April 11, 2013

UnCensered: Orange has Right Stuff to Take Title

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Censer Archive

Syracuse's Luke Cometti scored four goals on Wednesday night against Cornell, including a key fourth-quarter score that helped the Orange to consecutive wins over the Big Red and Princeton. Cometti's emergence, and others, has helped fuel Joel Censer's belief that the Orange are a national title contender.
© Greg Wall

During the preseason, if some Miss Cleo-like prophet had told me that in mid-April Syracuse would be 8-2 with wins over Virginia, Hopkins, Princeton and Cornell, I would have probably called them crazy and tried another 1-800 number.

Especially if I knew that Nicky Galasso would be lost all year to a foot injury. Or that Brandon Mullins would tear his ACL just a few weeks into the season. Or that 'Cuse was facing off at a paltry 44 percent. Or that Dominic Lamolinara was starting in cage. Or that Hakeem Lecky had only scored two points all year.

Where would the goals and requisite dodging come from without Galasso or Lecky doing the heavy lifting? How can a team score if they don't have the ball? Wasn't Bobby Wardwell supposed to be the savior in net?

But an hour removed from watching Syracuse dispose Cornell 13-12 in the Carrier Dome on Wednesday night, and I am still trying to figure out what happened and how high the ceiling is for this Orange outfit. Frankly, we've never seen anything like this.

Look at Wednesday's game; the Big Red had Rob Pannell and Matt Donovan, who are light years ahead of any of the Orange attackmen when it comes to breaking down a defense. Similarly, Cornell's first midfield line is arguably the most potent in the country when it comes to having guys who can run by their man and finish. The Red also has a stable full of athletic, well-trained long poles who aren't going to inexplicably slide upfield. Not to mention a clear advantage against the Orange on faceoffs.

When Cornell jumped out to 4-0 lead, it made sense. They had the horses on offense. They also had the ball.

But Syracuse started tightening the screws and then doing what the Orange does on most weekends. They outsmart. They out-skill. They're methodical. They scrap. They make plays when they have to make plays. They beat teams that on paper look better at the things that traditionally correlate to winning lacrosse games.

Clearly this Orange team is built differently than past championship caliber squads. Long gone are the days when a Powell, a Gait or a Coffman was given the ball and some space and allowed to post up, finalize, do a front flip or jump over a goal. There are no Chris Cercy clones playing make-it-take-it at the dot.

But times change. Teams change. And the good coaches and programs are the ones who adjust and adapt.

Here are the three primary reasons Syracuse is a contender to win it all.

1. Cagey, unselfish and now multiple threats on offense

Before Wednesday's game, Tempo Free Lax ranked the Orange eighth in adjusted offensive efficiency. Clearly, this has been a big improvement over the last three years where 'Cuse has never been higher than 15th.

Much has been made about the Orange's new-look and Kevin Donahue-led offense. That whatever the Orange lack in bonafide one-on-one, Tom Schreiber and Rob Pannell-like dodgers, they make up for with quick ball movement, efficient shooting, and a steady diet of well-timed picks, cuts and screens.

Headliner JoJo Marasco is always probing with his head up and looking to spot-feed. What often starts as an alley dodge turns into a circle throwback with linemates Scott Loy or Luke Cometti catching and releasing in one motion. There's a lot of the crafty passing around the crease. While no one on the attack group is much of a threat to get topside, Kevin Rice, Derek Maltz, Dylan Donahue and Billy Ward often seem to be in the right spot after moving into space or back-dooring some ball watching defenseman. The Syracuse offense is both unassuming and deadly.

But the Orange are also proving they are multi-dimensional and can still score when defenses are slow to slide and throw little gimmicks like shutting off Maltz. Marasco, who scored the winning goal against Princeton when he took 6-foot-7 defenseman Alex Beatty off the dribble, scored another fourth-quarter goal off the dodge against Cornell. Sophomore sensation Henry Schoonmaker has been a revelation, combining for six goals against the Tigers and Big Red by regularly blowing past long- and short-sticks. Even Cometti, known almost exclusively for his handiwork as a finisher, scored a huge fourth quarter goal against Cornell when he used his big frame to shake off some defensive midfielder off a wing dodge.

2. Same defense as old with possession warriors

As has been the case since Lelan Rogers took over the defensive duties after a disastrous 2007 season, the Syracuse backline is well coached, disciplined, athletic, and skilled. Currently, the Orange is ranked 12th in adjusted defensive efficacy.

When Mullins went down, I thought it was going to be devastating. The former Texas high school football star was big and fast and just made Syracuse unique in how intimidating they were manning up on the perimeter.

But Syracuse inserted sophomore transfer Sean Young primarily as a crease defenseman, and the Canuck has looked more than comfortable in that role, holding Cornell's goal scoring savant Steve Mock to just a single tally. If nothing else, Mullins' injury has defined roles and given the defense less redundant skillsets. Brain Megill headlines. David Hamlin wreaks havoc with his range. Young is more than willing to get his hands dirty around the crease. Matt Harris and Steve Ianzito provide some transition-friendly muscle between the lines.

As is the case with most anyone who grows up playing box lacrosse, Young has a slick stick. I can't understate how important this is for a Syracuse team clearing at 90 percent. When faceoff wins are few and far between, having defenseman who can effectively clear and are slick off the ground (did anyone see Megill gobble that loose ball yesterday!) mollifies much of those dot issues.

3. Some of that bottled orange mojo

This much is very clear. Syracuse plays smart, doesn't beat itself and is plenty comfortable playing in one-goal games or when they are down a couple in the fourth quarter.

Maybe the Orange doesn't feel as much pressure after a whole preseason where they were dismissed or told they weren't that good. Maybe it's just a proud veteran group program that knows what it's like to play in tight games and has a chip on their collective shoulders. Even for guys who are in a huddle, it's often difficult to figure why you're playing with moxie and why you aren't. But I know when things got tight last night, it wasn't the Orange short arming passes into the turf.

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