From a defensive position, Dalton Adams helped Hamilton West lacrosse to its first winning season and first state tournament berth last year. (Photo by Rich Fisher.)

Dalton Adams did not start playing lacrosse until his freshman year at Hamilton West. After spending his first season learning the game as a midfielder, Adams had a surprise coming when Roc Azzarello took over as head coach last year.

“He told me he was a middie,” Azzarello said. “I gave him a pole, I told him ‘You’re gonna be a pole,’ and that was the news.”

What that means in lacrosse is that Adams was being moved back to defense, where he would be using a much longer six-foot stick.

Asked if he was surprised at “the news,” Adams thought for a second, smiled, then chuckled.

“Yeah.”

Asked if he thought “why me?” and the answer was another affirmative, followed by an understanding.

“But he explained it to me and it made a little bit of sense,” Adams said. “We didn’t have a lot of defenders. I wasn’t really prepared for that, it was only my first couple years playing lacrosse. But I adjusted to it. I went and practiced on my own, I worked hard in practice. It was fine.”

Considering he was defensive midfielder to start with, the adjustments were minimal.

“It’s similar; it’s lacrosse,” he said. “When you play midfield, you play defense and offense so, it was really just the stick. It’s a different release, it’s different picking up ground balls. It’s a lot more to protect compared to a short stick, but I wouldn’t go back to midfield. I like it.”

Adams immediately took to defense and helped Hamilton to the first winning season (9-8) and state tournament berth in program history.

“It was nice,” he said. “We finally got to see what real lacrosse was like. We played Rumson-Fairhaven (in the states), and we played Hopewell. They’re tougher than the teams we played in our division. And we saw what it was like to win. That definitely carries over.”

Adams, as a sophomore, was fourth on the team in ground balls last year with 50 but doesn’t put much stock in personal statistics.

“I wasn’t really interested in the glory, I just wanted to keep working hard and getting better because I knew we still had a lot of work to do,” he said. “That’s how I feel about this year, I just want to work hard and keep playing.”

Now a junior, Adams has become a key player and leader for the Hornets, not just in the back, but all over the field. He is a team captain and has improved his game by working with former Syracuse University standout Joe Moore at Center Court in Lawrence.

“He’s really the rock on defense,” Azzarello said. “He spent a lot of time in the off season working with Joe; he’s been working with the team about playing aggressive. We’re professing a very aggressive defensive style. You see when our guys come out, they’re playing hot.”

Adams is a two-sport athlete as he also plays football. But he has slowly evolved into a lacrosse-first guy after being persuaded to try the sport by his dad in 9th grade. He was helped in his first year by his brother Derek, who was also on the Hornets.

“It was really hard adjusting to it,” Adams said. “I wasn’t really interested at first, but the more I practiced, I got into it. I was a big football player, but after freshman year I was really into it. My brother kept me interested, and coach Roc came here and I really liked it. He showed us what real lacrosse is.”

Azzarello could immediately see that Adams’ combination of speed and strength would make him perfect on defense.

“I think it’s a good mix,” the coach said. “He’s definitely athletic. He’s a stud. He moves well with the ball. He plays very aggressive. He’s talking a lot more. He’s taken on a leadership role with the guys who are a lot newer. They are stepping up. We’re seeing all the guys get aggressive. You can see his speed on the field.”

And Hamilton needed someone to step up. The Hornets graduated seven players last year, including their three top scorers who are all playing Division III college lacrosse. But they were offensive midfielders and the attack line returned intact.

Azzarello’s biggest concern was on defense, where he hopes to limit the goals against to less than six per game. Hamilton did that in its first two matches but allowed a bushel in its next three as the Hornets started 2-3. But Adams is working to make things better.

“The objective for the team is to be aggressive and keep on moving,” Azzarello said. “We’re getting a lot of clears, a lot of ground balls out of Dalton. And, he’s teaching a whole new group of defensemen.”

Adams led the team with 24 ground balls through the first five games. He has also been tough when taking on an offensive opponent.

“You gotta set the tone, play them hard, let them know who they’re playing,” he said. “Just keep on them, play fast, get ground balls.”

Midfielder Declan Donoway feels Adams does just that.

“He’s an amazing player,” Donoway said. “He gets ground balls, he’s strong, he’s fast. He’s just an athletic person in general. He gives us a 100 percent spark out there.”

Adams has thrown himself into the sport now, having gone to camps and now looking into playing in a league this year. He has gotten good enough to draw college interest, which is something he never dreamed of.

“No way,” he said with a laugh. “I haven’t reached out to anybody yet, but I’ve got a couple schools in mind.”

And with two years to go, he has plenty of time left to impress them.