The most dominant college athlete in a generation will be on display this weekend.
To find him, you have to look past Tallahassee, where FSU's Jameis Winston became the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft; beyond Kentucky, where Karl-Anthony Towns is preparing to be a top pick in the NBA Draft; and even past Boston, where BU's Jack Eichel is forecast as a potential first pick in the NHL Draft.
Instead, you'll find him playing lacrosse for the University of Albany, the plucky SUNY school that's part of the best story in sports right now. They face Notre Dame in the NCAA lacrosse quarterfinals in Denver Saturday afternoon.
His name is Lyle Thompson and he's the guy with the lacrosse stick seemingly always in his hands, the long braid of hair swinging out the back of his helmet, and a supreme arsenal of telepathic passes, lightning dodges, and corner-popping outside shooting that's made him the most significant college player in any sport in a generation.
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In lacrosse, Syracuse's Gary and Paul Gait put the sport on the map in the late 1980s when they guided the Orange to three straight national titles. They changed the game with creative play, behind the back passes, and the signature Air Gait, lacrosse's version of a slam dunk from behind the cage. Next were the Syracuse trio of Powell brothers: Casey, Ryan, and then Mikey, who grew up watching the Gaits, pretended to be them in their own Upstate backyard, and took the torch in the late 1990s and 2000s to become transcendent stars.
Last year, Lyle Thompson and his brother Miles shared the Tewaaraton Award, the first co-winners of lacrosse's equal to the Heisman Trophy. The two brothers started on an attack line with their cousin Ty Thompson the last few seasons, but now just Lyle, a senior, remains.
"He's got every trick in the book," ESPN Lacrosse analyst Paul Carcaterra explains. "If you look at him as a passer, he's the most prolific passer in NCAA lacrosse history. His trick shots and flair for the dramatic is unmatched in the college game. The only players I've seen come close to him in that regard are the Gaits and the Powells.”
What makes Thompson, now the NCAA's all-time leading scorer, the best of the best is his ability to pass, shoot, dodge, and score. He's led the nation in goals the last three years and is the only player to ever post consecutive 100-point seasons.
"He's electric in his overall flair for the game without being a 'me' guy," Carcaterra, a former All-American at Syracuse, adds. "It sounds crazy, but he does these trick shots almost out of necessity. When you think he's completely bottled up, that's where he comes out with the unthinkable: the shovel passes, the one-handed passes, behind-the-backs. He doesn't go in there and throw those trick shots and passes just to show up an opponent. He does that when there's no other outlet."
A native of the Onondaga Nation, Thompson is a free spirit who wears a purple Mohawk and a bow tie in his official headshot. His Native name, Dayhaus, translates to "flies above."
What makes Thompson such a difficult riddle to solve for opponents is an uncanny ability to transform his game according to what defenses give him, according to Carcaterra. If you want to play him as a passer, he'll go out and score nine goals like he did against Harvard," Carcaterra says. Play him like a goal scorer and he'll post 10 assists, like he did against Stony Brook. "You look at his ability to just flourish and not only can he combine the two," he says. "But when he's asked, back against the wall, when he's challenged in one aspect of his game, he absolutely blows up in the other."
Thompson and his teammates are also the best story in sports right now.
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Albany is one win from the school's first Final Four. Advancing past the stingy and supremely talented Notre Dame Fighting Irish would represent a giant leap for the Albany program that plays with as much flair and freewheeling creativity as any team in any game right now. Their goalie, Blaze Riorden, went coast-to-coast and scored a goal last week, just one example of the kind of fun these guys are having this spring.
But this is also the same spot Albany was in a year ago before losing in the NCAA quarters to Notre Dame in OT. Maybe this time will be different for Thompson and the Danes.
"I just think that this kid, from a pure love of the game, you can see it when he plays," Carcaterra concludes. "It's really about just enjoying the game and putting himself and his team in a position to have fun. It's okay to have fun and Albany is embracing that this is a sport that doesn't need to be over-coached and the power can be in the player and Lyle Thompson epitomizes that."
From the looks of it, nobody seems to be having more fun than Albany right now. Because it's not often you get to play alongside the greatest athlete in college sports.