There’s only one Massachusetts native returning to home soil for Championship Weekend of the 51 players on the University of Denver Pioneers men’s lacrosse team. Junior attack turned midfielder Connor Donahue of Groton, Massachusetts will be playing on the field and have exclusive access to the Patriots’ Gillette Stadium, a dream of any New Englander.
“It’s cool to come full-circle. I used to go to the Final Four when it was at Gillette [Stadium] when I was in middle school,” Donahue said. “To finally be playing when it’s back here is pretty special. I have a lot of family and friends that will be coming out here to support [me] so it’s pretty exciting.”
Groton is a Northwest suburb of Boston where Donahue was born and raised as an only-child among a family of die-hard New Englanders. His immediate family and extended relatives all currently reside in the state.
Donahue, originally an avid hockey player, didn’t pick up lacrosse until middle school.
“I played little league baseball, then around sixth or seventh grade, a couple of buddies from my hometown Groton gave me a stick and we just started playing,” Donahue said. “I played hockey since I was three-years old and there is a big carry over from hockey to lacrosse, skill-wise going into the game so it kind rolled right from there.”
From that point forward Donahue balanced hockey and lacrosse as he attended Bishop Guertin, a preparatory high school in New Hampshire. He was a four-year varsity starting attackman in lacrosse and a four-year starting defenseman in hockey. With a 5-foot-8 170-pound frame, Donahue says his he emulated his skating style like, “Torey Krug in the Bruins, a short little D-guy. I would rush the puck.”
Donahue knew lacrosse was the sport he wanted to pursue collegiately, plus he had the appeal of being a natural lefty. When selecting schools, hockey was still a factor in the Donahue’s equation.
“I hadn’t really been out west,” Donahue said. “I looked at Loyola and Hofstra some other East Coast schools, but I really narrowed it down by school size. Denver was perfect, it had that perfect size, I wanted to be somewhat close to a city with a lot of stuff to do and being a pretty big hockey fan I wanted it to have a pretty good hockey program. Those were kind of my characteristics that narrowed it down. It was hard to say no once you come out. It’s an amazing state and once you see everything it [DU] has to offer.”
In Donahue’s freshman season, the Pioneers won the program’s first-ever national championship. In the 2015 campaign, Donahue saw 11 games of action, but Sean Cannizzaro, Connor’s older brother, mostly dominated the lefty-attack spot. Upon Cannizzaro’s graduation, Donahue earned his place in the 2016 lineup alongside then, senior Jack Bobzien and junior Connor Cannizzaro.
“With Connor [Donahue] I think the key was he went from a freshman who had skills and he’s left-handed which you always need more of, but we just kind of weren’t sure where he fit,” DU head coach Bill Tierney said. “We weren’t sure if he would ever fit to be honest. Then last year we felt like he gave us the best opportunity at attack to be steady.”
Donahue saw 15 games of action last season, totaling 13 goals and nine assists.
This season, however, Donahue’s spot was jeopardized with the arrival of freshman left-handed attackman extraordinaire Ethan Waker.
“This year it didn’t take anybody very long including Connor [Donahue] to see that Ethan Walker was special. So he [Donahue] was going to get bumped out,” Tierney said. “Moving [Austin French] Frenchy back to Bobzien’s spot, you’ve got Cannizzaro and now you’ve got Ethan, what do you do with Connor Donahue? We weren’t sure at first. Then, with Pace’s injury, we said, ‘Well this guy has got experience, let’s put him in.’ What we started to realize was from his experience from being an attack and playing against long sticks all of the time is all of the sudden playing with Colton Jackson or playing with Tyler Pace, he’s going to get the short-stick all the time. He’s got confidence, he’s got experience, he’s got charisma out there and he’s been great all year long.”
Transitioning from attack to midfield abruptly was quite the change, but Donahue handled the challenge eloquently and has been critical in the starting midfield line. The dynamic among Pace, Jackson, and Donahue is effective because of how well they balance each other out. Pace’s each and every move is calculated, he’s poised and precise. Jackson is a force, with a rocket-long shot. Donahue’s characteristics at his attackman position translate to the bursts of energy he admits as he dodges and spins, heightening the speed of play.
“I played attack a lot growing up. Always dodging the long-sticks so switching to midfield was definitely a newer position for me, but I feel like I picked it up pretty quick,” Donahue said. “Having guys like Tyler [Pace] and Colton Jackson, they really helped out with that walking me through where to be and then I ran with it. It’s definitely a could change of pace, dodging against a short-stick instead of dodging against a long-pole most of your career. I think we just built our chemistry from there, we play off of each other very nice the three of us. It’s real easy to play with those guys, they’re always in the right spots. We’ve just it our stride at the right time here.”
As a midfield unit, Pace, Jackson and Donahue have amassed 50 goals and 25 assists this season.
With a huge support system making the trip to Foxborough to watch Donahue play, win or lose it’ll be special weekend for the sole New Englander Pio.
“Massachussetts, very much like Colorado has produced some really great players over the years, but still isn’t known as a [lacrosse] hotbed,” Tierney said. “To have Connor come out of there, I think it’s going to be a big day for him.”