Men’s lacrosse ready to begin NCAA title defense in 2016 season

Tufts senior midfielder Garrett Clarke, LA'16, looks for a teammate to pass to during men's lacrosse's 25-6 victory over Hamilton at Bello Field on Apr. 11, 2015. Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily Archive

The roar of the Jumbo crowd last year on Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia marked the end of the NCAA Div. III National Championship as Tufts men’s lacrosse became back-to-back national champions. In their 2015 season, the Jumbos had to overcome injuries of some of their leading players at inopportune times in the season, but still ultimately came out as the top team in the nation. The 19-11 victory over Lynchburg in the National Championship game — Tufts’ third in the last six years — signaled the team’s establishment as a national powerhouse and the premier program in Div. III men’s lacrosse right now.

As the Jumbos enter their 2016 season with their opener this Saturday against Stevens Institute of Technology, they lose some of last year’s most critical contributors like Cole Bailey (LA ’15). Bailey was awarded the Turnbull Award for the nation’s Most Outstanding Attackman in 2014. Despite an injury that sidelined him for eight games last season, he came back to lead the team to another national championship. Stepping up as team leaders this year are senior co-captains Ben Andreycak and John Uppgren, both formidable players who have helped shaped the lacrosse program and made a huge impact on the field in their careers.

Uppgren, who was named Lacrosse Magazine’s Div. III Preseason Player of the Year, was the national leading scorer of Div. III in 2014 and 2015, and was recently the sole Div. III player among the 50 players in the nation to be named to the Tewaaraton Award Watch List. The Tewaaraton Award honors the top collegiate male lacrosse player and female lacrosse player in the United States across all divisions, and Uppgren follows in the footsteps of Jumbo greats like Bailey, who was named to the Tewaaraton preseason watch list last year, and D.J. Hessler (LA ’11) who was named in 2011.

Coach Mike Daly, who has been the program’s head coach since 1999 and has led the team to three NCAA championship titles in that span, believes that this year’s senior class in particular gives the 2016 roster its greatest edge.

“Our captains Ben [Andreycak] and John [Uppgren] are two amazingly successful players and leaders,” Daly said. “It is our entire senior class that really will determine the success or lack of success of the team. This season we have 15 seniors, all talented lacrosse players and great leaders. We will depend on each and every one of them this year.”

In the past, it has often been the senior classes that have defined the season for the Jumbos, as the program has consistently brought in talented players every year. Andreycak believes that this year’s especially large and tight-knit senior class, which already has two national championships under its belt, will make his job in leadership easier.

“We don’t have any more influence over the other seniors because we are all team leaders,” Andreycak said. “It is easy to develop a leadership role on the team because of the role models that have come before us. All 15 guys are on the same page.”

The senior class is full of talented players, with both Uppgren and fellow senior Conor Helfich being drafted in January in the Major League Lacrosse (MLL) Collegiate Draft by the Boston Cannons and the Denver Outlaws, respectfully. Although several Jumbos have been chosen in the MLL Supplementary draft before, Uppgren and Helfrich — widely regarded as one of the nation’s top face-off specialists across all divisions — are the first two Jumbos to ever be taken in the regular draft.

“Our mentality is that it’s a completely new year,” Uppgren said. “We have a pretty big target on our back, and we are just focused on getting better every day as a team.”

The Jumbos, back-to-back reigning national champs who are also currently ranked first in Div. III in the Inside Lacrosse national poll, are by many people’s estimate the clear favorites to start the season. With that top dog status, however, comes every opponents’ desire to upset the No. 1 team in the nation, upping the stakes for every game Tufts plays this season. Still, the team is simply focused on proving themselves this year rather than continuing to ride its past success.

“Last year seems like a lifetime ago,” Daly said. “There are new challenges and pressures every year as soon as seniors graduate and you lose those players. Each team is different, and every season is different. Last year has very little to do with this year and this group of seniors and players.”

The new recruits are also a large part of team dynamic as the team enters the 2016 season.

“We’ve only been practicing since Feb. 15, and the freshman have just started to learn the system and the culture of the program,” Daly said. “We are pretty excited about the freshman and sophomore classes. They are two extremely talented classes, and since we are already blessed with such a deep and talented senior class, every one of those younger guys is going to be prepared and mentored.”

Andreycak believes that the team can and will receive big contributions from every class this season, including from first-years.

“It’s a testament to our culture,” he said. “Once you’re on the team, you aren’t just a freshman, you are a Tufts lacrosse player. There is a team-wide effort to empower each and every single player, not to defer to other guys. It isn’t just the age group that matters, we all just try to work together.”

The newly integrated first-years saw action for the first time in the season’s first scrimmage last Sunday against the Boston Cannons, the MLL team Uppgren will play for next year, in the first chance for the team to get back on the field.

“The Cannons are an incredible team, and though they won the scrimmage 25-14 it was a great experience for us,” Uppgren said. “The goal of the scrimmage was to expose any shortcomings and any mistakes that we made, so it gives us stuff to work on before games begin.”

As the team practices and continues to prepare for another national championship run, it looks forward to its season opener against Stevens this Saturday. Though they’ve beaten the Stevens Ducks when the team played them in each of the last four seasons, the Jumbos will not be taking the game lightly.

“We are really excited to get out there and play hard,” Andreycak said. “We will play our best and see what we can do.”

“This is a game that will impact our season because we look at each and every game as impactful,” Daly said. “We take it one game at a time, in order to find out exactly where we are as a team. Stevens is a team we respect, so we are looking forward to the game.”

The Jumbos have 15 regular season games lined up for their 2016 schedule and then the NESCAC tournament, which they have won every year since 2010. Last year’s team went 18-2 en route to its national title. Though the team legacy may seem daunting, the captains are focusing on taking the season one game at a time.

“Right now, we are maximizing our team’s potential every day,” Andreycak said. “We are in a micro mindset, relying on raising the standard every time we are on the field.”

As the team looks forward to the Stevens game, Coach Daly’s confidence in his players is unrivaled.

“With our senior class, we have a really unique opportunity with 15 guys that care so much about the team,” Daly said. “Remove one person from the team, and our challenges and strengths would be different. That’s why it’s so exciting to do what I do.”