Sol Bliss has developed a new pre-game routine.

Out of his bag, Bliss revealed a shiny knee brace and began methodically putting it on. With his knee bent, he slipped three straps on, pulled, and secured the Velcro straps.

Bliss stood up as reporters approached and immediately began readjusting his brace.

"I don't think I've ever put it on without having to readjust it four or five times before I starting playing on it," he said. "It's never going to feel comfortable from sweating and sliding."

The senior will have to go through the same routine for the entire year and there's no sign of him taking the brace off.

"I could sign a waver to get out of it but that says something to me," Bliss said. "If you have to sign a waver, you might as well just do it."

Bliss, who spent the fall rehabbing a torn ACL suffered during last year's semifinal game against Virginia, is the only returning starter from last year's championship team. Syracuse is still searching for answers throughout their defense. The senior spent most of his offseason in the weight room, rebuilding a knee that allowed him to become one of the most feared defenders in college lacrosse.

The intense conditioning has left him in even better shape than he was last spring.

"Everyone busted their butts in the weight room, especially Sol," sophomore Donn Vidosh said. "He was there when I got there, he was there when I left."

As a result, Bliss runs with no limp and no fear of hurting his knee again.

"I'm 100 percent," Bliss said. "You're not going to hear any different."

"He's back at where he was," Syracuse head coach John Desko said, "if not better."

Desko can only hope he can say the same about the close defense, which will try to replace Billy St. George and John Glazel, a pair of All-Americans who graduated last year.

"I already miss them," Bliss said. "Every practice, someone does something they shouldn't have, and you think, 'John (and Billy) wouldn't have done that last year.'"

Desko hasn't named two permanent starters at close defense. He's jumbled different lineups and combinations in practice and scrimmages, but hasn't found the perfect fit yet.

"We're moving a lot of people in and out," Desko said. "We're looking at some defensive schemes and we're happy with the direction it's going."

Two strong candidates have emerged to fill the void. Junior transfer Dan DiPietro and Vidosh started alongside Bliss in a scrimmage against Navy. Joe Sabasteanski, who started last year at long-pole midfielder has practiced at close defense while freshman John Wright also appears to be in the mix.

DiPietro has the most experience of the group, but pointed out the large difference between playing at Syracuse and Johns Hopkins.

"It's like night and day here," DiPietro said. "The coaches ask a lot more of you."

Vidosh started the championship game in place of Bliss, and has a year under his belt of guarding standout Mike Powell in practice.

"The guys we're playing against (in practice)," Vidosh said, "are the best offensive crew and players in the country."

Still, all the practice in the world couldn't help the chemistry of the defense in the fall. With Bliss on the sideline, DiPietro also recovering from surgery and a new group of freshmen, the porous Orangemen defense came under criticism.

A large part of the problem resulted from lack of communication. Having played together for four years, St. George and Glaztel developed a unique chemistry.

"The guys who graduated knew what each other was doing," Vidosh said, "without even having to communicate that verbally."

Putting a new group together in such a short period of time left the defense on their heels, learning the ropes as they went.

"We could have the three best defensemen in the league," Bliss said, "but if they don't communicate, it's not going to mean anything."

When Syracuse got back to practice in early January, a lot of the time was devoted to communication.

"It only comes with time," Vidosh said. "It's coming along every day and it gets better and better."

"That was the first thing we worked on," Bliss said. "Say something, repeat yourself, just say something. That gets you in the habit of talking more and more."

Bliss has taken a large roll in molding the underclassmen into top defenders.

"When guys don't know what's going on, they're going to look to coach, and then they're going to look to me," Bliss said. "That's a lot of pressure on me. I can't take practice off. I can't take a drill off."

More than likely, Bliss won't take a minute off, which is great news to goalie Jay Pfeifer. The sophomore started all 17 games last year and enjoyed an exceptional playoffs, recording 49 saves in the three games.

Pfeifer's career-high 19 saves in the semifinal round against Virginia allowed the Orangemen to top the Cavilers in double overtime. His performance earned him a spot to the NCAA All-Tournament team, saving 54 percent of shots and allowing just 9.42 goals a game.

"It was good timing having a great defense in front of him (last year)," Bliss said. "Now, we have a great returner behind us."

But there's no question that Pfeifer's success will hinge on those in front of him.

"We know what we've got to do," Desko said. "We've got some things to work on, but there's light at the end of the tunnel."

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