Syracuse men’s lacrosse needs wins and confidence with just two regular season games remaining. It got a win on Tuesday against Hobart and both on Saturday against Rutgers.
After a dominant 19-6 triumph over the Scarlet Knights at the ESPNU Warrior Classic in Charlotte that seemed to be just what the ailing team required, the Orange (7-5) appeared to fall back into its frustrating ways before holding on for dear life in Geneva for a 13-12 victory over the Statesmen.
Coach John Desko, desperate to find a winning combination after three disheartening losses to Villanova, Duke and Cornell in four games, found one that worked marvelously against Rutgers. He gave freshman keeper Bobby Wardwell his third straight start, moved freshman sharpshooter Matt Walters to the man-up unit and put junior standout long-stick defender Brian Megill at the faceoff X.
In this rebuilding season, three problems have plagued the Orange: consistent goalkeeping, man-up opportunities and faceoffs. Syracuse has allowed 9.75 goals per game, its most since 2007. It has converted only 33 percent of its extra-man chances. And it has surrendered 53 percent of its faceoffs.
Granted, Rutgers (5-8) and Hobart (3-8) aren’t exactly the toughest teams in the land, but Desko has pushed the right buttons. It’s a gamble putting the team’s shutdown defender at the X because it could wear him down, but it’s working.
Against the Scarlet Knights, Megill helped Syracuse win 17 of 26 faceoffs (65 percent). Wardwell allowed just three goals (Dominic Lamolinara and Matty Lerman surrendered the others in the second half) and the Orange man-up converted on three of its five opportunities.
“It was almost a perfect day for us,” said Desko after the game. “It’s just such a different game for us when we have possessions off the faceoff. It gives our offense opportunities to score and gives our defense a break at the other end. You could see today just having the ball on offense, getting some things to work and getting the different midfield groups in helped with our execution.”
That it did. Syracuse exploded for nine goals in the first quarter—its most in one quarter since 2008. The team pushed the tempo as it got out in transition, moved the ball with precision and gave its attack unit plenty of opportunities to find the back of the net.
The Orange regressed against the Statesmen, but it’s not as bad it seems. Syracuse led 10-4 at the half before Hobart cut the deficit to one with 8.4 seconds remaining. Wardwell struggled to see the ball in the second half, allowing eight goals in the last two frames, but he needs to feel the pressure of a close game with the clock winding down. Most certainly, the Orange will play more tight contests before the end of the season. This will help now and in the future. Failures now lead to success later.
Meanwhile, Syracuse again scored on three of its five man-up chances—another positive sign. It secured 10 of 28 faceoffs (a dismal 35.7 percent success rate), but that was against the best faceoff man in the country in Bobby Dattilo, who wins 66.7 percent of his takes.
The Orange offense tried to put the game away, but Hobart goalie Peter Zonino stood on his head by recording 18 saves. He came into the contest leading the nation with 14.8 saves per game.
So, it was pretty against Rutgers and ugly against Hobart, but both count and that’s what matters at this point in the season. If the Orange beat Georgetown (5-6) on Saturday and Notre Dame (9-1) on April 28, chances of earning an at-large bid in the 16-team NCAA Tournament greatly increase. Seven teams automatically qualify as conference champions and nine teams earn at-large bids.
If Syracuse falters, and it won’t be easy against a Fightin’ Irish team that has quality wins over Duke and Denver, the Orange will have to win the BIG EAST tournament, which begins May 3, or risk missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007 (or just the second time since 1982).