ALBANY, N.Y. — Albany attackman Tehoka Nanticoke bulls his way in front of the Syracuse goal , pushes free of the swarming Orange defense and scores. The rout is on.
The lacrosse season opener couldn't have unfolded better for the Great Danes, who stunned the Orange 15-3 in February behind five goals from the 6-foot-1, 235-pound Nanticoke in his college debut — inside the not-so-friendly confines of the Carrier Dome, no less.
It was just the second victory for Albany in 17 games against Syracuse, the most successful program in Division I with 11 national titles. That first victory was 16-15 in double-overtime in 2013, so the score made this one significant.
"In our program's history, that was huge," Albany coach Scott Marr said. "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a big deal."
In his 18 years at the helm, Marr has transformed the Great Danes into an offensive power, in large part by attracting remarkable Native American talent like Nanticoke to help guide the uptempo offense. Albany has led the nation in scoring four of the past five years and this year achieved a program first — the top ranking in the nation. The run lasted six weeks.
"It was nice to have No. 1 beside our name, but our goal is to be No. 1 at the end of the year," Nanticoke said.
Despite his success — Marr has guided the Great Danes to eight America East Conference tournament titles and nine NCAA Tournament appearances — Albany has never made it to the Final Four on Memorial Day weekend. The Great Danes have come tantalizingly close, losing four times in the quarterfinals, most notably in 2014 against Notre Dame when star Ty Thompson's point-blank shot with 2.6 seconds left in regulation of a tie game ricocheted off the goalie's mask and the Irish went on to win in overtime. That ended a remarkable year for Albany, whose Native American trio of Ty, Miles and Lyle Thompson combined to score 174 goals in only 18 games.
Last season, Albany defeated defending national champion North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in a steady downpour before a record-breaking crowd of more than 6,000 at the Great Danes home field, then lost in the quarterfinals to eventual champion Maryland.
The team started fast this year. After the victory over the Orange, Albany reeled off nine straight wins, outscoring its opponents 139-67 to soar to No. 1 in the country. The streak included comeback triumphs over Cornell at home and Maryland on the road. The latter is the signature win of the year to date — Albany outscored the Terps 5-0 in the fourth quarter, including four goals in the final 6:30, to win 11-10.
"It was certainly one of the bigger games in our time here," Marr said of the first win over Maryland in four tries. "To kind of get over that hump mentally was huge for our program. The kids have the confidence they can beat anybody in the country."
That confidence has stemmed in large part from a balanced attack that includes the high-scoring duo of Nanticoke (34 goals), senior Connor Fields (28 goals), and four other players with at least 16 goals; a stingy defense that ranks fourth nationally (7.85 goals per game allowed); and sophomore faceoff whiz TD Ierlan, who has won a remarkable 81.6 percent of his draws (239 of 293) and leads the country in ground balls (13.46 per game).
Ierlan is a huge key . He excelled as a freshman but was overpowered by Maryland's scheme in the tournament. This season, he's taken his game to a level rarely seen — he was a perfect 24 for 24 against both Cornell and Stony Brook, one off the NCAA record.
"I've never really been on a team where we had a faceoff guy like TD," said Nanticoke, the top recruit in the country. "It's crazy having that many extra offensive possessions."
There have been two glitches in the season so far for Albany (11-2), and they've come in the past three games. The first was an 11-7 loss two weeks ago at lightly regarded UMBC , the other a 14-6 setback Sunday at Yale , which moved to No. 1 on Monday.
It was Albany's second game in three days and Ierlan's worst game of the year by far — he won only 8 of 21 faceoffs. The common factor in both setbacks was a knee injury to the high-scoring Fields, a finalist last year for the Tewaaraton Award given annually to the nation's best player and the third pick in last week's Major League Lacrosse draft.
Fields, who before the injury was on pace to challenge Lyle Thompson's Division I career scoring record of 400 points (Fields has 193 goals and 151 assists for 344 points), missed the UMBC game and reinjured the knee in the first quarter against Yale and left the game. He was scheduled to have an MRI on Monday.
Although the defeats come at a bad time — the Great Danes have only one game left in the regular season — losses by Maryland and Syracuse over the weekend only confirmed Marr's take on the upcoming postseason.
"Everybody's beatable," he said. "I think everybody out there has a legitimate shot. It's a really tight race."