“It’s pretty much championship or bust at this point.”
That’s Syracuse men’s lacrosse senior attackman Kevin Rice. And Kevin, I’m right there with you.
Clear your Memorial Day plans, book your Philadelphia hotels, save the chores for another weekend, Syracuse lacrosse fans. The team has designs on its 12th title—first since 2009—and I’m a believer.
Now, I know that expectations are high every year for Orange nation, but this team is different; it also might offer us the best chance for a championship for the foreseeable future.
The team returns 10 seniors, eight of whom project as starters. That leadership can be found all over the field—from attack to midfield, long-stick midfield, defense and goalie. This group is trying to avoid becoming the third straight Syracuse class to graduate without a championship under their belt.
It has arguably the best attack unit in the country. Rice, senior Randy Staats and junior Dylan Donahue combined for 190 points in 2014. All three bested 50 points last year, the first time since 2001 the team had three scorers top the half-century mark.
Rice, a preseason first team All-America, is the second-leading returning point scorer in the country (Albany star Lyle Thompson is first). Rice notched 44 assists and 80 points as the offensive quarterback from behind the net.
Meanwhile, Staats is one of the best combo finisher-and-feeders in the country. And Donahue ranked third in the NCAA with a .529 shooting percentage in 2014; 70 percent of his shots were on cage.
It has one of the deepest midfields in the country. Senior captions Hakeem Lecky and Henry Schoonmaker return to the first line. Lecky, who notched 15 goals last year, has lightning-quick speed, while Schoonmaker (38 career goals) has the power and size to do it all. They’re likely to team with senior Nicky Galasso, who transitioned from attack to midfield last year.
The Orange also has sophomore Jordan Evans, Mr. No. 22, ready for a break-out year. Once the nation’s top recruit, the Jamesville-DeWitt product battled a nagging injury in
2014 and was limited to 11 games. He served as a defensive midfielder toward the end of the season but is expected to be an offensive cog in 2015.
Then there’s junior Tim Barber, a transfer from Onondaga Community College who was the 2014 junior college offensive player of the year. He led he Lazers to two national championships, racking up 55 goals and 36 assists as an attackman last year.
Not to be overlooked are sophomores Sergio Salcido and Nick Weston and redshirt freshmen Ryan Simmons and Hayes McGinley.
There are great options in the cage. Senior Bobby Wardwell, who played the second half of most games last year in a timeshare with the now-graduated Dominic Lamolinara, owns a 9.53 career goal-against average. Coach John Desko has praised Wardwell for his improved communication and command of the defense.
If Wardwell falters or if Desko goes for another goalie timeshare, he can turn to OCC transfer Warren Hill, a junior, who led junior college lacrosse with a 4.33 goals-against average and a .733 save percentage in 2014. He’s a two-time junior college defensive player of the year and a two-time champion. Hill also started in goal for the Iroquois at the FIL World Championship last year.
The defense can only improve. Junior Brandon Mullins earned a preseason All-America nod after a starring role shutting down some of the best attackmen in the country last year. He’s sixth all-time at Syracuse with 31 caused turnovers.
Mullins will pair with senior Sean Young, who has started 32 straight games over the past two seasons and is considered an excellent off-ball defender.
The third spot is up for grabs, but Desko has candidates in juniors Jay McDermott, Ryan Palasek and Bobby Tait, all of whom have started at least one game last year.
The faceoff X worries should be gone. The perennial worry over the last few seasons—and the key to the team’s success—is an open competition right now, but sophomore transfers Ben Williams (via Holy Cross) and Zack Vehar (via Quinnipiac) seem ready for the role. Both won 53 percent of their draws at their respective schools.
Assistant coach Kevin Donahue did wonders improving Chris Daddio’s success rate last year. There’s no reason to believe he won’t have the same effect on this team’s faceoff specialists.
The Orange also have senior Mike Iacono and sophomore Cal Paduda, among others, competing for the role. Paduda missed 2014 with an injury, but attempted 111 faceoffs and won 20 draws against Hobart as a freshman in 2013.
The team is out for revenge. You can be sure the 10-9 loss to Bryant at home in the NCAA first round still stings for Orange players. They’re out to prove any doubters wrong.
To be sure, it won’t be easy. And there may be some bumps in the road with the ridiculously stacked ACC and the loaded schedule. But I’m pretty confident this team will overcome the obstacles and be standing tall on May 25 at Lincoln Financial Field.
So dream big, Orange lacrosse fans. It’s championship or bust.
Watch the campaign begin Feb. 7 against Siena.