ALBANY — The progress has been incremental, but noticeable for the UAlbany men’s lacrosse team’s defense.
The Great Danes were rocked in their season opener Feb. 15 against Cornell, allowing the Big Red to rack up 19 goals on 50 shots. A week later against Drexel, both of those numbers declined — to 13 goals on 46 shots — and UAlbany (1-1) managed its first win of the season.
But, UAlbany head coach Scott Marr said after Wednesday’s practice at Tom & Mary Casey Stadium, there’s still plenty of work to do.
“We’re trying to eliminate more mistakes,” Marr said. “I think we’ve eliminated some of the mistakes from the Cornell game to Drexel.”
The mistake that’s popped up the most for UAlbany over its two games has been a tendency to allow opposing midfielders to dodge their way into position for wide-open shots. That resulted in five-goal games for both Cornell’s Jonathan Donville and Drexel’s Ryan Genord.
Heading into Saturday’s 1 p.m. home game against Harvard, erasing those easy looks has been the biggest focus for the UAlbany defense.
“It’s going to be a little bit of a goal on defense to cut the times where guys get to the middle of the field in half,” Marr said.
“Those are some of the mental lapses we’ve been having,” freshman long-stick midfielder Wil Pepe said. “I think, if we’re taking those away, we’re going to be a good defensive unit.”
Pepe’s insertion into the lineup against Drexel was one of the moves that helped the Great Danes start to turn things around. The tall, rangy freshman didn’t play against Cornell, but made his collegiate debut against Drexel and was a key factor in shutting out dangerous attackman Collin Mailman, who had scored four goals a week before against High Point.
Marr admitted Wednesday that Pepe should have seen the field even earlier.
“We probably should’ve played Wil a little bit more in the Cornell game. Our plan was to do that, but it just didn’t happen,” Marr said. “He’s going to be a consistent player in there.”
Pepe’s size — “He’s a big boy,” Marr said — makes the Shaker High School graduate and younger brother of Siena midfielder Nick Pepe a vital part of a long-stick midfielder rotation that includes two smaller players in 5-foot-8 redshirt freshman Jake Piseno and 5-foot-11 senior Pat Barrow.
“He’s a really long, lengthy, very physical defender and he’s got great feet for a kid who’s 6-foot-5 and 200-something pounds,” Marr said.
Pepe is one of a few younger players being counted on to play key roles in the UAlbany defense, including fellow freshmen Darien LaPietro and Connor Fingar, Piseno and sophomore Declan Palandjian.
“We do have a lot of young kids playing, but they’re a little bit above their age right now,” Marr said. “They still have a way to go, but I like they’re attitude and their effort every day in practice.”
Marr said the young players have integrated well with the three seniors at the heart of the UAlbany defense — goalie Nate Siekierski, close defender Steven Kunz and short-stick midfielder Doug Goldsmith.
“I think,” Marr said, “we have a really nice mix of kids out there.”
Reach Adam Shinder at [email protected] or @Adam_Shinder on Twitter.