Editor’s note: This story appears in the September-October issue of New England Lacrosse Journal.
Nathan Laliberte had a larger impact on Bryant’s 2021 season than most people realize.
Not only did the Auburn, N.H., resident win 60 percent of his faceoffs, but the faceoff specialist also helped recruit Bryant’s top scorer.
After a stellar high school career, Ben Abladian (Londonderry, N.H.) was contemplating a postgraduate year. Laliberte, who turned down Big 10 and ACC schools for Bryant, did his part to get his club teammate with the NH Tomahawks on board.
“I was in his ear a little bit about coming to Bryant; he was planning on taking that PG year,” Laliberte recalled. “I was telling him, ‘I’m going to talk to the Bryant coaches, because I know you don’t want to do this PG year.’”
To say it worked out is an understatement.
Bryant excelled in 2021, winning nine games and its first Northeast Conference title since 2017. The Bulldogs even pushed eventual national champion Virginia to the limit, falling 13-11 in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Bryant’s freshman class, led by Granite State natives Abladian and Laliberte, stepped up to help the Bulldogs rebound from a three-win season in 2019. Abladian netted a team-high 29 goals to earn conference Player of the Year honors.
“It was awesome,” Abladian said. “We as players had to step up and capitalize. It’s awesome that we’re starting to put Bryant on the map.”
Due to COVID-19 protocols and injuries, Abladian received ample playing time. Duke transfer CJ Carpenter suffered a season-ending injury in a scrimmage, and Marc O’Rourke (Hingham, Mass) missed most of 2021 due to myocarditis, leaving Bryant low on attackers.
Bulldogs coach Mike Pressler (Wilton, Conn.) said Abladian did a great job taking advantage of a unique situation.
“He’s quicker than he looks, he plays bigger than he is, and he has uncanny poise around the goal,” Pressler said. “He can feed it, he can shoot it, he’s great off the ground, he’s terrific inside on rebounds and he’s an outstanding rider. There’s not a part in Ben’s game that he doesn’t play well.”
Laliberte, meanwhile, played in eight games before tearing the ACL, meniscus and MCL in his right knee against Sacred Heart. He had already missed his junior year of high school with a torn left ACL.
Rather than feel sorry for himself, Laliberte locked in on recovery while still supporting the team, earning the praise of his head coach.
“I can honestly say I’ve never, ever, in 38 years seen a young man attack his rehab like that guy,” Pressler said. “He is so far ahead of schedule, he’s an absolute machine when it comes to his knee. His work ethic to his craft and to his rehab is over the top.”
When Abladian and Laliberte weren’t playing club for the NH Tomahawks growing up, they were high school rivals. Bishop Guertin and Pinkerton Academy are the two top lacrosse programs in New Hampshire; the two schools have combined to win every NHIAA Division 1 state title since 2010.
Abladian posted 195 points with the Cardinals, earning All-America honors, and helping Bishop Guertin defeat Laliberte and Pinkerton in the 2017 state championship game. The attacker loved the high-level play in high school, as well as the relationships he built. He spent the summer working out with some of his former Bishop Guertin teammates.
“Even in practice you’re going against high-level guys,” Abladian said. “If I had stayed at some public schools, I would not be improving myself. I know kids from those teams going all over the place, It’s nice having that little community to go to.”
After playing right away as a freshman at Pinkerton, Laliberte transferred to Governor’s Academy, helping the team win a share of the Independent School League title in 2018. He transferred back to Pinkerton to be closer to home in 2019, but COVID erased his senior season.
While he enjoyed his two years at Governor’s, Laliberte couldn’t resist getting to play with and against his New Hampshire friends again.
“Starting off at Pinkerton was an awesome experience,” Laliberte said. “I got to go in as a freshman and play right away. It was great to be able to play against all my Tomahawk teammates my first year in high school.”
Abladian and Laliberte are now gearing up for a challenging sophomore year at Bryant. The main goal is to advance further in the NCAA tournament, and both underclassmen believe the Bulldogs are more than capable of that.
There’s a target on Bryant’s back now, but that doesn’t bother Laliberte, who expects to be ready for the start of the season.
“We’ve got a lot of dogs,” Laliberte said. “Whatever team comes to Bryant this year, they’re entering the dogpound and it’s going to be a great battle no matter what. We’re not going to make it easy on any team this year.”
Occasionally, Abladian and Laliberte will reminisce on their high school careers. Bishop Guertin did beat Pinkerton for a state championship in 2017, but the Astros defeated the Cardinals in 2018 and ‘19.
We’ll never know for sure which team would have won a state title in 2020, but that doesn’t stop Abladian from talking a little trash to his teammate.
“He is lucky he didn’t get his senior year,” Abladian said.