ALBANY — Do faceoff specialists Anthony Altimari and Austin Jones feel any pressure ahead of Saturday’s season opener at Syracuse for the University at Albany men’s lacrosse team?
“None,” Jones said. “Not at all.”
But those two sophomores will be closely watched Saturday, and throughout the Great Danes’ entire 2019 season, as they attempt to fill the void left from TD Ierlan’s offseason departure.
“We had the best in the game. There’s no way around that,” Jones said. “You can’t expect someone to go 80 percent like he did, but I can tell you we’re not going to be bad. We’re going to be up there. We’re going to be two very good faceoff guys. We have different styles, and we’re going to throw that at people throughout games.”
In his two seasons at UAlbany, Ierlan — now at Yale, the program that knocked the Great Danes out in last year’s national semifinals — performed at record-setting levels and provided head coach Scott Marr’s high-powered offense with possession after possession.
In all, Ierlan won 682 of 910 faceoffs in two seasons at UAlbany and secured a program-record 456 ground balls. Last year, Ierlan won America East Defensive Player of the Year on his way to setting single-season NCAA records for faceoff winning percentage (79.1), ground balls per game (13.4), total faceoffs won (359) and total ground balls (254).
Nobody expects Altimari and Jones to replace all of Ierlan’s production. UAlbany’s faceoff unit will rely more on a team effort this season, but Marr said he is confident in his tag-team of faceoff specialists.
“If they can keep it a 50/50 [ball] and keep it loose, our wings got to do a great job of coming up with it,” Marr said. “They just have to compete. They just have to be ready to play.”
Marr has said Altimari and Jones will share faceoff responsibilities this season. Altimari and Jones are good with that.
“It definitely helps us having that one-two punch,” Altimari said. “We’ll always have someone fresh, and we’ll be prepared for different matchups.”
“I think that’s going to make us hard to keep up with,” Jones said, “and I know we’re going to battle for every ball.”
Last year, UAlbany relied on Ierlan to take nearly every faceoff for it, as Ierlan took 454 faceoffs, Jones took 30 and Altimari took 13. Jones won half of his attempts, while Altimari won eight.
Until Ierlan left UAlbany, Altimari and Jones appeared on track to spend most of their college careers watching from the sideline because of Ierlan’s take-every-faceoff workload.
That’s not how they looked at it.
“TD is someone who doesn’t get injured much, but that was still always in the back of your head,” Jones said. “We always knew we had to be ready because you never know when you’ll have to go in. . . . We never looked at it like we’d just be cruising on the sideline until our senior years.”
Jones said UAlbany’s faceoff specialists still keep in touch with Ierlan — who returns to UAlbany’s Tom & Mary Casey Stadium as an opponent on April 19 — through text messages, with tips and advice flowing in both directions about “little faceoff things.” For the most part, though, Altimari and Jones have grown to rely on each other.
“We’ve just been helping each other as much as we can, giving each other pointers,” Altimari said. “We want to make sure our unit is the best it can be.”
Marr has described his team this year as “blue collar,” and Altimari and Jones fit that label. Clean faceoff wins won’t come with as much ease this season as they did in the last two, but Jones said the Great Danes are only concerned with the end result.
“Our wings are always going to be crashing, and those guys are great,” Jones said. “If the ball is on the ground, it’s ours.”