ALBANY, N.Y. — It's been nearly a decade since Albany men's lacrosse coach Scott Marr made a pivotal decision — to venture into territory historically dominated by perennial power Syracuse University and try to recruit Native American high school stars from upstate New York to play for his Great Danes.
Marr succeeded in luring Miles Thompson and younger brother Lyle and their cousin Ty joined them, and with their amazing skill and creative style of play, the trio quickly transformed the Great Danes into a team to be reckoned with.
The Thompsons and their offensive prowess attracted new fans and interest nationally to the game through television and social media. They also demonstrated there's a place in the college game for Native American players to hone their skills further and, more importantly, get four years of education and a degree at the same school. The road to college for male Native American players traditionally has been through prep school or junior college.
Many have followed in their footsteps. Zed Williams from the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation in western New York left behind his five brothers and two sisters to attend Virginia, where he starred for four years and graduated a year ago. Zach Miller, of the Allegany Indian Reservation in upstate New York, attended Denver for three seasons and helped lead the Pioneers to a national championship before returning home to be with his family.
Marr, in his 18th season at Albany, remains at the vanguard. He has eight Native Americans on his roster this year, including the top freshman in the nation, Tehoka Nanticoke, who ranks third nationally with 49 goals. Man-up ace Jakob Patterson of the Seneca Nation in western New York is second with 41 goals.
"All of us being here, it's nice to show our younger kids on the reservations that anything's possible," said sophomore midfielder Ron John, another Seneca and always a star on game day in the community center back home. "Seeing that they (the Thompsons) thrived in a college atmosphere on the Division I level, how much trust they had in the coach, that was a huge factor."
Miles and Lyle Thompson became the first Native American players to capture college lacrosse's highest individual honor, the Tewaaraton Award (they shared it 2014 and Lyle won it the next year as a senior). However, they never managed to lead Albany to a Final Four, coming tantalizingly close four years ago in an overtime loss to Notre Dame in the quarterfinals.
The Great Danes (16-2) have finally broken through this year , and second seed Albany will face Ivy League rival Yale (15-3), the third seed, in Saturday's semifinals at Gillette Stadium outside Boston. Top-seeded and defending national champion Maryland (14-3) plays No. 4 Duke (15-3) in the other matchup.
"I think it (Albany's appearance) is an important piece of our game. This is a national stage. I think it's a perfect time for them," said Yale coach Andy Shay, whose Bulldogs handed the Great Danes their second loss this season. "People that don't know that much about lacrosse turn on the TV and they see not only great players, but dynamic players, interesting players, their flowing play. You understand what the game means to them."
The breakthrough to championship weekend is a validation of sorts for Marr's laidback way of doing things — he never singles out players for a bad play and he's not averse to walking away during a timeout and letting the team leaders call the shots — and his respect for a game that is the foundation of the culture of the Six Nations of Iroquois.
"Seeing how much fun they have, how much trust they have in coach, that was a huge factor why I came here," John said. "Everyone's having fun. Positive atmosphere. It is something special, and it all starts with coach Marr, really."
College lacrosse: Memory of grandparents fuels Tehoka Nanticoke's play
That Marr, who grew up in New York's lower Hudson Valley, sports a tattoo of a Native American only helps forge a tighter bond.
"The fact that we have so many Natives on our team ... it's just awesome. It's had a huge impact on our team," Marr said. "We're playing their game. It's a gift from the creator. We're just fortunate that we play it."
And play it well. Albany has led the nation in scoring four of the past five years and is No. 1 again this year (14.6 goals per game). The Great Danes also achieved another program first this season — the top ranking in the nation for six weeks after a riveting comeback road victory over then-No. 1 Maryland in early March.
Leading the way before he injured his right knee early in the loss at Yale was senior attackman Connor Fields, who benefited immensely from playing alongside Lyle Thompson for one season. Fields scored 66 goals, a national record for a freshman, and enters Saturday's game ranked second all-time in scoring (359 points) in Division I to his college mentor, who finished his career with 400 points.
"I learned a lot from Lyle. It was a really cool experience and helped my game out a lot," said Fields, who is healthy again. "Native Americans created the game. They did so much for this sport and still are. You can see how much they're growing the game. That's the biggest part."
Marr's latest coup was attracting the 6-foot-1, 235-pound Nanticoke, of Six Nations in the Canadian province of Ontario. Nanticoke, who spent a couple of years at IMG Academy in Florida to boost his academics, made the dean's list first semester at Albany.
"It's crazy how much the Native Americans are actually in D-I now," said Nanticoke, who scored three goals in a 15-13 victory over Denver in last week's quarterfinals, then sobbed on the podium afterward as he thought about his late grandparents. "It's nice to get to championship weekend.
"I know what the Thompsons did for this program was incredible. I'm thankful for them because, probably without them, I don't think I would have found Scott Marr. I'm just glad that I'm here to get the program to another level."