Seniors John Uppgren and Conor Helfrich made school history on Jan. 22 when they became the first two Tufts lacrosse players to be picked in the Major League Lacrosse (MLL) Collegiate Draft. In previous years, Tufts players have been picked in the supplementary draft, but no Jumbo has ever achieved what Uppgren and Helfrich have.
Uppgren, selected for his scoring prowess, has been the main offensive leader of a Tufts squad that has won the NCAA Div. III men’s lacrosse championship over the last two years. Helfrich, meanwhile, is one of the nation’s premier face-off specialists, and was picked for the remarkable ability he’s shown to win possession for the Jumbos.
Uppgren was the 49th pick in the draft and went to the Boston Cannons, one of the original MLL teams. Playing for the Cannons gives Uppgren the opportunity to remain in the Boston area for the foreseeable future. Uppgren has attributed his success to the standard of Tufts’ play, and the environment he was able to play and improve over the past few years.
“It was pretty humbling,” Uppgren said. “I was just really excited. There have been guys picked up in the supplemental draft before, starting in 2010. It just shows where our alumni, senior class and coach Daly have taken this program the past 10 years.”
Uppgren has been one of the most prolific point scorers in Tufts history. He has led the nation in points over the last two seasons, with 129 on 76 goals and 53 assists in 23 games (5.61 points per game) as a junior in 2015, and 124 points on 65 goals and 59 assists in 23 games (5.39 ppg) as a sophomore in 2014. In the NESCAC — arguably the toughest conference in Div. III lacrosse — Uppgren’s 50 conference goals tied him for the leading NESCAC scorer for 2015, and he was also named to the All-NESCAC first team for both the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
Uppgren’s main appeal for the draft — his unceasing ability to score goals — is not something all that new for the Tufts men’s lacrosse program. He cited his predecessors and former Jumbo greats Beau Wood (LA ’14), Cole Bailey (LA ’15) and Chris Schoenhut (LA ’15) as valuable teachers who have been able to help him hone his craft. He also cited coach Mike Daly and Helfrich as major contributors to his success.
“Coach Daly has been a great mentor and it’s been the perfect system as an offensive player to play in,” Uppgren said. “We have the green light to go out there and try and score as many goals as we can. That style of play is more credit to our defense and Conor [Helfrich] getting us the ball.”
The Boston Cannons seem to be a good fit for Div. III players, with relatively new head coach Sean Quirk coming off an 18-year coaching stint at Endicott College, which has a program that Tufts has become familiar with in recent years. Furthermore, Cannons assistant coach Sean Kirwan coached Tufts’ offense during the 2014 season, which ended in the NCAA Div. III title for the Jumbos. Kirwan was responsible for the three 100-point scorers that year, the first time in NCAA history that three players from the same team scored over 100 points each during one season (points are calculated using the sum of goals scored, plus assists).
“It’s nice to see the kind of DIII influence that they have on the team,” Uppgren said. “I’m definitely not going to pass up a chance to keep playing lacrosse down the road.”
Helfrich was the 66th overall pick in the MLL Draft and was chosen by the Denver Outlaws, who placed fifth in the MLL last season. The Boston Globe and Lax All Stars, among other prominent publications, called Helfrich one of the best face-off men in the country, regardless of division.
“You dream about maybe being a professional athlete one day, and when I found out I had been picked it was definitely a great feeling,” Helfrich said. “It’s something that’s in the back of your mind and you hope might happen.”
Helfrich’s ability to perform well at the face-off position was a skill that he cultivated upon his arrival at Tufts. Although sidelined during his first-year lacrosse season after sustaining a serious injury during the varsity ice hockey season, Helfrich made a strong debut in his sophomore year at the faceoff position, replacing Brian Ruggiero (LA ’13) in 2014. Helfrich had an immediate impact on the team, winning 311 of 511 faceoffs for a 0.564 win rate versus Ruggiero’s 0.471 win rate the previous season.
Helfrich carried this momentum forward into his junior year, improving his win rate to 0.650 last season, the 18th-best face-off win rate in Div. III. It’s important to note, however, that Helfrich took part in 594 faceoffs total, far more than any other Div. III player, with the next highest face-off participation total last year being 431. In fact, the majority of the players who ranked above Helfrich in faceoffs won took part in under 300 faceoffs total, making Helfrich’s achievement even more resounding given his durability and stamina. During the 2015 season, Helfrich won 359 faceoffs in total, the most in the country across all divisions.
Coach Mike Daly cited the work of Tufts’ assistant coaches Clem McNally and Brett Holm, who coached Helfrich through his sophomore year, and Matt Callahan, the current assistant, who has helped Helfrich perfect his skills.
“We really liked his toughness and versatility,” Daly said. “It was really his commitment to the team that [he was willing to dedicate] himself to facing off.”
In the coming months, Uppgren and Helfrich hope to help Tufts’ 50-man-strong lacrosse team to its seventh consecutive NESCAC title and its third consecutive NCAA Div. III National title. Despite their success, both seniors still say that the Tufts team comes first in their lives, and that the MLL will be taking a backseat for the next few months.
“I’m not really thinking about the Denver Outlaws right now, I’m just focused on Tufts, and the team that we have this season,” Helfrich said. “Obviously I’m trying to get better and improve every day and just continue to be the best faceoff specialist that I can be for this Tufts team and for us to win as many games as possible and to win another national championship. The only way to do that is to take one day at a time and be a good teammate.”
Daly expressed similar sentiments, saying that both players are team-oriented.
“I sincerely believe both of them care more about team success than individual success,” Daly said. “In both cases, both would be the first to acknowledge that a lot of their individual accolades are team awards.”
This season, Uppgren is one of two senior captains who, along with the other 13 lacrosse seniors, will hope to repeat the success of the past two years.
“Every one of our seniors is a really capable leader and has done stuff throughout the fall in starting up our season,” Uppgren said. “Our job as the senior class is to bring along younger guys, set the standards [and] instill the program mentality for the younger guys so that when we graduate down the line the people behind us are ready to step up in some big roles.”
The MLL is different from other major league sports in that it will not be the sole occupation for many of the players, with the majority holding separate full-time jobs and playing lacrosse on the weekends. MLL players report that the average salary for players is between $10,000 to $25,000 per year, making it necessary to have a separate career. Uppgren and Helfrich both plan to also enter the commercial real estate sector, since both held internships in the field last summer. For Uppgren, the local Boston Cannons team will allow him to remain in Boston for home games, while Helfrich, who hopes to remain in Boston for his full-time job, will have to fly to Denver every Friday night for his games.
According to draft rules, collegiate players must wait until after their senior year season finishes before signing, although both Uppgren and Helfrich have indicated that they will decide to sign with their respective teams. The 2016 MLL season will start on April 23 and continue until the end of August, though Uppgren and Helfrich will continue to play for Tufts until they graduate in May.