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Apr. 25—Tommy Smyth and John Butler are in their ninth season as lacrosse teammates.

Yet Smyth describes the Duluth Wolfpack defenders as competitors despite occupying the same patch of turf.

“We’re more like rivals on the field,” he said. “We play the same position and have all of high school.”

Once the 18-year-old seniors finish their seasons this spring, they will become actual rivals.

Smyth plans to attend Elmhurst (Ill.) University, where he will study biochemistry and play lacrosse.

One of the Bluejays’ rivals in the Division III College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin is North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, where Butler plans to study mechanical engineering and play for the Cardinals.

“We were both looking to play (in college) and since we play in a lot of summer tournaments, we get noticed by the same college coaches,” Smyth explained. “We both ended up looking at schools in Illinois, and it turns out that they’re rivals.”

Smyth made his decision first in November, followed by Butler.

“It was the best fit for me as far as schooling and what type of degree I wanted to go for and what the coach had as a scheme,” Butler said. “I think it will be extremely fun to see each other play and continue to progress. We’ll make lots of memories.”

They would like to make some more memories in their final season with the Wolfpack, the combined Duluth East and Duluth Denfeld program.

With the bulk of the 2019 team returning, sixth-year coach Scott Wishart is hoping for a successful sendoff despite COVID-19 limiting the number of players in the program.

“We have a number of guys who are high tempo and try to push the play and stay aggressive,” he said. “And we have a solid defense.”

That’s where Smyth and Butler come in as long-stick midfielders and close-pole defenders. They wield the 6-foot sticks and try to keep balls away from the attackers with the 3-foot sticks.

“They are both interchangeable whether they play long-stick midfielder or close-pole defense; they head up our defensive corps,” Wishart said. “They are both very smart players and understand situations very well.

“Tommy has always been an incredible athlete and uses his speed and strength to outmuscle other guys on the ball. Both John and Tom have a very active stick and a quick stick — they both force lots of turnovers. Forcing turnovers and finding the next play after that, moving the ball up the field. They both like to play offense as well and have really good shots.”

Smyth, in his fourth year on varsity, has a simple explanation for why he likes to play defense.

“I love the physicality of lacrosse,” he said. “Defense is the most physical part on the field. It’s fun to hit people.”

And less depth than usual means the Wolfpack may be on defense more often, allowing Smyth and Butler to hone their craft.

“I like shutting people down and knowing that they can’t do anything when guarding me, along with the physicality of it,” Butler said. “And I like being able to strip the ball from them and start running up the field.”

Duluth, which went 11-4 in 2019, lost 9-4 to White Bear Lake in its opener. The Wolfpack rebounded with a rare shutout Saturday, 9-0 over Forest Lake, as goalie Connor Kiergaard made six saves. Colby Larson scored three goals, while Dane Callaway added two goals, Colby Larson had two goals and two assists and Gavin Slattery notched a goal and two assists.

Smyth and Butler will be the latest members of the Wolfpack to play at the next level. Alum Dan O’Connell preceded Smyth at Elmhurst, and Smyth’s older brother, Will, is a sophomore on the University of Montana’s club team.

That bodes well for the Wolfpack program.

“These kids didn’t just start playing as freshmen and sophomores, they started in our youth program,” Wishart said. “We’re starting to get some good roots in our youth program. It gets the kids engaged at a younger level, just like in other sports. If we can get these kids starting as 8-, 9- or 10-year-olds and keep siphoning them through our feeder program, they’re going to have opportunities like Tommy and John to play collegiate-level lacrosse.”