There was a time when Thomas DeNapoli was reluctant to shoot the ball.
As a freshman on the Towson men's lacrosse team, DeNapoli took just 11 shots, scoring four times. The following year, he attempted 42 shots and scored 15 goals.
"My first couple years here at Towson, I definitely wasn't as aggressive as I've been the last two years," recalled DeNapoli, now a senior. "Coming in as a younger guy, you don't want to step on any of the seniors' or juniors' toes. It kind of felt that way in my first couple of years. Now that I'm older, I'm definitely a more aggressive player."
Shawn Nadelen, the Tigers' associate head coach and defensive coordinator for DeNapoli's first two seasons before succeeding Tony Seaman as head coach before the 2013 campaign, said the coaching staff has tried to cultivate a take-charge attitude in DeNapoli.
"It's something he has grown a little bit more into his game," Nadelen said. "Thomas, in his first couple years, wasn't much of an overly aggressive guy with the ball. He was talented enough to beat a matchup, but we really had to encourage him to shoot more and to try to produce more. I think his confidence has grown as the years have gone by to know that he can generate shots."
Confidence is no longer an issue for DeNapoli. The attackman leads No. 20 Towson (6-2) in goals (13), assists (13) and shots (55) this season after leading last year's team in the same three categories (41 goals, 19 assists and 127 shots).
The undisputed quarterback of the offense, DeNapoli has drawn the attention of many opposing defenses — a trend that will continue when Colonial Athletic Association rival Delaware (5-3, 0-1) visits Johnny Unitas Stadium in Towson at 7 p.m. Saturday.
"He's a great player," said coach Bob Shillinglaw, against whose team DeNapoli has three goals and three assists in their past two meetings. "He's going to get his points. I think he's a leader on the whole Towson squad as well as from the offensive side of it. I think the key with Thomas is, we have to play him not only individually, but we have to contain him. I don't know if you're going to limit him to no points, but we have to play well as a team. … We've got to make sure that we limit their whole team, and he's part of it. If we can limit him to some degree, I think we'll be successful."
DeNapoli's 41 goals last season were the most by a Tigers player since 2001, when Kyle Campbell set a program record with 53. The increase might have coincided with his move from midfield to his more natural position at attack, but DeNapoli conceded that altering his stance on shooting the ball took some effort.
"Shooting more is more of a mindset," he said. "I just kept telling myself every day in practice, 'Be more aggressive.' Our offense needed me to be more aggressive. It definitely takes a couple times to get used to it. It's not going to come out right away. … You've just got to keep drilling it into your mind to stay aggressive."
This season, DeNapoli continues to lead the offense in goals and shots, but what is surprising is that he has as many assists as goals. Nadelen said DeNapoli has adapted his game as defenses concentrate on preventing him from scoring, and DeNapoli said he is trying to get his teammates involved.
"We have some new pieces out there on offense," he said. "We have a couple freshmen that are playing really well, and I definitely think that a couple of defenses are keying on me a little more. So it helps me to distribute the ball and maybe not score as much as I did last year. I'm just looking to get all five of my guys involved on offense and keep scoring goals."
Shillinglaw, the Delaware coach, said DeNapoli's growth as a player presents defenses with a dilemma: Defend him as a scorer or as a feeder?
"He's a guy that can put the ball in the cage, but I think the coaching staff there has done a great job of including the rest of the team," Shillinglaw said. "They've got some young players that are rising to the occasion. And with the success that they had last year, the game plan is going to be, how can we prevent him scoring goals, and he's done a great job of turning around and finding the next guy. As teams make efforts to stop him, other guys are going to get open. He's shown that he is a great player by finding the next guy."
Freshman attackman and Hereford graduate Joe Seider (12 goals) and junior midfielder Greg Cuccinello (11) have emerged as competent scorers, and junior midfielder Justin Mabus (nine assists) and freshman midfielder Ryan Drenner (eight) are becoming playmakers. But Nadelen said DeNapoli's value to the offense can't be overstated.
"He's a guy that we lean on," Nadelen said. "If it comes down to it at the end of a game, we're going to count on him to be involved in the play pretty heavily. If he's not starting with the ball, it's definitely coming his way. I don't think that's any surprise. The way he's been playing, the attention he draws is a good thing for our offense as a whole because if he gets an opening, he's going to be productive. But he also gets a lot of attention coming his way, and he's able to distribute to the other guys."