April 18, 2014

Syracuse Makes History with First-Time No. 1 Squad

by Megan Schneider | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter 

Though Syracuse has made huge strides as a program in Gary Gait's tenure, this week marks the first time the Orange has ever held the No. 1 ranking. (John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com)

It was the second half of the most important game of the 2012 season. Syracuse trailed No. 1 Florida by seven goals. The tide was moving in the right direction for the Gators, drowning the Orange. But with about 10 minutes remaining, Syracuse began riding a wave of momentum that led to the ultimate upset.

The Orange started chipping away at Florida’s lead, one goal at time, until tying the game at 13 with just 30 seconds left. The game continued into double overtime, and Syracuse rose to the occasion with a 14-13 victory, led by senior Sarah Holden and sophomore Alyssa Murray, who scored the final seven goals for the Orange – four for Holden and three for Murray.

That thriller of a game took place in the NCAA semifinals at Stony Brook, marking the first time Syracuse reached the championship game and also the first time in 16 tries that Syracuse defeated a team ranked No. 1 in the nation.

The Orange would not defeat another top-ranked team until two years later, in last weekend’s matchup against North Carolina. Syracuse sophomore Kayla Treanor scored a career-high seven goals in the Carrier Dome, driving the Orange to a 12-9 win.

Trumping the Tar Heels allowed Syracuse to jump ahead in the rankings, a three-way chess match between Syracuse, North Carolina and Maryland. The Orange now sits at No. 1 for the first time in program history.

“It’s what we fight for every week, every day. We play the best schedule in the country, play the best teams and raise our level of play until we’re there,” Syracuse coach Gary Gait said. “Now, we’ve made it.”

Yet, being No. 1 brings a sense of accountability. A No. 1 team has reached the top for a reason, but it then needs to prove it deserves to be there. The Orange has a target on its back. Gait knows the feeling all too well as a former assistant at Maryland under Cindy Timchal during a stretch that saw the Terps win seven straight NCAA titles from 1995 to 2001.

“I’d say it’s a great feeling to be No. 1, but you’ve got to take ownership and responsibility of that and actually work harder than you did to get there,” said Gait, a 10-time NCAA champion with three titles as a player at Syracuse before his coaching run with Maryland. “They’ve bought into that.”

Now a senior, Murray has witnessed her team develop from one struggling to find its identity to one that has achieved great heights.

“We went through a lot of ups and downs during my career here,” said Murray, describing how she joined a young team looking to fill the void of many seniors who graduated the year before. “As the years have gone on, junior and senior years, it wasn’t as much of a surprise that we were a dominant team. Now, we know we deserve it. We know we belong.”

Comparing her two experiences beating No. 1 teams, back in 2012 against Florida and last week against North Carolina, Murray avowed that Syracuse has made a statement by accomplishing the feat during the regular season.

“Instead of just being the No. 2 seed, we’re something that you’ve got to think about too as a top team – a championship-worthy team,” Murray said. “That’s the biggest difference.”

The Orange played its first game as a No. 1 squad Tuesday against Cornell, and despite the cold – an anomaly for a team used to playing in a dome – Syracuse pulled away with a 7-5 victory. The Orange will travel to Notre Dame this weekend for its final game of the regular season, looking to hold on to the No. 1 crown a little bit longer.

Gait’s strategy will remain the same it has been all year: to simply focus on the next opponent. It’s an old cliché, but a good one.

“We do our work, stay prepared and stay motivated and energized and take it one game at a time,” he said. “That’s why it’s an old cliché, because it’s true and everybody who has success truly focuses on that.”

Although they haven’t officially won anything yet, Syracuse's players will enjoy this moment while it lasts. They have finally jumped onto the long-awaited train of victors – teams who can proudly say that they have been No. 1 in the land.

“I definitely want to work on some things and nail them down so I can have them in my arsenal going into the postseason,” Murray said. “Making sure we’re holding ourselves accountable, forcing yourself to get out of bed and do some extra work. So come crunch time, it’s really just an afterthought.”

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