHY!
— NCAA Lacrosse (@NCAALAX) May 12, 2018
With a strong Fields back in the lineup after not registering a point in the America East tournament, UAlbany was whole again, at least for a night. There is no guarantee the swelling won’t return in Fields’ bad knee or that his latest return won’t end without him again limping off a field.
“For him to put himself on the line like that, I think it shows how much he wants to play and wants to be there for his teammates,” Marr said. “I can’t say enough about him.”
Back at full strength, UAlbany (15-2) rolled past Richmond (11-6) in a game in which the Great Danes scored the first four goals and never led by fewer than two after that point. UAlbany led 9-5 at halftime and 13-8 after three quarters.
“Certainly, an impressive group,” Chemotti said of the Great Danes, who spent more than a month ranked No. 1 this season. “No weaknesses.”
While Fields registered two goals and five assists, freshman Tehoka Nanticoke added four goals and two assists. Senior Troy Reh had a career-high three goals, junior Sean Eccles had three goals, and sophomore Jakob Patterson and senior Justin Reh scored two goals.
Meanwhile, sophomore TD Ierlan won 24 of 29 faceoffs and collected 21 ground balls. With those ground balls, Ierlan set a new NCAA single-season record with 240.
“Holy smokes,” Chemotti said. “He’s awesome.”
— Michael Kelly (@ByMichaelKelly) May 13, 2018
No. 7 Notre Dame and Denver play Sunday in a matchup to determine UAlbany’s opponent for next Saturday’s quarterfinal in Hempstead. With an eye toward that game, Marr removed Fields midway through the fourth quarter to allow him to rest — and to give him a chance to soak in some cheers during his last game at Casey Stadium.
“It was an unbelievable feeling,” Fields said of the reaction to his early exit. “I’ve loved every second of my four years here.”
It’s hard not to believe him, even despite all that he has gone through this season. Marr said the Great Danes were encouraged with how Fields practiced Friday, but weren’t sure until early Saturday if No. 5 would be in uniform.
“He just willed himself to play,” Marr said. “He wanted to play so badly.”
Richmond 2 3 3 1 — 9
UAlbany 5 4 4 5 — 18
Richmond scoring: Lanchbury 2-1, Lee 0-2, Hatfield 2-0, Haehl 0-1, Savoca 2-0, Goldberg 2-1, Shoults 1-0.
UAlbany scoring: J. Reh 2-1, Nanticoke 4-2, Fields 2-5, Patterson 2-0, S. Eccles 3-0, McClancy 1-2, Ierlan 0-1, T. Reh 3-0, Taylor 0-1, A. Burgmaster 1-0.
Goalies: Richmond, Goodman, 12 saves. UAlbany, Colarusso, 9 saves.