ALBANY, N.Y. — Albany attackman Connor Fields is out of the running for college lacrosse's highest individual honor, and that's OK. He's after something else, something that will leave a much more lasting impression.
The soft-spoken senior, second in scoring in Division I history with 356 points (196 goals, 160 assists), is intent on leading the second-seeded Great Danes (15-2) to their first-ever appearance in the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament.
"It's just the next step for us," Fields said Friday morning after practice. "I think we've been growing a lot over the past (few) years. It's really awesome just to see how much we've been improving each year. We're getting closer and closer. I think we're ready."
Only Denver (13-3), which has made the Final Four in five of the last seven years, stands in the way as the quarterfinals loom. The teams meet Saturday at Hofstra University on New York's Long Island in a doubleheader that also includes third-seeded Yale (14-3) against No. 6 Loyola of Maryland (13-3).
The other quarterfinals will be played Sunday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland, with top-seeded Maryland (13-3) against Ivy League champ Cornell (13-4) and fifth-seeded Johns Hopkins (12-4) meeting fourth-seeded Duke (14-3).
Albany beat Richmond 18-9 in the first round last Saturday night to secure its fourth quarterfinal appearance in five years. Fields led the way with seven points off two goals and five assists in just his third full game back since a knee injury nearly two months ago took him out of the running for the Tewaaraton Award, lacrosse's Heisman Trophy. That performance moved him behind only former Albany star Lyle Thompson (400) in career points.
Fields has been hampered by a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee suffered against UMass-Lowell in late March.
On Friday, he seemed back to his old self, jumping around, playing air guitar with his stick to the beat of the scoreboard music, and joking with his teammates.
"I feel the best I have since the injury," Fields said. "It just feels great to be back out here with the guys, one last shot at getting to championship weekend. We really want to get over the hump."
The game promises to be a contrast in styles. Albany is the highest-scoring team in the nation (14.59), featuring five players with 26 or more goals — freshman Tehoka Nanticoke (46), Jakob Patterson (38), Fields (31), Sean Eccles (28), and Kyle McClancy (26) — while Denver has the stingiest defense (7.44).
"They want to play a half-field game. They don't want to give up any transition," Albany coach Scott Marr said. "It's definitely going to be a test of our will to see if we can break that and get ahead of them and make them play our style.
"They can run, too, but they just choose not to," Marr said. "We'll grind it out for 60 minutes if we have to. It's just a matter of not getting frustrated."
At the end of Friday's practice, Marr gathered the team in a circle in the middle of their home field and delivered a final message before they all boarded a bus for Long Island.
The Albany-Denver matchup will feature the top two faceoff men in Division I — Albany sophomore TD Ierlan against Denver senior Trevor Baptiste, the career leader in faceoffs won (1,143) and one of five finalists for the Tewaaraton.
The Pioneers beat seventh-seeded Notre Dame 9-7 on the road last week to halt the Irish's eight-season streak of reaching the quarterfinals. The victory put Denver in the quarterfinals for the seventh time in eight years, and the 5-foot-10, 230-pound Baptiste was a big reason why. "The Beast" won 14 of 20 faceoffs and scooped up 10 ground balls, eight in the second half.
The 5-9, 175-pound Ierlan, a former wrestler who relies on his lightning-fast reaction time, has won 326 faceoffs this season, just 13 shy of equaling the NCAA single-season record Duke's Brendan Fowler set in 2013. Ierlan's faceoff winning percentage is 83.4 this season, tops in the country, and puts him on the verge of breaking the NCAA single-season record of 77.6 percent, set by Mark Goers of Towson way back in 1994.
"I think there's going to be a lot of 50-50 scrums and the ball being loose," Marr said. "It's a matter of him (Ierlan) finding the ball first. I know he's going to go out there and give us everything he's got. At the end of the day, we'll accept it and move on."