As the clock ran down, Mike Leveille held the ball in his stick, securing Syracuse University’s tenth championship, 13-10 over Johns Hopkins. While the Blue Jays tried to slow down the game, the Orange proved they could succeed playing any style they needed to, prevailing in a hard fought match between these traditional foes. After going 5-8 last season, the 2008 Syracuse squad pulled the unlikely turnaround, taking the title. With revamped offseason workouts and some key changes, the Orange showed that one bad year was just that, and Syracuse is still a collegiate lacrosse power.
“After that 5-8 season, [a championship] was our goal all season,” senior Steven Brooks said after the game. “We worked our butts off, and now we just accomplished it, and it’s unbelievable.”
Early on the teams established a tough, deliberate, and at times physical pace. Both freshman goalies traded solid saves, and both teams exercised some patience, waiting to see what they could get on offense.
Paul Rabil opened the scoring for Hopkins in his typical, overpowering way. Working down the alley, Rabil used a stutter step to get his hands free from freshman long pole Joel White (who looked sharp today both in set defensive play and in transition), then unleashed an 18-yard lefty ripper to beat SU goalie John Galloway low. Rabil had Galloway’s number for most of the day, burning the rookie keeper low from long rage at will.
Despite another tough match-up against Hopkins’ close men Matt Bocklet and Michael Evans, Mike Leveille showed why he is the best attackman in the nation. Leveille challenged his defenders all day, not backing down from physical play and attempting to establish his typical rolls around the crease. Evans and Bocklet proved worthy foes though, rarely letting Leveille get the better of them.
Leveille had his hand in the first Syracuse goal though on the man-up. Working around the wheel, Brooks kicked down to Leveille, who fired a quick shot that freshman keeper Michael Gvozden blocked but could not control. The Orange’s Stephen Keogh raced in, scoring a crafty Canadian goal, snagging the rebound and tucking it around his back.
Rabil stole the lead right back though, coming down in transition, and while Syracuse’s Matt Abbott and Pat Perritt seemed confused about who should cover who, Rabil just stepped up and roped another shot right by Galloway. Despite the mishap, Abbott and Perritt had strong days, particularly Abbott. As usual, he was a one man clearing machine, and a groundball vacuum. He also had some solid defensive series against Hopkins middies like Stephen Peyser.
As the first quarter ended, the teams exchanged a flurry of goals. Hopkins got a quick score in transition, as George Castle carried the ball down and hit Kevin Huntley sitting right off the crease. Six seconds later, Syracuse answered, with Danny Brennan’s first career goal. He won the faceoff, popped the ball to himself, and as no one on Hopkins wanted to really challenge him, Brennan just charged at the goal and scored on the bouncer. But on Hopkins next possession, Stephen Boyle, working behind, got a step on his man and just flew right at the cage, streaking across the face of the goal and stuffing a shot high.
As the first quarter ended, Hopkins held a familiar 4-2 lead.
At the start of the second quarter, Syracuse shooters looked frustrated, overshooting or thinking too much before firing. Syracuse finally connected on a nice catch-and-shoot goal from Keogh, covered yet somehow with free hands, on the inside. Joel White pressed down in transition, lowered his long stick like he was about to shoot, and whipped a quick feed inside to Keogh. A product of the box game, the freshman shares that same talent as fellow Canadians like Zack Greer, of almost always being open, even when they’re covered.
Gvozden got the better of Keogh the next trip down though, as the attackman slipped behind the defense, got the ball, and flew in on Gvozden. The keeper sold out, tracking the shot all the way and stuffing Keogh while laying nearly parallel with the ground. On the ensuing transition, Gvozden chucked a nice outlet up field to Michael Kimmel. Another fling from the midfield, and Kyle Wharton found himself all alone behind the Orange defense for the score. The play was a prime example of the end-to-end exciting up-tempo lacrosse can be.
Syracuse nailed an unsettled tally of their own when out of a complete melee in their offensive end, Leveille finally emerged with a loose ball, looked up and saw junior attackman Kenny Nims with enough space to plant his feet and fire low past Gvozden. Perritt got on the board next. Working on the wing, Perritt caught his defender flat footed, and pressed right in on him, getting to the crease and tucking in a low shot, tying the score at five.
With about two minutes left, after a timeout, Syracuse gained their first lead, one they would never relinquish. Cutting down the side, Brooks tried to set up a dodge. Junior Dan Hardy followed down the seem created by Brooks’ dodge. As the senior pulled out of his move, he passed behind him to Hardy, who had enough time to set his feet and blast a cannon past Gvozden, putting the score at 6-5 Orange. Hardy really had a strong Memorial Day, racking up three goals and playing well in transition en route to his Player of the Game accolade.
“We have nine players who can step up in a spot like this,” Brooks said in reference to the ten guys who got their names on the scorers’ sheet today. “That’s what makes s win a national championship.”
As they have done many times this season, Syracuse came out in the third clicking. Hardy pushed the lead to two when he got the ball in transition and charged right down at the cage. When no one picked him up, he buried a shot from about five-yards off the crease. Brooks then cracked his shooting slump with a strong outside take. Rolling on his man, Brooks caught his defender leaning away and fired a jumper from about 15 yards.
But as he usually does, when his team was bleeding, Rabil plugged the wound. Dodging up top, Rabil took advantage of an overzealous Sean McGonigle, shaking the long pole far enough outside that Rabil could bury another 18-yarder before the defense could slide to him. With his hands free, there is no one as dangerous on the run as Rabil. He set up his favorite senior attackman next, passing down from the wing to Huntley. With very little angle and standing about eight-yards off the pipe, Huntley dropped his stick and stuck the near top corner, flat-out beating Galloway to the spot.
Peyser had a strong day at the faceoff X, splitting draws with the nation’s top specialists Brennan. But Brennan showed why he is the most valuable faceoff man in DI as the game wore on, winning some big faces late, and not letting himself get beat too badly when he did misfire on the draw.
Brendan Loftus got one back for the Orange doing what he has done so well all season. Dodging down the alley, Loftus uncorked a high to low rip on the run to beat Gvozden.
But while Loftus showed he was good on the run, Rabil showed he was great. Any time he had space, Rabil looked to make a play, be it unloading a cannon or whipping a feed. Trailing a fast break, Rabil got a pass up top and fired from about a step into the box before anyone could react to him. But Hardy answered right back with his own overpowering score. Cutting in from the wing, Hardy got a pass from Brooks, then put his head down and bowled right into his defender, knocking him off balance enough to get his hands free for a bouncer by Gvozden.
Heading into the final quarter, Hopkins was looking at a 10-8 deficit.
While Leveille couldn’t get much going for himself, he created for others. Working behind the cage, Leveille set up like he was trying to push up field. As the defense sunk to him, he hit Nims standing off the pipe for a quick catch and shoot goal. Loftus built the lead to four on another shot on the run down the alley.
The game was truly going the Orange’s way when, after Hopkins won the faceoff, as the Jays attempted to pass back and use Gvozden to set up their clear, Greg Niewieroski snuck in, stealing the outlet pass, taking a step behind the cage, and hitting Leveille trailing behind him, who promptly flicked the ball around Gvozden.
The effort that brought Syracuse to a five-goal lead could be seen in all aspects of their game. Players like Abbott hustled for every groundball and tirelessly ran up-and-down field clearing, playing tough defense, then taking a turn on O. Perhaps the iconic play, during a clear, as Sid Smith tried to carry the ball over midfield, freshman middie Jovan Miller dove about eight yards across the midfield line to preserve the onsides.
Rabil would not let his team go quietly into the night, however, tallying two more goals before the game would end. He scored the Jays’ only man-up goal of the game, getting the ball on the wing and putting a shot right off Galloway’s hip. Rabil’s next goal showed why he is known as such a legendary competitor. Carrying into the box, Rabil fought through three defenders, lost the ball, fought for it back, and gathered himself to nail the top corner with about 2:37 left in the game. The goal was Rabil’s sixth on the day.
But the next trip down, with the ball moving quickly as Hopkins tried to create, Galloway made the save he had to on Rabil, reading a high-to-high shot all the way.
After another push or two up field, Syracuse found themselves with less than a minute left, trying to kill the clock. Running the ball around and using some passes over the top, the Orange whittled away the seconds of their remarkable turnaround season. Fittingly enough, the last few ticks came off the clock with the senior leader Leveille, Lowe’s Senior Class Award winner, and the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player holding the ball in his stick
The 13-10 win gave Syracuse their tenth championship in the NCAA era. The title comes appropriately enough on the 25th anniversary of Syracuse’s first title in 1983, also over Johns Hopkins 17-16. (Even timelier since the 1983 team was honored at halftime of today’s game.) The 2008 and 1983 squads go down as the only teams to miss the postseason one year, then take the title the next.
“What a great day,” Leveille said after the game. “Their 25th anniversary, and our tenth national championship now. I’m just so proud to be a part of the tradition. We worked so hard for this this year and had the right attitude this year, and our coaches led us right to the championship.”
Speaking of those coaches, head coach John Desko collected his fourth title at the helm of the program. He has been involved in all 10 of Syracuse’s championships. Bill Tierney (six rings) remains the only active coach with more titles than Desko. (Tierney shares the record of most ever titles with Syracuse legend Roy Simmons Jr., also with six.)
As players like Leveille and Brooks reveled in joining the ranks of so many other Orange champions, the younger players took this season as an example of how hard work could materialize into success. With all the talk of Syracuse falling off, the next generation of Orange will look to keep the team at the top.
“We’re making a new name for this program,” Hardy said after the game. “We respected the past, but we kind of have a whole new future for us.”
Syracuse’s return to the promise land had as much to do with their fall as it did with their spring. Coach Desko made some key changes. Shuffling the coaching staff provided the fresh thinking that helped cure some of the Orange’s woes from last season. Perhaps the most important change was to the players offseason regiment. Bringing in strength coach Hal Luther pushed the team harder than they had ever worked before. That grit and determination could be see in how the team gutted out games, fought back from deficits, never backed down, and never lost focus. That grueling conditioning had Syracuse running by teams all year. Even today, the Orange seemed fresher than the Blue Jays as the game wound down. The team has been dominant in the final stanza all year, prevailing in close games largely because they were in phenomenal game shape.
To get a look back at just what the Orange did to pull one of the greatest turnarounds the sport has seen, check out our video, SYRACUSE SWAGGER .
By winning today, the class of 2008 escapes being only the third class since 1983 to leave Syracuse without a title. For more on the seniors that steered the Orange back to success, check out our story from just a few days ago.
To recap Syracuse’s impressive 16-2 season en route to a national championship, look back at their teampage.
|Steven Brooks||(1, 2)|
|Dan Hardy||(3, 0)|
|Mike Leveille||(1, 2)|
|Kenny Nims||(2, 0)|
|Brendan Loftus||(2, 0)|
|Stephen Keogh||(2, 0)|
|Danny Brennan||(1, 0)|
|Joel White||(0, 1)|
|Greg Niewieroski||(0, 1)|
|Pat Perritt||(1, 0)|
|John Galloway||7 (0.412)|