SUNY Buffalo midfield/attackman Alex Hultgren recently took time to answer some questions for us here at Brand Central. Whether you call them SUNY, Buffalo or UB they are a team to watch in 2011. Considering their switch from the CCLA to the PCLL they could very well have a break out year.
Mike Brand: So I know you did some interesting things this summer. Can you tell me about your summer tour?
Alex Hultgren: This summer I went to Manchester, England for the World Lacrosse Championships. I played for two teams in the festival also, one in the U-19 division and one in the Open Elite Division. Both were for Harvard Sports Management Team USA. It was definitely an enlightening experience to say the least. Both teams were loaded with talent, and more than half of the Elite team consisted of guys who also played for the U-19 team.
I was the only college-level player not playing NCAA Lacrosse for either team, but I looked at that as a positive. I was able to make a real statement as to what talent the MCLA can hold. Ending up second for Harvard Sports in points and first in assists definitely helped to prove my point. We were able to make it to the final in the U-19 but lost in the championship by one goal (largely due to exhaustion from all of our players playing 9 games in 5 days.) The tournament definitely helped to improve my game as an individual, playing with so many D-I players, and playing on their level.
But I learned the most watching the World Championships. Playing there, we had free access to any games we wanted, and we were definitely able to make the most of that privilege. There’s no substitute for being able to see the world’s best players up close, and learning from what they do. The Championship game in particular was an unbelievable game. When Crotty (of all people) put those two goals in to tie and take the lead, the enthusiasm in the crowd was similar to something you’d see in an NFL playoff game.
Being the only MCLA team in upstate NY and being a SUNY (State University of New York) school, where are all your teammates from?
For the first time since I’ve been with the team, all of our players are from New York State. But we do come from just about everywhere in the state, with a large mix of players from Western New York, Rochester area, Syracuse, downstate New York, and even up near Albany and further North. While it may not seem like a very diverse spread of players, everyone is able to bring their own aspects to the game, which helps us as an all-around team.
Something that has developed with this is a friendly, team-building rivalry between the “Upstate” and the “Downstate.” We even started a tradition last year with our first annual Upstate-Downstate scrimmage. We (the Upstate) were able to come out with a one-goal win and most importantly, bragging rights for the year. It’s a very fun practice that is a bit of a break from the usual practice, and it definitely helps bond our team, even between people from opposite squads. There is the fair share of friendly trash talk, though.
Is it hard to sell club lax to misinformed students who may think they’re too good for the MCLA?
That’s absolutely one of the biggest problems we face. Being a SUNY, we have a lot of potential talent at our school that doesn’t play lacrosse. And while a lot of them don’t want to have to pay to play lacrosse, we have plenty of benefits that make it worth it to play (being able to continue playing lacrosse being the biggest of these). We have a lot of fun, and even stop in Panama City in between games for our annual spring break trip.
But the biggest thing is that people see the word “club” attached to us and assume they are too good to waste their time. With multiple NCAA transfers, we know that this isn’t true. In fact, we played 3 local D-III teams this fall and none of the games were close. Many of the players on our team are better than most players on a typical D-II or D-III team, and a few could make D-I rosters. Still, because school comes first, our players make that the first priority instead of playing at an NCAA school with inferior academics.
When we recruit people from UB to come play and check out our team, they often come to our first fall-ball practice and expect to see a totally in-tune team. But when they don’t, they feel like they may be too talented for our team, which is a big drawback of not being an official “varsity” program. We have a lot of players who don’t know each other, some of whom may not be quite at the level we are looking for. So when a lot of our recruited players come, they assume that our program is not serious enough for them, when we are good enough to compete with anyone.
Your team made the move from the CCLA to the PCLL. What were the factors behind this decision and what is your opinion on the move?
Being in the CCLA was just a lose-lose situation, with last year being the final straw. Quite frankly, our division was really weak. In both years I had played for the team, we swept our division with ease, but still failed to get national recognition, only cracking the top-20 once. So once we made it to our conference tournament, we would have a bye in the first round, then have to beat Michigan State and Michigan back-to-back to have any hope of making it to the National Tournament.
While we were able to beat Michigan State in 2009, we were physically and mentally exhausted for our game against Michigan. Though we kept it close for most of the first half (it was 3-1 with two minutes left in the half), once the third quarter started, they ran all over us for an easy win. And then this season, we played the worst game I’ve been a part of and lost to Northeastern. Once that happened, we knew we would have to pull of two consecutive upsets to make it to Denver. Even though we were able to overcome a 5-0 deficit to Michigan State and make it a one-goal game, we could not quite overcome our slow start and lost 12-9.
Being in the PCLL gives us a much tougher in-conference schedule, and the ability to win our conference. In the CCLA, we never had any competition in conference until the tournament. Teams like New Hampshire, Boston College, Northeastern, and UConn are a big step up for in-season conference play. And we know after playing 2010 PCLL champ BC that once the conference tournament starts, anything is possible for us.
Last year I know you played both Attack and Middie, and you were even an all conference pick at attack (much to the disappointment of 412), so what position will you be playing this season and which one do you prefer?
It seems like ever since I graduated I’ve been switching back-and-forth from attack to middie. Even in England, I started at attack for the Elite Team, and was an offensive middie for the U-19 team. This year, I will hopefully stay the entire season at middie. Playing there gives me the ability to dodge from the top and feed open cutters, something that was not as consistent with our team when I moved to attack.
Something we have this year that we did not have either of the past two years is a solid core of attackers that we know will make plays. My freshman year I made the switch to attack largely due to injury, but our two best attackers (Tom Sudek and Andrew Willis) were both freshmen. When I moved to attack last year, the three of us were the main attack grouping for our team. But with their increased experience and knowledge, and the addition of couple very good attackers, I will most likely be remaining at the position.
As far as which one I like more, that is a very tough question to answer. For this team, I like playing at middie more because it is better for the team if I’m there. Being able to clear the ball in the open field and take on opposing middies with room to run is a big part of my game. And I have developed a lot of chemistry this fall with a couple guys, Marcus Hennekens in particular, which was never quite there when I kept moving around. While I do enjoy the gaudy numbers and recognition that come being an attacker, middie is definitely the position for me that helps our team the most.
You and I were both 3 sport athletes at the mighty Grand Island HS, what advice can you give the young guys who may want to focus strictly on lacrosse year round?
The biggest advice I would give is not to limit yourself to just one sport. Even now I still play in adult basketball leagues and intramural football. While I don’t take those as seriously, I’ve found that playing other sports helps me more in lacrosse than if I had just played lacrosse year-round. All summer I would play lacrosse and focus on that sport, but there is no parallel for the kind of awareness you can develop playing other sports.
Once I became a senior, however, I dropped the other sports and did play lacrosse all year-round. But basketball in particular helped me the most. As a point guard, you have to be able to see open cutters and hit them as soon as they get an inch of space. That is something that has translated directly into lacrosse. The conditioning and competitiveness that fall lacrosse may lack can sometimes be made up for by playing other sports instead. Still, that is no excuse not to have a stick in your hands and at least play some wall-ball whenever you can.
Recently your high school coach and one of my mentors, Steve Steck, stepped down at GI to focus on his family and the feeder program. What’s the biggest lesson you learned from him? Tell me your favorite story about coach Steck.
Steck was an awesome coach and person, and losing him is definitely going to set back Grand Island’s program further. I know he may have been frustrated at times, not finding the success he had, but it was not due to any ineptitude on his part. He had faith in me through my whole career, starting me every game my junior year while I developed as a player amidst our large senior class. While my point total that year was nothing of legends, he let me take the wheel my senior year and instilled so much confidence in me, even if it didn’t seem like it at times. This is the biggest reason my point total jumped from 16 my junior year to 79 as a senior.
My favorite memory of him as a coach was actually when I was still a JV player. Our varsity team had loads of talent, but lost a handful of games despite having a lead in the fourth quarter. Late in the season, it seemed to be happening in another game and he called a timeout and gave a speech. While most of the language cannot be repeated here, the gist of it can. It was about how our team always managed to make the bed beautifully, with satin sheets and pillows, then get in bed, lie down, and [crap] the bed. The coach’s gift the captains gave him was a new pair of sheets.
What type of training are you doing this offseason to prepare you for your season?
Training is something that has been much improved this year in particular. A lot of the members of our team will be going 5-days a week to the Thurman Thomas training facility. There, we do everything from heavy weight training to speed training to conditioning. This is one big factor as to why we believe we will be the big surprise in the PCLL this season.
What is your major at UB and what are your plans after school?
I am currently a biomedical engineering major. I will be doing that at UB for at least another two years, because I lost a bit of time switching majors from pharmacy, which I did not enjoy. But once I get my degree, there are so many possibilities that I still need time to think about it. My goal as of now is to go to grad. school somewhere, but whether it will be for a Masters in the same field, or for Med School, I do not know yet.
Considering our high school hasn’t won a sectional title since Army great Jim Wagner was a senior in 2000, how can the Vikings and new head coach Pete Greco get back to the top of Section VI class B?
As I said before, losing Steck hurts the program even more. As we both know, just 10 years ago, Grand Island was a powerhouse in Western New York. To get back to this level starts in the youth leagues. The youth lacrosse program needs to develop on Grand Island, and there are no summer leagues. I had to play for Hamburg in the Summer, taking advantage of my father’s residence in the town.
Also, Grand Island is one of the only teams in their league without even a modified team. This hurts Grand Island on many levels, loading the JV roster with players who should not be playing high school lacrosse and setting back the Varsity program with players lacking experience. Because Grand Island has so many athletes, it will not take long once the youth program improves and Modified and Summer Lacrosse are established.
Who should the Buffalo Bills pick with their early first round draft pick in 2011 and why?
In a perfect world, Andrew Luck would be the guy. But because he likely won’t be around when Buffalo drafts, I wouldn’t want the team wasting the pick on a lesser QB that will not be a star. That is why I am a huge fan of Nick Fairley at Auburn. He is an ideal 3-4 DE, and the Bill’s run defense has been weak to say the least. He is an absolute beast, and I’d love to see them address the hole there with a can’t-miss stud.
Personally I’ll take any lineman who can breathe but Cam Newton will do. As for GI lacrosse, I think Coach Greco will do a great job and having Coach Steck at the middle school level will help the program exponentially.
I hope all the readers had a great holiday. Get ready for more Brandings in 2011! 31 days until Centenary vs Harding…wow!