Expectations are high in Syracuse, as they are most seasons, yet the potential historical significance of success remains a skirted subject.
“We don’t like to talk about the three-peat,” said Hal Luther, the Orange’s strength and conditioning coach. “This is a different team, this is the 2010 team, and they’re as hungry as any team in America.”
Luther did acknowledge the fitting nature of Syracuse being potentially on the cusp of a third-straight national championship exactly twenty years after the last ‘Cuse team to complete the title trilogy (’88, ’89, ’90*), arguably one of the greatest team’s ever.
*The 1990 title had to be vacated due to NCAA rulings.
“We’re just excited to have a chance to climb the mountain again,” said junior goalie John Galloway. “Nothing feels better than sitting on the field on Memorial Day with a victory, and we’re emphasizing that to the younger guys so they know what they’re getting into, and getting excited to have this opportunity to do this again.”
With steep losses from graduation, this year’s climb may prove even more arduous than the past two. The offense lost 205 points of production, predominantly from the midfield. The defense remains mostly intact except for the loss of Sid Smith, the unit’s vocal leader.
Returning though are key starters at the attack and defense, including a goalie that has yet to lose a playoff game. While the younger players may lack experience, they can look to the upperclassmen that have tasted success and seen the fruits of effective leadership.
“Our junior class [and] senior class, they have two national championship rings,” head coach John Desko pointed out. “That has to account for something.”
Orange O Looking Pretty Green
“We’re not as experienced as we were, but we have some very good ability,” Desko said. “We’re throwing our young players into the fire right away this year.”
Desko’s hand is forced in many ways. What has made Syracuse so productive offensively the past two seasons has been the maturation of so many weapons, forming a unit that was as individually effective as it was cohesive. Guys like Pat Perritt, Dan Hardy, Matt Abbott, and Kenny Nims all arrived as part of the same class. Unfortunately, 2009 saw them all leave.
“That past midfield, they grew up together and kind of worked well together,” said junior Josh Amidon, now perhaps the most experienced middie on the roster. “That’s what we’ve got to find as a unit right now, a midfield unit, chemistry, and being able to work with each other and find everybody’s groove.”
Newcomers like top recruit JoJo Marasco and Onondaga Community College standout transfer Jeremy Thompson should work their way onto the field quickly. Red shirt freshmen Steve Ianzito and Pete Coleman should also get a shot. Juniors Jeff Gilbert and Jovan Miller along with Max Bartig should emerge from more limited roles to expanded duties this year.
“It’s not if we’re going to be good, it’s when we’re going to be good,” Desko said. “There are some kids with very good ability that are just lacking some repetitions and experience.”
The attack retains most of its interchangeable pieces from last year except for the gaping void left by Nims’ departure.
“Kenny really helped give us more of a game from behind the goal,” Desko said, as well as the fluid dodging, feeding, and great lacrosse IQ that Nims brought to the playing field.
This situation should be familiar to Desko, though. After the championship run of 2008, the engine of the Orange offense, Mike Leveille, graduated. In 2009, Nims stepped up and became the unit’s new cerebral and effecient quarterback. Desko will have to see if one of last year’s starters can assume the task this season.
“We will have Cody Jamieson (sr.) for the whole year barring injury, with Stephen Keough (jr.), Chris Daniello (sr.), and Tim Desko (so.),” Coach Desko enumerated, “all guys who bring back points and game experience.”
Though faces may change, tradition won’t at Syracuse. With several more experienced middies earning their minutes playing shortstick defense the past two seasons, and a healthy stable of young, underdeveloped players who can run, the Orange may rely a little heavier on their ‘run-and-gun’ tactics.
“In this type of system at Syracuse, to really be able to get the ball up and get offense started from transition, I think we’re really emphasizing that this season,” said Galloway, who Desko considers about the best clearing goalie in Division I. “We have some middies who can run, I think some faster middies than maybe last year, and we’re going to take those middies and really push them up the field right away, and see what we can get off a save or off a turnover, that’s going to be a big part of our game, more than it’s been the past two years.”
Trial by fire will be the teaching method for this young offense.
“With those younger players, we can’t change our style of play too much,” Desko said. “We’ve got to instill what we do. Whether it costs us a little bit in goals or in games, it may, but like I said, it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”
“The one thing you do get with younger players and a lack of experience, you do get turnovers,” Desko forewarned. Typically the Orange produce more turnovers than more conservative offenses due to pushing the ball in transition. For an offense trying to find its way, this could have serious implications on the success of the defense.
“The past two seasons we were fortunate to have a great offense that could put the ball in the cage even if we let up a couple easy ones,” Galloway said. “This season, we are going to have to take that responsibility of holding offenses to a lot less goals and getting the ball to our offensive end more.”
Galloway will have the comfort of junior John Lade and senior Matt Tierney returning to a close unit that was largely underrated last season, quietly holding opponents to fewer than eight goals a game on average. Galloway will probably step up for Smith’s vocal leadership, but the third spot may become a carousel with several potential candidates trying it out depending on the defense’s needs.
“There’s guys in the running,” Galloway said. “Brandon Conlin, a senior, has been playing really well, great size on defense. Tommy Guadagnolo (jr.) has one of the best sticks on the team, and a freshman actually, Brian Megill, is doing a great job on that side of the field. It’s a heated battle.”
The midfield defense has grown formidable over the past few seasons. Despite the departure of their most versatile player, Abbott, the Orange return a bevy of horses at D-middie.
Jovan Miller, a junior, has blended his raw athleticism with field smarts to potentially become the team’s new two-way threat. (The Syracuse native has 18 points through his first two seasons.) Kevin Drew, deemed by many the heir apparent to Abbott for sharing the same tall, wiry build and long, deceptively fast gate, will continue to thwart opposing middies as well as be a threat to break out of the box. Senior Joe Coulter and junior Tim Harder should also get some runs defending up top, Desko said.
The Orange’s most stalwart defender may be the acclaimed junior longstick-middie Joel White. An offensive star for Cortland High School, he was handed a pole his freshman year and has never looked back, garnering All-American honors his first two seasons.
“Joel had some points even with the pole in his hand,” Desko said, “so not only are you getting a terrific defender, but you’re getting a defender who can go from defense to offense, who can score goals and get assists and pick up loose groundballs.”
Sharing the LSM duties with White are senior Tyler Hiawatti and sophomores Joe Moore and Gairet Myers.
“We’ve got some depth,” Desko said of his defense, “so we’re hoping we’re good as a unit there.”
Beast of the East?
Due to its inclusion in the newly formed Big East Conference, the schedule for the Orange has some new faces this season. Gone are games against Loyola, UMass, Binghamton, and Colgate, making way for Notre Dame, Providence, St. John’s, and Villanova to become yearly fixtures.
(Syracuse already plays Georgetown and Rutgers, the remaining two Big East schools, every year.)
“For us it’s kind of a learning experience,” Desko said of the first year of league play. “We’re hoping it’s going to add some excitement to some games that we play within the conference.”
Syracuse has never participated in a conference before, enjoying independent status similar to Johns Hopkins. That freedom allowed the Orange to schedule with whomever they wanted, an opportunity the school used to draft as challenging a slate as possible in order to prep the team for tournament play.
“That was the only way that we were going to think about joining the conference,” Desko said, “was the fact that in our schedule we could keep our top opponents…You’ll see the Hopkins, the Princetons, the Virginias of the world, they’re all still there on the schedule.
“I think it’s important to keep the caliber of our schedule,” Desko explained. “If you’re fortunate enough to survive it, then at the end of the year, if you make the NCAA, you have a better chance of being higher ranked because of your strength of schedule, and your RPI, and your wins.”
Now the new conference will provide another potential path to Memorial Day for the Orange. Barring the NCAA granting an exemption, the Big East champion will earn an automatic qualifying bid to the tournament in 2012.
It Takes a Village to Raise a Team
The Orange’s quest for a third-straight title will be stewarded by some new faces this season. Though his eligibility has expired, Pat Perritt remained with the team as a coach, assisting Desko’s staff during fall ball and the preseason as he finishes coursework at the university.
Steve Scaramuzzino, joins his alma mater as an assistant along with Lelan Rodgers and Kevin Donahue, where he will help Desko run the offense. To make room, Roy Simmons III assumed the role of Director of Lacrosse Operations, a role Rodgers had before taking over the defense in 2008.
“[Perrit and Scaramuzzino are] going to be a big help as far as helping get these younger guys in the right place at the right time,” Desko said.
The unsung coach on this staff may be Hal Luther, the man who has helped physically build this team into the dominating force it has been the past two seasons.
After the disappointment of 2007’s losing record, Desko asked Luther to get involved with the team and develop a training program that would build stronger, tougher athletes both mentally and physically.
“It’s definitely been a part of what we’ve been doing in not only the strength and conditioning but team building,” Desko said. “We’re very happy that Hal is here and working with us; he’s a big part of the staff.”
In 2008, the program was exactly the injection Syracuse needed. The team was tough and fresh throughout the year, finishing games from the cold of February through the heat of May. After two rings and a 32-4 overall record the past two seasons, the team has seen the value of Luther’s program.
“Winning definitely helps promote the weight room,” Luther said. “This year the kids are really starting to hang their hats on it…It’s not really my program anymore, it’s theirs.”
The juniors and seniors who currently lead the team have seen that transformation in size, power, and athleticism from when they were freshmen, helping them coach along underclassmen still intimidated by Luther’s grueling workouts.
The scary part for the rest of DI is that Luther didn’t even think the full benefits of the program would be realized until three or four years after it started, when successive classes were able to complete the rigorous process for multiple seasons.
In other words, the lack of experience the Orange bring to the field this season may be counteracted by the depth of experience in championship preparation that has returned this program to the top of the lacrosse world.