ALBANY — So many key players from last year’s run to the national semifinals are gone.
Since that point, distractions and obstacles have popped up often — too often.
The losses, too, have arrived in greater number than the program has become accustomed to suffering.
And, yet, the scenario for the University at Albany men’s lacrosse team is somehow as clear-cut as this: If the Great Danes win their 7 p.m. Friday game at Stony Brook, they will host next week’s America East Conference tournament at Tom & Mary Casey Stadium and give themselves the chance to win two home games to earn another trip to the NCAA tournament.
“No. Not at all,” UAlbany head coach Scott Marr said earlier this week. “I mean, it’s been our goal from the beginning of the season. Obviously, the non-conference schedule was a tough one and I think we’ve learned quite a few lessons from it, but not surprised at all that we’re doing well in the conference and ready to hopefully take the No. 1 spot and be home next week.”
Down on Long Island, UAlbany (4-1 AE, 5-7 overall) and Stony Brook (4-1, 8-5) meet to determine which team earns the right to host next week’s postseason games. After Stony Brook rallied last weekend to topple Vermont, Friday’s regular-season finale between the Great Danes and Seawolves became a battle for the top seed for the conference’s four-team postseason tournament.
“Oh, yeah. Stony Brook gave us a big gift against Vermont,” UAlbany junior goalie Nate Siekierski said when asked if the Great Danes had been tracking last weekend’s surprising Stony Brook win. “Obviously, we didn’t do too well against Vermont, but we know we can easily take this conference.”
To earn the chance to host the conference tournament for the fifth consecutive season, UAlbany will need to win its 11th consecutive game against Stony Brook. Four of the wins in that streak have come in conference tournament games.
“We know that Stony Brook’s going to come out hot,” Siekierski said. “We’ve been smoking them the past few years, so they’re hot and hungry.”
“We’re not expecting last Friday [against Yale] to be the last game here [at Casey Stadium] for our seniors, so we’re definitely going to come in with a little extra edge,” UAlbany junior midfielder Ron John said. “We definitely love playing here in the playoffs.”
Last week’s 10-5 loss against Yale represented the latest obstacle in what’s been a long chain of them since last season’s program-best run, as the game marked the return to Casey Stadium of TD Ierlan, the star faceoff specialist who transferred after last season from UAlbany to Yale.
Ierlan’s departure was one of several significant personnel losses the Great Danes have had to move forward from this season.
Additionally, Marr’s program dealt with not having sophomore star Tehoka Nanticoke for the fall, then saw Nanticoke — who hasn’t spoken to area reporters since the preseason — miss one game during the season because of an NCAA eligibility issue stemming from a social-media post and miss another for what amounted to a benching; in between those missed games for Nanticoke, Marr verbally tussled with the NCAA over the player’s eligibility issue; and, the young Great Danes had to deal with one of the nation’s toughest non-conference schedules and several key injuries.
Through all that, Marr hasn’t seen his players quit on a season that’s already included the Great Danes losing more games than in any season since their 2012 season in which they went 5-11.
“We’ve really been practicing with a purpose these last three or four weeks,” Marr said. “I honestly think we’ve gotten better these last [several] weeks.”
His team “just could not put the ball in the goal” against Yale last week, but Marr liked the way his team “played really hard and physical.” Instrumental to that was the Great Danes switching away from the system they’ve used for most of this season that favored slowing tempo to play more of a half-field game to a more frenetic style relying on two-way midfielders that’s long been the program’s favored strategy. Part of that switch back to its normal style involved moving Nanticoke back to the starting attack after using him as a midfielder for a large chunk of the season.
“There’s some certain things that we weren’t getting when we were playing the platoon system,” Marr said. “We weren’t getting our ride and we weren’t getting any real transition. I think we were tiring some guys out on defense that didn’t need to be tired out.
“So,” Marr continued, “we added a few more players [into our rotation] and are going back to that two-way system. We have an opportunity now to keep the other team’s offense players on the field to play some defense.”
While UAlbany only scored five goals against nationally ranked Yale, the benefits of the Great Danes’ return to their normal system showed. Despite Ierlan winning 16 of 17 faceoffs, UAlbany outshot Yale 45-44 and forced the Bulldogs into six failed clear attempts.
“If we just continue on that path,” Marr said, “I think we’re going to be fine.”