Nanticoke ready for championship weekend stage

Freshman helps lead Great Danes into national semis
Tehoka Nanticoke, UAlbany play Yale Saturday.
Tehoka Nanticoke, UAlbany play Yale Saturday.

Categories: College Sports, Sports

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When Tehoka Nanticoke was a young boy, his older brother Chancey Hill showed him a magazine with a lacrosse player on its cover.

“One day, this is going to be you,” Hill told Nanticoke. “Everyone is going to know you because you are going to be a superstar.”

And, well, here we are.

As the University at Albany men’s lacrosse team readies for its program’s first-ever appearance in the national semifinals Saturday against Yale at Gillette Stadium, the Great Danes are not an outfit lacking talented players and charismatic characters.

This team is head coach Scott Marr’s baby, the product of a vision realized nearly two decades after starting work building UAlbany into a powerhouse.

It is senior Connor Fields’ group to lead on the field, his tremendous skill set what this year’s team’s playing style is built around.

And sophomore TD Ierlan, the squad’s faceoff-winning ace, is the Great Danes’ most important player.

But . . . Nanticoke is Nanticoke.

He is a generational talent and force who started his freshman season at UAlbany by gracing the cover of Inside Lacrosse magazine, and hasn’t let up during a rookie campaign in which he has scored 49 goals and registered 32 assists.

Nanticoke entered college lacrosse with unreal expectations.

He has met them.

But that doesn’t impress him.

“This,” Nanticoke said, “is what I’ve been doing my whole life.”

While so many Great Danes were a bit wide-eyed this week as they prepared to head to championship weekend, Nanticoke went about his week of preparation unfazed by any of the hoopla around him.

“This,” Nanticoke said, “is a business trip.”

That is a cliche when others say it, but it comes off as a jarring statement of truth when Nanticoke delivers that line. As a youth player, he won several national championships. At the 2016 U-19 World Field Lacrosse Championships, he dominated as a member of the Iroquois Nationals.

Several current Great Danes were members of that summer’s Iroquois Nationals team, including sophomore Mitch Laffin. That world tournament saw Nanticoke’s true breakout as a lacrosse star — he was named the tournament’s top attackman — but his play leading the Iroquois Nationals to a third-place finish didn’t surprise his teammates.

“Really,” Laffin said, “it just opened everyone else’s eyes to what we already knew.”

UAlbany’s roster is filled with players other top programs didn’t recruit, but Nanticoke is one of the few exceptions. He was the nation’s consensus No. 1 recruit — and he is at UAlbany to win a national championship.

“He just plays with so much confidence, regardless of the level he’s playing at,” said UAlbany legend Lyle Thompson, who has known Nanticoke — a Six Nations resident — since the current Great Danes star was a young teenager. “That doesn’t matter to him. I know there’s no nerves for him. He’s just playing how he’s played his whole life.”

Hill, who is 10 years older than 20-year-old Nanticoke, started teaching his younger brother how to play lacrosse as soon as “he was functioning well enough to hold a stick.” Hill started playing lacrosse later in his own youth years and loved doting on his younger brother.

“I really devoted all of my attention to him,” said Hill, now an iron worker who lives in Queens. “I learned to play so late and I wanted to give him a head start. I took a lot of pride in doing that.”

Hill taught his brother the basics, but also worked with Nanticoke on the underhanded shots and behind-the-back passes that highlight Nanticoke’s offensive arsenal. Throughout this season, Nanticoke has often been puzzled with the fascination of others about his trick shots and passes — and that’s because he doesn’t see them that way.

“The normal traditional shots are only traditional if that’s what you’re first taught,” Hill said. “He’s always practiced all that stuff. Whenever you see him take a [trick] shot, that’s not the first time he’s taken that shot.”

Long before Nanticoke got to UAlbany, he was a YouTube sensation because of the unreal shots and passes he makes with routine ease. As a freshman for the Great Danes, that creativity has often been on display — but so, too, has been the brute strength Nanticoke brings to the field.

He is 6-foot-1 and listed at 235 pounds. He plays even bigger, a characteristic on display throughout UAlbany’s 15-13 win last weekend in the national quarterfinals against Denver.

Twice, Denver players broke sticks attempting to stick-check a charging Nanticoke.

Once, a Denver player lowered his helmet into Nanticoke’s shoulders to try to stop his rush — and that Denver player bounced several feet back once Nanticoke met the contact before firing in one of his three goals on that day.

“He knocked that kid back about three yards, and then buried that shot,” Marr said. “Our bench erupted.”

Freeman Bucktooth, who coached Nanticoke with the Iroquois Nationals in 2016, said he was happy to see Nanticoke end up at UAlbany, where the player’s unique style of play would be cultivated and encouraged. That Nanticoke has become one of the nation’s best players as a college rookie is what Bucktooth expected.

“I think people maybe thought he was coming with too much hype,” Bucktooth said. “But all the hype was there — and he’s been there with it.”

And, now, Nanticoke helps lead UAlbany into its first national semifinal, the rare freshman who has as much — if not more — big-game experience than anyone else on his team’s roster.

“His energy,” Marr said, “just flows through our team.”

“He calms the nerves for everyone,” Fields said.

But . . . Nanticoke is Nanticoke.

He doesn’t feel any nerves as he heads into the biggest weekend college lacrosse has to offer.

His whole life, he has been groomed for this moment.

“I know what I have to do,” Nanticoke said, “and I know what our team is capable of doing.”

Reach Michael Kelly at [email protected] or @ByMichaelKelly on Twitter.

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