Native Americans make Albany a lacrosse powerhouse
ALBANY His long ponytail glistening in the drizzle of a raw night, Miles Thompson struggles to find room to shoot.
The Binghamton defense is swarming around the Albany star. Suddenly, Thompson whips a shot behind his back and inside the left post for a goal. The Great Danes go on to win 21-7 and capture the regular-season lacrosse title in the America East Conference.
Just another day in Albany coach Scott Marr's journey with a trio of Native American players — Miles, younger brother Lyle and cousin Ty — whose uncanny scoring prowess has transformed his team into an offensive juggernaut.
Albany (10-5) has the top scoring Division I offense for the second straight year, averaging 16 goals. Three one-goal losses had the Great Danes sputtering early in the season, but they have won six straight heading into Saturday's America East tournament championship game against Maryland-Baltimore County with an NCAA tournament berth on the line.
"I call it Scott Marr's magical mystery tour," Syracuse coach John Desko said. "It's great for college lacrosse."
Miles, a senior, leads the nation with 67 goals and is one point shy of becoming just the 10th player to score 100 points in a season. Lyle is averaging a nation-best seven points a game with 42 goals and 64 assists and is the first player in Division I history to have two 100-point seasons. He had 50 goals and 63 assists for 113 points last season as a sophomore, one shy of the record set in 1992 by Steve Marohl of UMBC. Ty has 32 goals and 12 assists.
"Lyle is one of the best I've ever seen," said Hall of Fame Denver coach Bill Tierney, a defensive guru who won six NCAA championships in 22 years at Princeton before taking over the Pioneers five years ago. "The other two aren't far behind."
That the Thompsons play for a state university and not perennial lacrosse powerhouse Syracuse just two hours down the New York State Thruway is notable and by design.
Onondaga Nation territory sits on the southern outskirts of the city, giving Syracuse the inside track on recruiting Native American players. And for such players, lacrosse has been an integral part of their lives practically from birth.
Syracuse often dominates college lacrosse. The Orange have won 10 titles, with Native Americans figuring prominently. The list of stars goes from Oren Lyons in the 1950s to Marshall Abrams in the 1990s to Cody Jamieson, who scored the winning goal in overtime to beat Cornell in the 2009 national championship game.
Even though older brother Jeremy played two seasons for the Orange, Miles and Lyle took the road less traveled. And with their cousin they found the perfect match in Marr.
"We didn't want to just go somewhere and be role players," Miles said. "Here, coach Marr is willing to let us play our game. We grew up playing together. It's something we wanted to do. We knew we could make an impact wherever we went."
"I wanted to go somewhere I was going to enjoy the game, have fun playing," Lyle added. "The biggest thing with this school is coach. It's the kind of lacrosse that should be played and the way we've always played growing up. It's an up-and-down game, fast-paced. I feel perfect here."
The road to college for male Native American players traditionally has been through prep school or junior college.
"The difficulty is in the way we are raised," said Lyle, who counts his assist on Miles' winning goal in last season's double-overtime victory at Syracuse among his greatest thrills. "Not too many people from the reservation went to college. We focused on our religion. Our father kind of forced it (education) on us right from seventh grade."
All three were born on a Mohawk reservation in northern New York, though Miles and Lyle moved with their family to the Onondaga Nation when they were about 7. Ty spent one year in prep school but the brothers did not.
"I think it's opened people's eyes that these guys can make it academically in high school. I think that was the biggest issue with recruiting Native kids," said Marr, who forged a good relationship with the family early in the recruiting process. "They don't have the same resources on the reservation that you do in the public schools in America. They didn't have electricity until they were in eighth grade.
"It's a simple life. It involves their family, playing lacrosse and being around the game," Marr added. "We took the leap, and they became qualifiers in high school. It's given the kids on reservations hope."
That was one of the goals.
"I want to influence all the kids to take advantage of the opportunity they have with their talent," said 21-year-old Lyle, a doting father to his two young children. "Ty is one of the first ones from his tribe to come to Division I from his nation. It's definitely huge."
All three Thompsons are majoring in sociology. Ty is on track to graduate in December. Miles likely is headed to be an assistant coach next season and expects to graduate next May. Lyle has a 2.73 GPA despite his busy life.
"We proved that we can go to college and balance our academics and practice and games," Ty said. "It's tough, but by us leading by example, it's going to help a lot of younger generations. There's already a lot more Natives committed to places."
One is Zed Williams of the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation in western New York. He enrolled at Virginia last fall, only the third Native American to play for the Cavaliers. Denver has freshman Zach Miller from the Allegany Indian Reservation, also in upstate New York, the first Native American on Tierney's teams.
"The Native culture, they deserve to have more of their people be highlighted in the game they invented," Tierney said. "I have learned more from that young man about culture and about heart and about deeper reasons to play things. The only way for us to learn is to have the great opportunity to coach these young men."