LAX PREVIEW: Defensive Focus

This is a new year for the Orange. This is a year to embrace the team, not a single player or a number. This is a year to buckle down with a veteran goalie and a solid defense.

For the first time in ten years, the Syracuse sidelines will be missing an integral part of their team, a Powell. For the first time in 23 years a No. 22 won't roam the field. This year, emphasis is being put on the strength of the Syracuse defense, a step back from the powerful offense the Orange faithful have grown to know.

Fresh off their ninth NCAA championship, Syracuse, ranked No. 2 preseason, will try to make it to another Final Four and add to their record 22 straight appearances during championship weekend.

The Orange though graduated five starting players, the entire first midfield line and two on attack. In all, six of their seven top scorers graduated, including number 22 Michael Powell, the university's all-time points (combined goals and assists) leader.

"We do have a good defensive unit coming back, the offensive unit is going to be good, I don't know when," said coach John Desko. "They're working very hard and we're using everybody in our offense, not just going to one guy all the time."

With fourth-year starter and second-year captain Jay Pfeifer in net and three returning defensemen, the Orange are hoping to ride their defensive strength until the young offense matures.

Pfeifer, having started all 50 games of his career, needs just 191 stops to become Syracuse's all-time leader in career saves, surpassing Jamie Molly (77-80) for first. Pfeifer currently boasts 576 career saves, averaging 192 per year. He owns an 11.52 saves per game average and allows 10.17 goals per game.

"We've got a leader like Jay," said Desko. "We look for him to lead us there (Final Four). He's seen a lot of lacrosse and I think he can do that. We've always had guys step up for us and we need to have that happen this year."

Pfeifer possesses two national championship rings and is also tied for total number of wins in the NCAA tournament (9) for Syracuse. He only needs seven more tournament saves to become the Syracuse leader.

"Putting more pressure on the defense makes it a lot more fun," Pfeifer said. "We're going to have to work hard at the beginning of the year."

Senior captain and returning defenseman Scott Ditzell who called Pfeifer "the wall back in the goal," said he loves the pressure too. Junior John Wright and sophomore Steve Panarelli also return as starters to the Syracuse defense.

"I think the defense is going to be a big part but there's no doubt in my mind our offense is going to step up," Ditzell said. "There will come a point when everybody clicks. I think our offense is one of the best offenses out there too."

The 2005 version of the Syracuse offense returns one starting attackman, junior captain Brian Crockett.

Crockett, the only returning player in the top of Syracuse's offense last year, added 39 goals and 15 assists to finish second in scoring behind Powell.

The attack is also likely to start one freshman, Mike Leveille, and junior Brett Bucktooth, a second-line middie who scored nine goals and added five assists last year.

Desko plans to use Bucktooth at both attack and midfield this season. Desko expects junior Greg Rommel to form the nucleus of the first midfield line. Rommel had 13 goals and one assist last year.

"Brett has a big role. He and Greg Rommel really stepped up on that second midfield last year," said Desko. "They had some big goals for us in the Final Four and the championship. They are two of the guys that really have to step up for us if we're going to have some success in the winning column this year."

Desko expects sophomore Stephen Brooks to fill a starting role in the midfield, along with senior Jarett Park. Senior co-captain Jake Plunket is also expected to add strength to the midfield line.

"We want to control the ball and try a little slower tempo. Anybody who's been here for more than a year is going to have to step up," said Crockett, who knows more pressure will be put on his shoulders without former attackmen Powell and Brian Nee.

Crockett said he's ready to be a leader, but recognized that because the offense is relatively inexperienced, they'd have to listen closely to the coaches and scout the other team's defense.

"I don't think we can put all that pressure on his shoulders for him to be the go-to guy all the time," said Desko about Crockett. "We're really coaching and emphasizing a team offense this year and having everybody touch the ball equally."

Leveille will be asked to do a lot for the Orange offense. The All-American scored 55 goals and added 33 assists as a senior for Albany Academy last year.

"We're counting on Michael (Leveille) to be a starter for us and handle the ball and make good decisions," Desko said. "As a freshman, we know he's going to make some mistakes early but we hope by the end of the year he'll play more like a sophomore."

Syracuse though is returning an experienced crew for face-offs, including seniors Geoff Keough and Chris DiMarco, sophomores Danny Brennan, Jon Jerome and Joe D'Arrigo.

In preseason play, Syracuse tied Navy 13-13 at the Dome and lost 14-7 at Maryland. The Orange open their schedule Feb. 26 at home against Army and the following Saturday they play host Virginia.

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