ALBANY — Fun’s over for the UAlbany men’s lacrosse team.
The Great Danes grabbed footballs instead of sticks when they took to the practice field last Friday for an hour and a half of spirited two-hand touch, then got the weekend off to play golf — some performing well, others “personally, not that great,” senior attack Ron John said, referring to himself with a laugh.
But fun time is over, and crunch time has started for UAlbany, with three games in eight days to close the regular season, by virtue of the big rematch game at Vermont having been postponed from April 16 to April 28.
At 4-2 in the America East, the Great Danes are in great shape to make a run in the conference tournament, but if they want to improve their seeding and bring momentum into the semifinals, an NJIT (1-6)-Vermont (5-1)-Hartford (2-5) sequence is where it will happen.
Fourth-place UAlbany (6-3 overall) kicks off the final push against NJIT at noon on Saturday at Fallon Field with the intention of not looking past the last-place Highlanders (1-8) to next Wednesday’s game against Vermont.
“We understand the fact that we have to win these next three games, especially to be in a good spot for the America East [tournament],” John said during a teleconference on Wednesday.
“We have a saying on the team that respect is circular: You give it, you get it,” head coach Scott Marr said. “That’s something that we talk about quite a bit. We never overlook a team, because if you don’t come prepared to play, you definitely have an opportunity to lose. You’ve got to respect your opponent, because if you don’t, that’s when you get bit.
“We definitely don’t need to get bit right now.”
Marr and the coaching staff had planned to give the Great Danes last weekend off, anyway, but the load was lightened even more when last Friday’s much-anticipated game against Vermont was postponed because of COVID-19 protocols on the Catamounts’ end.
In mid-March, Vermont beat UAlbany 14-12 in a game that saw the Great Danes play catch-up for most of the contest and get within 12-11 with 8:50 left. UAlbany, though, couldn’t take that next step toward an important victory against one of the top contenders in the conference.
The America East had planned for postponements by reserving Wednesdays in April for make-ups, so the Vermont rematch was pushed ahead to this Wednesday.
“Oh, we were thrilled,” goalie Liam Donnelly said. “We knew we’d see them again in the playoffs — hopefully, at least — but that was a tough loss, a great game, and we were happy to reschedule that one, but we’re definitely not looking past NJIT this weekend. We’ve got to work on that one first.”
UAlbany will be a rested, mostly healed team for NJIT, after last playing on April 11 and spending last Friday playing two-hand touch football and golfing at Frear Park on Saturday before taking Sunday completely off. Marr said last week’s standouts in football, which used teams split up by class, included former Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake quarterback Darien LaPietro; Elijah Gash, son of NFL All-Pro fullback Sam Gash; and, Peter Schwab at quarterback.
“The camaraderie, having some time off the lacrosse field is always good for us,” John said. “And for us to enjoy a different sport is a little bit more special, as well. So it doesn’t matter if we’re good [at golf] or if we’re bad, it’s always a good time to be out there.”
“It [golf] was awesome,” Marr said. “We had a blast. Didn’t play as well as I liked, but Jakob [Patterson] and Graydon [Hogg] were pretty awesome, they were in the 80s. It was a good time to be out there, there wasn’t a lot of people, so we were able to kind of interact between holes, which was cool.
“It’s a dog [dogleg] track, a beautiful course. The fairways were beautiful, but it’s really hilly, and we walked it. Henceforth, the 95 I shot. I was in bed by 10 o’clock. I was exhausted.”
“It [Vermont postponement] was kind of a blessing,” Donnellly said. “Guys were beat up, and you get to hit the reset button, then in practice be really competitive and strong.”
NJIT is coming off a 14-9 loss to Hartford. In its previous game, NJIT gave Stony Brook a hard time, leading 8-6 late in the third quarter before the Seawolves scored six unanswered goals to finish off a 12-8 win.
“They’re actually a pretty solid team,” John said. “They played just recently against Stony Brook and actually gave them a pretty good fight, going into the fourth, even. You can’t look past any team, and to see they gave a fight to Stony Brook means a little bit more to us that we have to pick up our pace, as well.”
“They played real well against Stony Brook,” Marr said. “Pretty athletic team, good-sized kids and certainly moved the ball well against Stony Brook. You’ve got to be ready.”
Marr said faceoff specialist Anthony Altimari, who has missed much of the season due to injury, re-aggravated his knee at practice on Monday, which means freshman Regan Endres (94-for-189, .497) will continue to carry the load there.
NJIT’s primary faceoff man is Isaac Vanzomeren (69-for-141, .489).
“Their faceoff kid’s pretty good,” Marr said. “Regan’s gotten better every game, and we have another freshman, Thomas Rodriguez, who the last two weeks has shown some good signs.”
THE SMALL STUFF
UAlbany’s trademark is quick transition from defense for a fast-paced game and high-scoring offense, but the Great Danes have been performing well in two categories not so much in the spotlight, clearing percentage and ground balls.
Of 65 Division I programs in the country, UAlbany is third in both, .909 in clearing and 37.2 per game in ground balls.
“We do clearing drills every day. One-ball breakouts, where we ride and clear against each other with a 10-man ride,” Marrr said. “If you can’t clear the ball after you get a stop, especially when you’re not winning faceoffs, you’re in trouble.
“Then obviously getting ground ball. Outside of the faceoff itself, when there’s 50-50s in your defensive box or your offensive box, to come up with those is huge. I think we do do a really good job of getting the ball off the ground and starting our transition. They’re all important stats.”
Donnelly frequently is the pivot point in the transition from defense to offense, and he hasn’t shied away from taking a shot at a long one over the midfield line if he sees an opportunity to switch fields in a hurry.
“We take a lot of pride in that [clearing],” he said. “We work on that every single day. Our style of clearing the ball is we want to be up and out right away. We want to be perfect every game. For me, it’s having a lot of trust in our middies, as well as our defensemen. I’ve got a lot of open guys to throw the ball to, but we take a lot of pride in that.
“It’s about finding a separate lane from other guys and trying to stay spread out. But those middies every day after practice will stay back and work on it. We’ve done it every day, so it just comes natural in the games.”