Lacrosse’s long-stick defenders are judged by the boring statistic of ground balls or their goalie’s save percentage. The inconspicuous guys with the six-foot poles are treated like offensive linemen in football, while attackmen, midfielders and goalies are labeled “skill positions.”
University of Denver senior Jake Nolan, however, is a former basketball player who turned to lacrosse because he found more pleasure in exerting his strength unsuspecting victims on the field than scoring baskets on the court. And while his high school basketball coach demanded that he let go of his lacrosse stick and golf clubs in favor of a round leather ball, he wasn’t about to oblige.
“I wanted to play multiple sports and I enjoy beating up on people and you can do that more in lacrosse than basketball,” he said with a grin.
Opponents hate playing against him. With his 6-foot-6, 225-pound frame, six-foot pole and intimidating grin, the typical 5-10, 180-pound attackman he covers walks off the field bruised and battered. And it’s that physicality that’s evolved him from just another guy on the roster to one the Pioneers couldn’t live without.
He’s a proud member a senior class that has gone 58-11 — the best record of its kind, nationally, heading into Saturday’s NCAA Tournament quarterfinal clash against Notre Dame in Hempstead, N.Y. A reserve defenseman at the beginning of the year, Nolan also has overcome major knee surgery that wiped out his entire junior season to become the guy coach Bill Tierney now can’t take out of the starting lineup.
He’s too tough, too dependable and too experienced to stand on the sideline. He did that a lot during his sophomore season, when DU won the national title, but now plays like he never wants to watch from that vantage point again. Nolan is the Pioneers’ most intimidating player, and he’s using that to his advantage to remain in the lineup.
Andy Cross, The Denver Post
Denver Pioneers defenseman Jake Nolan #11 heads down field against the Air Force Falcons.
“I’ve been playing since freshman year, at long-pole (midfielder) or close defense,” Nolan said. “From an experience standpoint, I was able to just get out there and do what the team needs. It wasn’t a culture shock for me.”
Nolan, who made just two starts in his first two years at DU, replaced standout sophomore defenseman Dylan Johnson after the former Cherry Creek High star went down with a hamstring injury March 19 at Ohio State. Johnson missed four games but is now being used as a long-stick midfielder — because Nolan has been so good.
“We see this in sports every once in a while — a really good player goes down but his replacement takes over the position,” Tierney said.”
Nobody is complaining — not even Johnson, who has replaced valuable long-stick midfielder Sean Mayle. Mayle, a junior who is second on the team with 35 ground balls, will miss his second consecutive game Saturday with a lower-body injury.
“It’s a little bit of a change-up but it’s pretty fun,” Johnson said of playing the defensive midfield. “That’s where I started at when I came here freshman year, and then they moved me down. It’s been a pretty easy adjustment.”
As for losing his normal job to Nolan, Johnson said: “Watching Jake and knowing his senior leadership, I didn’t expect it would be easy to get thrown right back in there. Jake’s a great player; he’s playing great right now. And he’s really been leading us in that senior role.”