Defense already hitting stride for UAlbany men’s lacrosse

ERICA MILLER/THE DAILY GAZETTE UAlbany's Steven Kunz, right, defends Matt Eccles during practice on Wednesday.

UAlbany's Steven Kunz, right, defends Matt Eccles during practice on Wednesday.

ALBANY — The UAlbany men’s lacrosse team gets a turbo boost on offense this weekend.

The defense, meanwhile, has already hit its stride, based on how the back line performed in a 15-9 victory over Colgate at Fallon Field last Saturday.

The Great Danes returned 11 players to the lineup this week after they had missed the season opener because of COVID-19 protocols, among them Tehoka Nanticoke and Graydon Hogg.

So when UAlbany plays Hartford Saturday on the road at noon, the Hawks face a daunting challenge stopping a starting attack that includes Nanticoke, Jakob Patterson and freshman Camden Hay.

They’ll face a tall task at the other end of the field, too, as the usually offense-happy Great Danes showed themselves to be multi-dimensional, at least for one game.

“I thought the defense played very aggressive, which is kind of a new style for us,” post-graduate defender Steven Kunz said. “We’ve always been intense, but I feel like this year we’ve come into our own with competitiveness in practice and the game. We had a great addition with Elijah Gash, who’s very athletic and a pretty tall guy, very lengthy. He was able to push those guys around pretty good.

“Michael Kozar is back again, so we’re confident with him behind us, and me being a fifth-year, I try to just bring that experience and a little bit of morale every time, keep those guys going in the right direction.”

“We have some real big, strong defensemen,” head coach Scott Marr said.

The 6-foot-4, 200-pound Gash played NAIA lacrosse at St. Ambrose University before transferring to UAlbany.

The Great Danes defense regains Wil Pepe, who was on the protocol list, and Marr and the coaching staff face some decisions on who to bring to Hartford, since teams are limited to a total of 40 people in the travel group, including players, coaches and managers, as a health and safety measure.

Competition for playing time during the practice week has been fierce, said Marr, who would typically bring the whole roster on the road.

“There’s no fans in the stands, so by leaving 18 guys home, that’s 18 fans we had, in a sense, so we’re really going to have to be a pretty tight-knit unit on Saturday,” he said.

The defense appears to have meshed early.

After the Colgate win, goalie Liam Donnelly complimented that unit for limiting the Raiders to outside shots that he could see, for the most part. Several of the 10 shots he turned away were kick saves.

“We like to play a style of defense we call inside-out,” Kunz said. “So we like to protect the inside. We call it the paint, anywhere from 10, 12 yards, we like to protect that and then let the shots come from 13-plus. We’re confident in Liam on those outside shots to make those saves, and obviously he showcased that.”

“I think we played pretty solid,” junior defenseman Tanner Hay said. “We gave up a couple goals that I think we shouldn’t have given up. I tipped in a goal, we had Elijah get hurt on one where they had a guy just standing there. So I think we gave up a couple that won’t always go in.

“There’s a lot of firepower coming back, both offensively and defensively. At practice, yeah, people are flying around, it’s competitive. It’s going well.”

While the Great Danes have a game under their belts, Hartford will be playing for the first time.

This will be the America East opener for both teams, and under the compressed schedule, the two teams will play each other again on May 1 in Albany.

“I’ve got to expect the same thing we experienced, that first time stepping on the field in a long time,” Marr said. “They’re playing at home, I think their emotions are going to be sky-high. Just like we did, you have to kind of temper your emotions to play, but I think they’re going to be fired up to play.”

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