At a program steeped in tradition, sometimes the stakes for the seniors are a little higher. Since the early '80s, almost every player to come through Syracuse has left the school with at least one ring on his finger. On Monday, this year's seniors get their crack at earning their own championship tackle.
By Joel Godett
Evan Brady can’t tell you where to find his 2004 National Championship ring. The Syracuse fifth-year senior thinks it’s somewhere at home, and he knows he doesn’t have it with him at school. In fact Brady doesn’t even count that win over Navy amongst his lacrosse accomplishments – he didn’t contribute enough to feel a part of it all. But at least Brady has a ring. For the Orange’s group of fourth year seniors, the mantel remains bare.
Since SU began its lacrosse tear in the early 1980’s only two recruiting classes have left the Salt City without a Memorial Day victory – Final Fours yes, but championships no. The 1984 and 1996 classes stand alone. A loss today to Johns Hopkins, and the recruiting class of 2005 would join them. Brady called it the “double-decker.”
“I heard it on an old school tape,” Brady said. “We watch old school ‘Cuse highlights, old school games before every game. That’s where I heard it.”
Three times this group has failed to capture an NCAA crown. In 2005 UMass stunted the Orange road with a first round upset, a loss that curtailed ‘Cuse’s run of 22 straight Final Fours. In 2006, eventual champ Virginia dealt the fatal blow in the semis. In 2007, a 5-8 record shut down SU’s May run before it ever started. This spring provides a final opportunity.
“I’ve never really focused on it as pressure,” said senior captain Mike Leveille. “The parity of lacrosse is so great these days that if you don’t show up to play any day, you’re not going to come out on top. I think we’ve learned that the hard way and we’re looking for big things this year.”
There are a lot of reasons behind Syracuse’s return to prominence in ‘08. Leveille (and anybody else you ask) admits last year’s 5-8 record is a big driving force – maybe even more than the idea of graduating without a trophy. There’s also the game of “Trading Spaces” played amongst the coaching staff; the addition of transfer Sid Smith and freshmen Joel White (LSM) and John Galloway (GK) to the defense; and there’s the revamped workout regiment.
“A lot has changed,” said junior midfielder Dan Hardy. “Back in the day Syracuse wasn’t really big on off-season workouts, and we really changed a lot this year. [It used to be] show up for weightlifting whenever you want if you show up at all. Not much running, not lifting, not [that] good of shape – you’d figure that you’d come out in the season and because you’re Syracuse lacrosse you’ll win. We saw last year that didn’t work.”
Brady, one of four fifth-year seniors, brings it all back to the title as well.
“When you’re a senior and you look back, you want your senior class ultimately to win one,” Brady said. “You want to win one for yourselves.”
And while not a senior, junior midfielder Dan Hardy knows what’s riding on SU’s ability to earn its first crown since 2004.
“Most guys come here to win championships and get to Final Fours,” Hardy said. “If you don’t leave here with a ring, you kind of feel like you’re missing something.”
In the effort to escape that empty feeling, the seniors have taken on a huge leadership role this season – one admittedly similar to that of the 2006 class. That was a group including Brett Bucktooth, Brian Crockett, John Wright, and Joe Yevoli. That team’s senior year began 1-4, then ended with 10-straight wins en route to the Final Four. Fifth-year senior and 2008 National Midfielder-of-the-Year Steven Brooks still speaks with ’06 captain Bucktooth about leadership. Brooks says Bucktooth tells him favorite quotes about the subject, a nice turn from when the senior was younger and looked up to guys like the current pro.
Junior Pat Perritt pointed to the seniors as being examples for everybody – keeping the team focused on the task at hand, both on and off the field, especially after the way 2007 unfolded. It’s a responsibility the seniors certainly recognize.
“Every guy, from the guys that aren’t playing that much to the guys who are playing every game are motivated,” Perritt said. “A lot of that comes from the seniors. They’re not letting anybody slack off. They’re letting everybody know how much this means.”
“If we’re messing up or performing like we should be than they’re going to see that and do the same,” senior captain and close defender Kyle Guadagnolo said. “They’re following in our footsteps.”
But the situation’s about a little more than just victory or defeat. Losing out on a national title wouldn’t just be disappointing; it would provide a ticket to an exclusive club. Harkening back to Hardy’s comment, it could leave the group feeling left out. It could draw the double-decker or “sandwich team” label.
“The seniors in 1987 were affectionately called the sandwich team because they were sandwiched between two gold trophies [1984 and 1988],” head coach John Desko said. “There is some pressure there. I think it all comes from expectations. I do think the biggest pressure comes from within. These guys came here to play for Syracuse and play for a shot at the national championship. These guys want to leave a mark on their careers and a gold medal would obviously do that.”
Not only would that be a mark to forever garnish the senior’s careers, but a mark that would ring throughout the lacrosse world. In the end it’s the latter that could matter most. Guadagnolo said a title would “make a statement that Syracuse lacrosse is back and that we’re the best team in the country. That’s more important than my own personal goals.”