AS SOON as Drexel's lacrosse team concluded practice on Tuesday, Nick Saputo made his way off the turf field. He hit the showers, and traded in his helmet and jersey for a green button-down shirt and khaki pants. The junior midfielder was on his way to his co-op job at Sunoco in South Philadelphia. It is not the average day for a 21-year-old, but it is why he chose Drexel.
After freshman year, Drexel co-op students alternate 6-month periods of full-time study and full-time employment with university-approved employers.
"I liked the school as a whole, especially the co-op program," Saputo said. "Working full time and having practice is a lot, but I like it. I love all the guys on the team. Being able to be as competitive as we are is awesome, that drew me here for sure."
Saputo is one of the big reasons why Drexel is so competitive and has risen through the ranks of college lacrosse. He is a faceoff specialist who was put on display Sunday, netting three goals in the Dragons' 16-11 win over Penn in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The victory advanced the Dragons to the quarterfinals Sunday against fifth-seeded, high-scoring Denver at the University of Delaware.
"That was the icing on the cake," Drexel coach Brian Voelker said of Saputo's three goals. "When we get the ball and he is fired up, sometimes he is more fired up when he loses a faceoff than when he wins it. He plays with a ton of intensity. It sets a real tone for our guys."
That intensity was there long before he decided to come to Philadelphia to play his college lacrosse. Saputo has had a lacrosse stick in his hand from an early age, partly because of his roots on Long Island.
"I started when I was 6 or 7 years old," Saputo said. "I grew up on Long Island, so everybody played lacrosse. All my friends, my parents grew up on Long Island, as well, so they all knew about lacrosse. My parents said, 'Hey, want to play lacrosse?' I picked up a stick and got into it from there."
Huntington High, where Saputo starred, is one of the good teams on Long Island. The team won the New York state championship in 2005 and 2006, and five Long Island titles.
"I went to a great high school, and we were really competitive. That helped a lot," Saputo said. "Everyone was pushing each other to get better in my middle school and high school. That competitiveness was something that I loved and something that I didn't want to stop having."
When Saputo got to Drexel, he was not the go-to guy for faceoffs, as he is now. He had to pay his dues behind Deven Thomas, who is a senior on this year's team.
"Nick wasn't one of those kids; in a really good way, he didn't sit back," Voelker said. "He worked hard at it, kept challenging Deven. He kept plugging away and plugging away and when he got his opportunities he stepped up."
That is exactly what Saputo did when he was given his shot. This year, he has a .638 faceoff percentage, taking all but 45 of Drexel's 434 draws at the midfield circle.
"It changes the way you play the game. It's incredible," senior Ben McIntosh said of Saputo. "If we are up by two goals, a lot of teams would want to hold the ball the whole time, but we are able to go in and take the shots most teams wouldn't, because we are confident that Nick is going to get the ball back. He is phenomenal."
While the stats are impressive, the energy Saputo brings to the Dragons is what he is known for. He gets the team pumped up after he wins a faceoff, and even more so if he scores, as he did against Penn.
"If guys look around and look at his success, it is really easy to see why he is successful," Voelker said. "He works really hard, he studies film, he makes lacrosse a priority. It is really important to him. He plays with that fire and intensity that guys need to have."