A young and largely unproven Syracuse men’s lacrosse team has a chance to carve its own niche in the program’s storied history and bring the Orange back to playoff success after two straight years of surprising early exits from the NCAA tournament.
But first, positions must be filled and an identity found.
Coach John Desko and the rest of the Orange coaching staff has a lot of work do to before opening the season on Feb. 19 against Albany in the Carrier Dome. It must replace seven players from last season’s team, including goalie John Galloway, a four-year starter and two-time national goalie of the year.
The Orange also graduated close defender John Lade, long-stick midfielder Joel White, midfielders Jeremy Thompson, Jovan Miller and Josh Amidon and attack Steven Keogh, each of whom received All-America recognition. The group went 60-8 over four years and won national titles in 2008 and 2009.
Desko will rely heavily on his three returning starters—junior midfielder/attack JoJo Marasco, senior attack Tommy Palasek and junior defenseman Brian Megill—to guide the new wave of talent.
Despite a young squad and many question marks across the field, Syracuse is ranked No. 8 by Lacrosse Magazine and No. 7 in the Inside Lacrosse Face-Off Yearbook preseason poll. The team also was picked to win the BIG EAST Conference.
“We are really excited to be back,” Desko said during the team’s annual media day at Manley Field House on Jan. 12. “This is a new group. I am feeling pretty good about where we are right now and the work ethic of these guys has been very good.”
Desko believes the competition for spots, the team’s youth and a low preseason ranking is motivating his players. “I think the team in general, with all these open spots, is really starting to bond together, and they have (a) common goal,” he said “They haven’t been ranked very high in the preseason. They feel they have a little bit to prove here and it shows in their work ethic.”
Marasco, who tied for the team lead in points with 23 goals and 18 assists last year, said it’s good not to be the top-ranked team. “It keeps the whole team motivated and makes us work hard. … We want to show everyone out there that doubts us that we can be (a top team). I’m excited about that, and I think the team is, too,” he said.
One of the toughest competitions in practice is taking place in net. Seven goalies—three freshmen, two sophomores, one redshirt sophomore and one senior— are currently vying to replace Galloway.
Redshirt sophomore Matt Lerman has the most experience, but he only notched 35 minutes and eight saves during mop-up duty as Galloway’s backup in 2011.
“(Practices have) been a battle every day. There are only two nets, so fighting for time is a battle within itself,” said Lerman.
Desko is giving Lerman the nod right now. “He is doing very well, (but) there are some younger guys fighting for that position (too),” he said.
Bobby Wardwell, a freshmen, was ranked as Inside Lacrosse’s No. 2 goalie prospect in the class of 2011. From Clifton Park, N.Y., Wardwell is a two-time All-America. “We see him getting better as the year and the years go on,” said Desko.
Whoever earns the spot will be glad to have preseason All-America close defender Megill in front of them. The three-year starter will anchor the team’s defense.
The offense seems to be in good shape. It helps to have two of the Orange’s top three scorers back in Marasco and Palasek.
Marasco, keeper of the No. 22 jersey, was one of eight players to start all 17 games in 2011 and was named an honorable mention preseason All-America by Inside Lacrosse.
Palasek was third on the team in points in 2011 with 17 goals and 18 assists.
Also returning to attack is redshirt senior Tim Desko. The coach’s son notched 16 goals and three assists in 2011, but missed seven games due to injury.
Coach Desko figures to place Marasco at midfield, much like he did last year, to give the top line some experience. Joining Marasco may be senior Bobby Eilers, redshirt junior Steve Ianzito and sophomore Scotty Loy.
Redshirt freshman Hakeem Lecky could also be in the mix. Lecky, who was slated to play on the second midfield line last year, was lost early on with a wrist injury. “When he got hurt last year, that was disappointing because he was going to be the solid second midfielder out there and get a lot of time,” said Desko. “He’s out there (now), playing very well, and he is going to be exciting and fun to watch for Syracuse fans.”
The Orange finished last season 15-2, but fell in the NCAA quarterfinals to Maryland. The team earned its second straight BIG EAST regular-season title and 31st NCAA Tournament appearance.
Syracuse begins the 2012 campaign on Feb. 5 with a three-way scrimmage against Le Moyne and Hofstra at the Dome. It also faces Maryland in an exhibition on Feb. 12 at the Dome.