ALBANY — They’re friends now. Brag about their Snapchat streak that’s lasted more than a year. Can’t wait to formally start teaming up 2 p.m. Saturday at Syracuse, when a season starts for the University at Albany men’s lacrosse team that’s supposed to conclude with the program’s first-ever trip to championship weekend in late May.
That’s the expectation for the Great Danes with senior Connor Fields and freshman Tehoka Nanticoke leading their attack.
Fields, 22, is the proven commodity, a favorite to win the Tewaaraton Award in a year where he could pass Lyle Thompson for the nation’s all-time scoring mark.
Nanticoke, 20, is regarded as the nation’s top freshman, a constant highlight waiting to happen. He’s either the next Lyle Thompson or the next Miles Thompson depending on who you ask — or perhaps a hybrid of both brothers who starred for UAlbany.
Off the field, UAlbany head coach Scott Marr likes to point to the connection Fields and Nanticoke have made. The way they’re always together and so similarly-minded when it comes to lacrosse reminds Marr of the Thompsons.
“They do a lot together,” Marr said. “On their own, they’re always talking lacrosse — you go here, I’ll go there — and their chemistry off the field is really good. . . . They’ve built that relationship up during the year going into the school year.”
Before that? Well, that was a little different.
Fields grew up in East Amherst, while Nanticoke is from Six Nations — close enough they ended up playing together a few times in youth tournaments. A couple times, they squared off.
Connor Fields needs 122 points as a senior to match Lyle Thompson's @NCAALAX career scoring record.— Michael Kelly (@ByMichaelKelly) February 16, 2018
Fields had 117 last year.
UAlbany opens Saturday at Syracuse.
Really, though, they only remember the time they played against each other in a tournament at Erie Community College’s campus in Williamsville.
“It got heated,” said Fields, turning to Nanticoke.
“Oh, yeah,” Nanticoke said, “it ended in a brawl.”
. . . What was that?
“I remember going after you,” Nanticoke clarified to Fields.
What Fields and Nanticoke aren’t totally sure about, though, is who ripped off Fields’ helmet to close the skirmish. Nanticoke claims it was him, but another teammate — Chaunce Hill, who is now a junior defenseman for UAlbany — is certain he was the one who actually removed Fields’ helmet.
“That was me,” said Hill, a smile playing on his face. “I remember throwing the helmet afterwards.”
That’s probably accurate. Fields, at least, can’t say for certain who got his helmet.
“I was on the ground,” Fields said. “I couldn’t see.”
“And,” Nanticoke said, “you got out of that scrum [quick] and you were running away.”
No denial comes from Fields about that.
Recently spoke with someone who has been watching Tehoka Nanticoke play lacrosse for close to 10 years. Described his game this way: “He doesn’t do everything great — but what he does well, he’s the best at.”— Michael Kelly (@ByMichaelKelly) February 16, 2018
That game had been a chippy one with a lot of chirping back and forth between the two teams. It was a fall tournament several years ago, and Fields was playing on a team made up of players from his Bishop Timon–St. Jude High School in South Buffalo, while Nanticoke was leading Iroquois Western Door. There was no pre-existing animosity between the two players or teams, but it developed quickly that day. Largely, it centered around Fields and Nanticoke, the two most talented players on the field in a competitive game at the end of a long day of lacrosse.
“There was a rivalry there,” said Mike Burke, who coached Fields at Bishop Timon–St. Jude. “And it was just scrappy that day. Sometimes, that happens in lacrosse, especially with kids that are tough.
“Eventually,” Burke said, “when nobody backs down, you get a fight.”
That’s how Fields and Nanticoke remember it, too.
“The fight came about because we’re both super competitive. No matter what kind of game it was, we both wanted to win,” Fields said. “So it was getting chippier and chippier, and there was trash talk going.”
“That’s just what happens when you’re in a close game,” Nanticoke said.
Fields remembers when the game’s intensity reached a point of no return. Fields was already committed to UAlbany at this point, a program Nanticoke followed closely because of the Thompsons.
So, during a down moment in the game when the two boys got close enough, Nanticoke offered Fields an assessment of how he’d fare in college.
“You’re going to go to Albany and not do anything,” Nanticoke told Fields.
When that comes up now, Nanticoke looks slightly embarrassed. His mouth hangs open for a second, his facial expression seeming to betray he remembered that moment, but perhaps hoped Fields did not.
Then, both laugh.
Nanticoke admits he’s never apologized for that line and Fields hasn’t sought one. Their relationship started anew when Nanticoke took his official visit to UAlbany in 2016 as Fields was starting his junior year.
“I didn’t like Connor coming here on my official,” Nanticoke said. “I remember that.”
But they got along during that trip and kept talking . . . and texting . . . and Snapchatting. They watched highlights of each other. While Nanticoke finished up at Florida’s IMG Academy, the two future teammates formed the basis for a close friendship that makes sense to those who know them.
“Those kids live lacrosse,” Burke said. “They have so much in common, so that’s why they end up liking each other. They’re the exact same person, probably.”
That’s how Emmett Printup sees it, too. Printup, 55, played at Syracuse and lives on the Tuscarora Reservation in Niagara County. When Fields and Nanticoke were youth players, Printup was the one largely responsible for setting up the games the two boys played in together on the reservation.
Physically, Fields and Nanticoke were — and are — so different. Now, at 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, Nanticoke is two inches taller and 75 pounds heavier than Fields. The two Great Danes have figured out that Nanticoke was Fields’ current size when Nanticoke was 13 years old.
Mentally, though, Printup saw Fields and Nanticoke as identical.
“Those boys are students of the game,” Printup said. “They just absorb, and that’s how you get better.”
Together, Fields and Nanticoke recognize they have a chance to do something special this season. Opposing defenses can’t focus so much on just one of them, and the two Great Danes are more excited about that than concerned about individual statistics.
“It doesn’t matter who passes it or scores it for us,” Fields said. “We just need it in the net.”
Along the way, though, they’re likely to team up for some cool stuff. At some point this season, there’s going to be a behind-the-back pass from Fields that leads to a between-the-legs shot from Nanticoke — or some version of that combination. That seems inevitable with two players so skilled and willing to take chances on the field.
As friends, Fields and Nanticoke have come far enough that the latter joked he tried to convince the former to sit out last season as a redshirt so the two players could have two years running together at UAlbany. That, obviously, didn’t happen — but Fields and Nanticoke have all of the 2018 season to become one of college lacrosse’s best duos.
They don’t plan to waste any time.
“We got one year,” Nanticoke said. “We’ll see what we can do.”