Syracuse was tabbed as the ACC preseason favorite (28 points), edging defending national champion Duke and North Carolina by one point. The team is coming off 16-4 season in which it won the Big East Championship and advanced to the NCAA title game for the 17th time in school history.
Opening statement: "We are really happy to be part of the ACC," Syracuse head coach John Desko said in a phone interview. "We're joining a strong conference. I hope we're making it better. It's just going to help everybody in the ACC, including ourselves."
Let's take a look at what Syracuse is working with entering the 2014 season.
Offense: Syracuse brings back a wealth of returning talent as well as some pretty notable freshman, specifically, former Jamesville Dewitt standout Jordan Evans. The Orange brought in the No. 2 recruiting class behind Maryland this fall and six Under Armour All-Americans capable of contributing right away at all positions.
Attack: The Orange return its starting attack from a year ago in junior Kevin Rice (55 goals, 32 assists); redshirt sophomore Dylan Donahue (27 goals, 14 assists) and senior Derek Maltz (32 goals, seven assists).
The starting trio brings a variety of skill sets. Rice, a savvy, smart attackman, controls the offense from behind while Donahue is another one teams have to keep an eye on throughout the game. In my opinion, Rice has grown into the position as time has gone on, showing confidence and solid decision making when it came to possessions on the offensive end. I can't tell you how many times last year Desko praised Rice for his lacrosse I.Q. on the field as well as in the classroom last season. The kid is bright and gets the inner workings of the game.
The chemistry between Rice and Donahue was evident as the season progressed, too. Couple their talents with Maltz's ability to work the crease, find space and convert is a nightmare for defenders.
"I think their strength is at a unit, understanding the offense" Desko said about Rice, Donahue and Maltz. "I think players, more than anything, get on the field quicker if their smart. …if they have good lacrosse I.Q., they understand offenses, rides, game situations. I think they were very efficient last year, especially with our percentages on the face-off. They did a good job of making decisions, not turning the ball over, working for good shots and knowing where to be at the right times."
Senior Billy Ward (11 goals, five assists) and North Carolina transfer Nicky Galasso will also be in the mix for time on attack. Ward rotated with Donahue last season while Galasso is finally healthy and looking to make an impact for the Orange.
Desko on Galasso: "He came back and adjusted to being healthy," he said, "He got out there running and got more comfortable with his ability and adjusting to the (foot) procedure. By the end of the fall, I think he looked really comfortable.
"When he did come back, he made conditioning runs which showed that he was working on it over the summer. I think we will just see him as he plays and get better as the year goes on."
Randy Staats is another option at attack, however, when I spoke to him in October, the junior college transfer said that the coaching staff "hinted" that he will be playing midfield. Either way, Staats has the talent to play both positions and it certainly won't be a problem if the change occurs. Staats registered 156 points last year and was named offensive player of the year. He played strictly attack at Onondaga.
** I have fielded a few questions about Mike Daniello and if he will be back with Syracuse for the upcoming season. The answer is no. Mike Morrison, a spokesman for the Syracuse athletics department confirmed to me back on December 18, stating that Mike Daniello "will not be returning to the team."
Midfield: The absence of Jojo Marasco and Luke Cometti is no doubt a big void to fill, however, Syracuse is, well, Syracuse. The team should be fine with the amount of talent it has returning and bringing in. It's just a matter of meshing and creating chemistry.
Senior Scott Loy (20 goals, four assists) is the only returning starter from Syracuse's first midfield line. Desko and coaching staff will more than likely bump redshirt juniors Hakeem Lecky and Henry Schoonmaker – both were on the second line last year – to first line with a variety of candidates to vie for that second group.
Schoonmaker was a big boost for the Orange a season ago on the second unit. He stepped up in games against Rutgers and Hobart when Loy was sidelined due to injury. His 18 goals and five assists were good enough to lead the second line, too.
As for Lecky, the lightning-quick dodger, really came on during the second half of the season, particular against Georgetown and Notre Dame in the Konica Minolta Big City Classic. His explosiveness, great first step is something that Desko and the rest of the coaching staff have noticed since the beginning. Athleticism aside, it's all about developing a shot and improving his shooting percentage now.
"It has just been a work in progress all these years," Desko notes.
He continued, "We were excited going into the playoffs and the championship game because we thought they (Lecky, Schoonmaker and Ryan Barber) were playing their best lacrosse of the year," Desko said, "In that last game -- without winning the face-offs -- we could barely get our first midfield in let alone are second midfield. We were disappointed that it didn't give us a chance for some opportunities to score goals or make something happen in that championship game."
The second line is tricky due to some missing parts, most notably Staats. Like I mentioned above, due to the depth at attack, Staats may very well find himself on midfield… or learning both positions like Evans.
"We ask a lot of him, yeah know, to play two positions," Desko said of the freshman. "By knowing both positions you're just more comfortable with things. You know looks because you're used to being the spot of a middy or an attackman. Again, hard at first, but once you do it; it's a lot better as you go down the road."
According to Desko, Ward and Galasso can be interchangeable as well depending on the matchups that present itself in the future.
The few times I was able to check out Syracuse this fall, I kept checking my roster to see who this No. 24 was in the midfield. His name is Hayes McGinley, a freshman out of Bentleyville, OH. The kid looked as though he was a seasoned veteran at points throughout the scrimmages and his confidence didn't lack.
His club coach, Kevin Martin, said this about McGinley when I spoke to him in October:
"I've had Hayes in our (Sweet Lax program) and athletically, even as a freshman, he is one of the bigger, stronger kids out there and we are talking about an 18-year compared to a 22-year old. He has never lacked confidence. He has always went in there and been very confident."
McGinley is my dark horse when it comes to making a difference on offense.
Face-offs: The coaching staff brought in a small Army this fall to help them try and solve the team's face-off woes at the dot from a season ago.
"We are doing things totally different," Desko said back in September. "These guys have taken more face-offs this fall than maybe we took all of last year. We have almost like a separate practice for our guys."
Syracuse will be the first one to tell people that its play at the X was one of it setbacks year (Bryant and Duke are just a few memories burned into their brains). The squad went 200-for-476 (42 percent) and was ranked just outside the Top 50 when it came to face-off win percentage.
The Orange will bring back senior Chris Daddio (115-for-254) and sophomore Cal Paduda (47-for-111) while welcoming freshman Joe DeMarco into the mix.
"Joe has come in with pretty good technique," Desko said. "He's kind of changing our technique -- or tweaking it -- on some of the players a little bit. Joe came in already having it."
DeMarco and sophomore walk-on Austin Wentworth will give Syracuse some options at the position depending, again, on future matchups. Alongside short-stick defensive midfielder Drew Jenkins, Wentworth got run at the dot in its scrimmages up at SUNY Cortland in October while DeMarco showed what he was capable of in the alumni game.
DeMarco comes to Syracuse with a decorated resume: a 91 percent face-off winning percentage in his senior year (82 percent his high school playing career), two goals, 14 assists and 235 ground balls. The Massapequa (N.Y.) native earned the Nassau County Lacrosse Association's Jim Condon Award (top offensive player) and was an all-county selection.
"Unfortunately, if there is a question mark," Desko said, "(it is) who will be able to step on the field and take face-offs. We did an extensive amount of work with coach (Lelan) Rogers and coach (Kevin) Donahue on technique, on wing play (and) making good decisions with the ball once you come up with it.
"We're just waiting for the one person to step up."
Defense: Junior Brandon Mullins is back after suffering a season-ending knee injury against Army last season and will offer his services once again when it comes to being one of Syracuse's top cover defenders. Junior Sean Young (11 ground balls, eight caused turnovers) is back, too, after having a solid season last year. Young was an instrumental piece of the puzzle when it came to the squad's championship run in May and proved himself as one of the best in shutting down its opponent's crease attackman.
According to Desko, long pole is one of the deepest positions. The Orange will bring back senior Matt Harris (52 ground balls, 29 cause turnovers) and redshirt junior Peter Macartney (30 ground balls) back, two players that played extensively throughout the year. Junior college transfer Niko Manning and freshman Scott Firman will also vie for time.
Senior Drew Jenkins and sophomore Tom Grimm will look to replace Matt Pratt and Steve Ianzito at the short-stick defensive midfielder position.
Goalie(s): It's safe to say that Dominic Lamolinara will get the starting nod in goal for the Orange when the team opens up the season with Siena on Feb. 10. The netminder took over for then starter Bobby Wardwell in the second half of the Johns Hopkins game last year and never looked back.
Lamolinara is looking to challenge himself now with defensive stalwart Brian Megill no longer in the mix.
"I have to pick up the slack," he told the media back in September. "Megill was like another coach out there. He knew all the calls and where everyone was supposed to be."
Megill was the go-to shutdown defender for Syracuse last year. He is Syracuse's career leader in cause turnovers (103) and scooped up a team-high 55 ground balls in his senior year for the Orange.
Both Lamolinara and Wardwell have have been pushed this fall by freshman Parker Ferrigan. The Baldwinsville (N.Y.) native and Under Armour All-American will, in my opinion, bring a certain style of play for the Orange in net should he see time this season.
Count Lamolinara as somebody who came away impressed this past fall:
"He is so calm in the goal," he said. "He makes everything look so easy. That's what all the other goalies have been saying about him. Parker is sitting in the goal, staying patient and taking away the angles like a veteran would be. He has shown no signs of being a rookie right now."
I was able to watch Ferrigan play last summer in the Under Armour All-American senior game and came away impressed despite the game being dominated by high scoring play. The freshman showcased his abilities in the second half of the game, displaying his athleticism outside of the net when it came to fighting for ground balls and disrupting the passing lanes.
ACC LAX preview: Syracuse
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