March 16, 2016
Heading into Saturday's NCAA quarterfinal rematch against Hopkins, Syracuse fifth-year senior attackman Dylan Donahue leads the attack with 25 points. (John Strohsacker)
Heading into Saturday's NCAA quarterfinal rematch against Hopkins, Syracuse fifth-year senior attackman Dylan Donahue leads the attack with 25 points. (John Strohsacker)

Syracuse Offense Thrives Despite Graduating Five Starters

by Gary Lambrecht | | Twitter

On the surface, the Syracuse offense shouldn't be this good this early, right?

After all, the Orange said goodbye to five offensive starters, led by first-team All-American attackman Kevin Rice. Out the door went a ton of experience and a combined 135 goals and 93 assists from last year's 13-3 team, which lost to Johns Hopkins in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals.

As it prepares to renew one of the sport's more storied rivalries on Saturday at Homewood Field – the 55th meeting in a series that No. 8 Hopkins leads, 27-26-1 – Syracuse is here to remind you that it's still Syracuse.

There is the Orange, sitting with a 5-0 record and averaging 14.4 goals per game, third-highest in Division I. There is Syracuse, now led by fifth-year senior attackman Dylan Donahue, doing it with a list that does not exactly constitute household names. Not yet, anyway.

"[Syracuse] graduates guys, and they plug guys in. They do what Syracuse does," Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said. "They're emphasizing their smartest, most poised and experienced player [in Donahue], and there is no shortage of talent [around him]. Their top six [on offense] are as good as any group in the country."

No. 3 Syracuse coach John Desko admits to being "somewhat surprised" by the early success of the offense, which has produced blowouts over Siena, Albany and St. John's and one-goal victories over Army and Virginia.

But if you scratch the surface, you see the Orange had all kinds of good pieces to work with last fall. Desko and offensive coordinator Kevin Donahue – Dylan's father – just weren't sure how to arrange the puzzle.

The Orange has played six, first-year starters on offense in 2016. But these are not newcomers grossly in need of varsity experience. They include two accomplished transfers in Nick Mariano (UMass) and Nick Piroli (Brown). They are largely upperclassmen who have done it on the practice and playing fields at Syracuse for several years.

"A lot of people didn't think we had much coming up. I think we knew we had a lot to work with," said junior faceoff star Ben Williams, whose NCAA-best 71.8 percent success rate has been a huge factor in the offense's early returns. "It's a veteran group that has stepped into their roles and knows how to run our system very well."

After losing last year's entire first midfield to graduation, Syracuse plugged the holes by looking outside and inward. Mariano, a junior and former Colonial Athletic Association star who led the Minutemen with 42 points last year, is an attackman-turned-midfield anchor with 11 goals on 42.3 percent shooting.

Evans, a junior who was a second-line midfielder last year, has eight goals at attack, including two apiece against Albany and St. John's. DeJoe, a senior, has 10 goals on 52.6 percent shooting with the first midfield.

Barber, a senior and an upstate product of fabled West Genesee High School, where he played for several years with Donahue, has been an added bonus. A year after leading the second midfield, Barber has started the past four games on attack in place of Piroli, a graduate student who scored 85 career points at Brown, last year's Ivy League champion.

Piroli, an alumnus of nearby Carthage High School, has been out with a lower leg injury and could see action at Hopkins. He announced his presence with two goals and an assist in the season-opening 18-5 rout of Siena.

Say hello to another budding success story, in the form of redshirt junior midfielder Sergio Salcido. The 5-feet-7 native of Winter Park, Fla., who happens to be one of the best pure athletes on the squad, toiled diligently in the Syracuse system as a faceoff wingman and reserve midfielder. He appeared in 28 games over the previous two seasons without scoring a goal.

With eight goals and five assists, Salcido now is a reliable cog in a very balanced offense.

"We weren't even sure Sergio was going to make the team a few years ago," Desko said. "But I walk through Manley Field House to get to my office, and he's one of those guys I always see in there, working on his own. Some of these guys are simply products of their own, hard work."

With 10 goals and a team-high 15 assists, Donahue, last year's third-team All-American who possesses first-team talent, is the straw that stirs the drink. And it's pretty clear that Donahue and Mariano are connecting.

Mariano registered hat tricks against Albany, Virginia and St. John's.

"Mariano has played a lot of lacrosse, and he was built for this offense," Kevin Donahue says. "Piroli probably picked up our offense faster than any of the newcomers. And the other guys who are finally getting their turns were really ready to play."

With the schedule ramping up – after Hopkins, Syracuse continues ACC play with clashes against Duke and Notre Dame – it remains to be seen how smoothly the Orange offense will continue to click. What is not debatable is how fortunate Syracuse is at the quarterback spot.

A year ago, Donahue played off of Rice beautifully in Syracuse's scheme, which revolves around dodge initiation and pick-and-rolls and lots of creative freedom within a few simple sets. With Rice dishing out 48 assists, Donahue thrived with a team-high 50 goals.

In 2016, Donahue still is looking to score off the dodge, but is countering slides and double-teams smartly, as his team-high 15 assists suggest.

"Based on what defenses are doing to stop me, I'm moving the ball on more this year. I can be what my team needs me to be," Donahue said. "Our goal is always to spread it around and play unselfish lacrosse.

"We knew deep down last fall that we could make this offense work. We got better each week, and we're still getting better. We knew we had outstanding players. Other people just didn't know about them."

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