Playing against the best atheletes of your sport at the Division I level is daunting.
Playing in a starting role as a freshman — even more daunting.
But when attackman Bryce Clay and defenseman Andrew Darby both found themselves in the starting lineup for the Michigan men’s lacrosse team against Drexel last Februrary — the second game of their freshman season — they had little to fear.
They knew their teammates and coaches had their backs.
“I wasn’t nervous … I leaned a lot on my seniors, because those guys have been there before,” Darby said. “They (knew) what to do.”
All Clay and Darby needed was to relax and do what they came to Michigan to do — play lacrosse.
They did just that.
In the final minutes of the third quarter, Clay netted his first goal as a Wolverine and picked up four ground balls. Darby scooped up three ground balls of his own and caused one turnover.
Despite a deflating 17-16 double-overtime loss to the Dragons, there was a positive silver lining — Clay and Darby had emerged as starters.
Despite their age, Clay and Darby weren’t nervous.
For one thing, they had earned the right to play at a high-caliber level.
Clay, ranked as the No. 11 attackman amongst 2018 recruits, was a two-time USILA high school All-American during his time at Forest Hills Central High School in Grand Rapids, MI. Darby hails from Darien, Conn. — a hotbed for east-coast lacrosse — and was named First-Team All-Connecticut during his senior season.
“We had to go ahead and throw them in positions that they needed to be thrust into,” Michigan coach Kevin Conry said.
Added Darby: “I’d make sure I hit the wall at least three times a week in-season just to get my reps in and make sure I wouldn’t drop that extra pass. Just working hard, trying to learn the defense, trusting my coaches and the older guys.”
But the deeper reason behind Clay and Darby’s early success lies in a positive team culture that permeates throughout the Wolverines’ entire roster.
Some college sports teams are toxic and self-destructive, overemphasizing individual success and accolades.
But some are imbued with camaraderie, support and an overwhelming sense of pride. These teams value synergy and build one another up.
Michigan men’s lacrosse is among the latter.
“Something coach Conry harps on is setting an example on and off the field,” Darby said. “You can’t just turn on a switch for big games. You have to be dialed in at practice and off the field everyday — go to class everyday.”
Last season, Clay and Darby had some pretty good role models to follow.
On a roster anchored by several current professional lacrosse players, including the program’s all-time leading goal-scorer, midfielder Brent Noseworthy, and defenseman Nick DeCaprio, who led the Big Ten in caused turnovers per game last season, the Wolverines were able to use their veteran leadership to cultivate the development of the program’s future leaders.
Joining an offensive core led by Noseworthy, midfielder Decker Curran and fellow attackmen Kevin Mack and Alex Buckanavage, Clay found himself in exceptional company to help elevate his game. He quickly became an offensive weapon for Michigan, finishing the season third on the team in goals (22) and fifth in total points (28). During a four-game stretch in the middle season when Noseworthy was out with a knee injury, Clay stepped up, scoring 10 goals and recording three assists.
“A lot of my success last year was from my teammates, whether it was them giving me the ball or me giving them the ball,” Clay said. “They helped me get to the right places. I was just a kid. Whenever I was stressed out or not having a good day, they made sure I was alright and putting in the extra work.”
An experienced defensive unit, led by then seniors DeCaprio and Michael Borda, provided an opportunity for Darby to grow as well. By the end of the season, he had picked up the third-most ground balls on the team (29) and caused 13 turnovers.
“Defense is a big team sport,” Darby said. “You have to rely a lot on your team … Just having an open mind and being able to learn was the big key for me.”
And off the field, whether it was working on homework, team-bonding or finding time to get meals together, seniors made sure to help younger players adjust to the lifestyle of a Division I athlete.
“Last year (Noseworthy) was a great influence on me,” Clay said. “He’s a great guy, great teammate. (He’s) somebody I could go to outside of lacrosse … It’s nice having that.”
Added Darby: “If you’re having a bad day, not everyone is having a bad day, so you have to rely on your teammates to help you get better and keep you positive.”
Although their roads to Ann Arbor have been vastly different, both Clay and Darby have found a home on the Wolverines’ roster thanks to the demonstrated care of their older teammates.
As a lacrosse player from western Michigan in Grand Rapids, Clay had to spend his childhood summers at lacrosse tournaments on the east coast just to get attention from college recruiters. When Michigan called to offer Clay a scholarship to play lacrosse, it was a no-brainer for him to commit.
However, Clay had to put in a significant amount of work to adjust to the pace of college lacrosse.
“The Big Ten is super fast … With lacrosse predominantly being an east coast sport, I really had to speed up quick and (the team) helped me transition,” Clay said. “(But) I realized that it’s bigger than myself to represent the Block ‘M.’ I know that when I leave here, I’ll be a better person. I’ll be a Michigan man. That was big for me.”
Darby, on the other hand, played for a high school crowded with talent where competition for playing time was fierce. After not playing on varsity until his senior year at Darien, Michigan posed as a unique opportunity for Darby to showcase his true abilities at the college level.
“That made me get better and I learned from a lot of guys ahead of me at (Darien),” Darby said. “It just made me better in the long-run … my (motto) of getting here was, ‘trust the process.’ Everything (happened) for a reason.”
But now older teammates like Noseworthy and DeCaprio are gone. Entering their sophomore seasons, Clay and Darby bear a greater burden to fill their shoes as impact players and role models.
Following a disappointing 4-9 season plagued by injuries and faceoff struggles, it wasn’t a perfect season for the young pair. Like everyone on the team, they made mistakes. But Conry hopes his decision to place them in a starting role early in their collegiate careers will pay dividends.
“They were baptized in fire. (We said) ‘Let’s get (them) in and have them make some mistakes now, so (they) can be better,’ ” Conry said. “It’s creating a map for their future.”
Clay and Darby have their eyes set on the upcoming 2020 campaign, with hopes to build off the Wolverines’ victory over Ohio State in last year’s season finale — their first win against the Buckeyes in program history.
“One thing we learned was that we hate to lose,” Darby said. “It was not fun. So we built up that hatred for losing.”
Added Clay: “I’m expecting some bigger things … we are grown-ups now. We have some experience out there. Just to compete at a high level is huge to set an example for the younger guys coming in and represent the Block ‘M.’ ”
When Michigan opens its season against Cleveland State in February, Clay and Darby will once again be in the starting lineup.
Conry and the rest of the team will expect them to build off of last year’s production.
But off the field, the program will expect arguably more of them to serve as leaders for the young Wolverines roster.
“They are guys who we know are going to be in the shooting room, doing extra footwork, going to be monsters in the weight room,” Conry said. “We want guys who meet our standards and carry their teammates along with their standards,” Conry said. “Now that they have gotten to a point where they have consistently met our standards for our program … they are doing a good job dragging people along with them.”
“It extends further than lacrosse,” Clay said. “Lacrosse is a big part of our lives, but we are trying to be better men.”