May 20, 2011

NCAA Division I Men's Lacrosse Quarterfinal Notes: Faceoffs a Concern for Syracuse

by Gary Lambrecht |

Jeremy Thompson has failed to build to on a successful junior year facing off, going just 49.4 percent as a senior.

© Greg Wall

At first glance, it looks as if top-seeded Syracuse could be in trouble against Maryland in Sunday's NCAA Division I men's lacrosse tournament quarterfinals at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.

The Terrapins (11-4) have one of the game's elite faceoff specialists in sophomore Curtis Holmes, who has ranked among the Division I top 10 pretty much all spring. Maryland, with its strong defense, midfield depth and ability to score in transition with an excellent defensive midfield led by fifth-year senior long-stick midfielder Brian Farrell, knows how to possess the ball. The Terps average 11.2 goals, in large part because they win 60.6 percent of their draws, seventh-best in the game.

The Orange (15-1) has been a puzzle in the faceoff game, where senior midfielder Jeremy Thompson has failed to build on a strong junior year in that area. Syracuse has won just 49.4 percent of its draws, 33rd-best in Division I. Only second-seeded Cornell (.462, 40th) is worse among the tournament's remaining eight schools.

"[The Terps] create a lot of transition off of their faceoffs, and we've been trying to find ourselves there," Syracuse coach John Desko said. "Our biggest challenge [against Maryland] is going to be faceoffs, and making good use of our possessions."

At second glance, Syracuse knows how to compensate for its weaknesses. The Orange takes good care of the ball, as it is ranked fifth in the nation with 13.7 turnovers per game. With weapons such as senior long-stick midfielder Joel White roaming between the boxes, Syracuse knows how to steal the ball, as it causes 10 turnovers per game, fourth-best in the land. And Syracuse has scored a healthy 11.13 goals per game while allowing just seven scores per contest with its rock-solid defense.

Through all of its twists and turns in 2011 -- which include back-to-back, 5-4 wins over Johns Hopkins and Villanova, an 11-6 whipping at the hands of Cornell and last week's methodical, 10-4 thumping of Siena in the first round -- the Orange has been a resourceful, balanced, determined bunch. 'Cuse has won shootouts and defensive grinders, and is comfortable in close games.

The Orange will be a tough out, from here on out. Expect the team's core of seniors, who have won two NCAA titles and are very mindful of last year's first-round upset loss to Army, to make sure of that. The first order of business is to dismiss a Maryland team whose seniors have never been past the quarterfinals. And remember, Desko is 9-0 in the quarterfinal round.

"Maryland is always a very talented team that should be in the final four," Syracuse senior goalie John Galloway said. "We have a chip on our shoulder. We really want to get back there in Baltimore. Maryland is in our way."

Familiar with the field

With Sunday's matchup against Maryland, Syracuse will have played every remaining team in the tournament – the only school in the quarterfinals to have done so. Even more impressively, the Orange has gone 5-1 against the remaining field.

Other than fifth-seeded Duke, which is 3-4 against the quarterfinal field with two wins over Virginia and one over Maryland, no other school has won more than two games while facing those among the tournament's final eight.

No. 7 seed Virginia is 1-5 against the field. Maryland is 2-2. Third-seeded Hopkins and fourth-seeded Notre Dame are each 2-1. Sixth-seeded Denver is 1-2, while No. 2 seed Cornell is 1-1.

How Hopkins turned it around

Johns Hopkins (13-2) is trying to get to its seventh final four and win its third national championship during coach Dave Pietramala's 11 seasons at Homewood. This has been among the more satisfying regular seasons for Pietramala, who starts six sophomores and two freshmen and has calmed the Hopkins faithful after the Blue Jays went 17-13 over the past two years, including last year's 7-8 finish.

Pietramala, a national coach of the year candidate again, points to two factors that have driven the Blue Jays this season -- the senior leadership of guys such as attackmen Chris Boland and Kyle Wharton and fac-off ace Matt Dolente, and the way Hopkins bounced back after its last loss, a 5-4, overtime heartbreaker two months ago at Syracuse.

"Our youth and their play have been important, no doubt. But I couldn't have imagined the leadership we've gotten, and the seniors have been the key to that," he said. "The way our seniors handled the Syracuse game has defined our season."

"Last year, we didn't invest enough in practice. For the last year and a half, we were uncertain about ourselves," Pietramala added. "There is a tangible feeling now. We know we've invested enough to have an opportunity to win the game, no matter how it's going."

Stagnitta the latest in firing line

Earlier this week, Rutgers coach Jim Stagnitta became the third Division I coach over a one-week span to get canned. Rutgers wrapped up its 10th year under Stagnitta with a 6-9 finish, including a 1-5 record in Big East Conference play. It also marked the Scarlet Knights' fourth consecutive losing season and sixth losing season in the past seven years.

Technically, Stagnitta "resigned," just as Navy's Richie Meade and Towson's Tony Seaman had done a week earlier -- which has become a common euphemism of collegiate athletic directors. Dave Cottle "resigned" at Maryland last year after, sources said, former Terps A.D. Debbie Yow told Cottle he would look better in the press release if he appeared to back out, rather than officially get tossed out.

Can't anyone just come out and terminate a coach's contract in public anymore? Why couldn't Rutgers simply announce that Stagnitta, who is eight years removed from taking the Scarlet Knights to the NCAA tournament, had been fired?

"That's not how it works these days. That's just the way we are right now," Virginia coach Dom Starsia said during a Lacrosse Magazine podcast this week. "Nobody thinks [those coaches] actually resigned."

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