This post offers the best of both worlds. Not only will I cover Syracuse’s 2016 season preview, but I will also add in game notes from Siena, AND talk about 100 Years of Orange! Did you know it’s Cuse’s 100th lacrosse season in 2016? YOU DIDN’T? Well, now you do!
What I can do now is introduce the 2016 Syracuse Orange after getting an initial glimpse of the team in its first game against Siena this past week. We can see what from the fall carried over into the spring, which the younger players seeing time, and who is going to be in the starter spots.
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But first, we need to address something BIG for this 2016 season in Syracuse…
100 Years Of Orange
The really big deal for Syracuse Lacrosse this year is that they are celebrating their 100th season as a program. Considering how much their players and alumni like to revel in their history and tradition, this is not going to go unnoticed. It comes at an interesting time in their history as well. The last time Syracuse won a national championship was 2009. Their last title game appearance was 2013. Critics of the team point to this gap as a sign the program is in decline and they are losing ground to the likes of Notre Dame and Duke, who were not even factors when the Orange started their NCAA Championship era in 1983.
In a region that holds their lacrosse team expectations high every single year, you can believe that their 100th anniversary is not going to allow fans to be satisfied simply with a “competitive” team. The Orange fans want a winner in 2016.
The big question in my mind is if this team is going to be ready to play vintage Syracuse lacrosse, or if they will need to win in different ways. To casual fans, vintage Syracuse Lacrosse means they will dominate every game from start to finish and calmly wait for the clock to end on Memorial Day to receive their trophy. But that is simply so far from what Syracuse lacrosse has been through all these years.
Yes, there have been the legendary players who have turned jerseys and numbers into larger symbols for the sport. Yes, the Orange has won a ton of games. But if you go back and watch Cuse games through the years, Syracuse lacrosse means one thing, and that is FAST.
It means a tough defense that can force turnovers when they need them. It means a goalie in net who can make the save on the crease and send a middie the other way in a split second. It means players that know how to play in space, work transition, and turn a broken play into a goal. It means holding off late rallies and it means staging comebacks against seemingly impossible odds. In this championship drought of theirs, pieces of that style were there while others were missing.
Are all the right pieces in place for a 2016 championship in Orangeland?
Quick 2015 Recap – How’d We Get Here?
The trademark items present in 2015 were their explosive offensive and dominance at the faceoff X. What they were lacking was consistency on the defensive side of the ball. They had some excellent games as a unit, and individuals also played well in big moments. Over the course of the season though, their problems on defense would pop up an inopportune times.
It’s tough to be too hard on this team, as they only lost three games, and each of those losses was to some of the best competition that could be found. They had a great record over the course of the ACC season and won the ACC tournament. But when you look at their offense, who was rated as the second highest scoring offense in the country, and compare it to their defense who was ranked 22nd, defense was the easy scapegoat. Their losses were in double overtime at Notre Dame, a two point loss at North Carolina, and an NCAA tournament quarterfinal loss to Hopkins where they scored three goals in the final minute in their comeback attempt. This team was so close.
What Did The Orange Lose?
The biggest losses of course are on offense for the Orange, headlined by Kevin Rice. Rice was the focal point of the offense for the past few years, but that is not to suggest is was dragging everyone along with him. Once healthy, Randy Staats helped Rice form one of the best attack units in the country. With them were midfielders Hakeem Lecky, Nicky Galasso, and Henry Schoonmaker, who comprised the entire starting line.
That means the Orange are looking to replace 5 out of the starting 6 on an offense that recorded the second highest goals per game average in the country in 2015. Defensively, the big losses are LSM Peter Macartney, SSDM Mike Messina, close defender Sean Young, and goalie Bobby Wardwell.
Who Returns For Syracuse?
So enough about last year, who comes back and who is ready to step up in 2016?
Goalie – After the several years of Bobby Wardwell fighting tooth and nail for every second of playing time her got, the Orange seem to have locked in on Warren Hill as their starter pretty early. Hill transferred in from JUCO giant OCC a year ago and made a push for time in net, but Wardwell won out, and deservedly so. In Hill’s limited time, he did struggle with the clearing game and never seem totally comfortable in cage. It was a stark contrast to his performance at the World Lacrosse Championships in 2014 where he was the starting keeper for the Iroquois Nationals’ first ever medal winning team.
Seeing Hill this fall against the Syracuse Alumni team and hearing reports of his efforts this spring indicate that shakiness is behind him. Against Siena, he had a solid day, only letting in two goals. I also loved his communication, such as when he was coming up to help direct the offense to settle down while they were clearing.
Behind Hill are just a few extra keepers, most notably Evan Molloy and Dom Madonna. Molloy was part of the three way goalie battle last year in the offseason while Madonna transferred from DII Merrimack. Molloy only saw nine minutes of action in one game in 2015 as Hill was the primary backup to Wardwell.
Madonna is a local Syracuse area high school grad (Liverpool, NY) who was an Under Armour All-American and recorded a 58.6% save percentage last year for Merrimack. Tyler Avallone closes out the group and despite some high promise coming out of high school, has been buried in the depth chart in his three seasons in orange. Interestingly enough though, the Siena game was Molloy’s chance to come in for time once Hill was pulled from the game, and Avallone closed out the last few minutes of game time.
Defense – Moving out from the goal brings us to the close defense. Brandon Mullins is the headliner here and is likely going to be looked to lead the defense and handle the top attackman week in and week out. He is a strong, fast, athletic defender who is looking to end his career at Syracuse on a high note. Joining him will once again be Bobby Tait and Jay McDermott. Both Tait and McDermott have been consistent contributors for their whole careers in Syracuse so far. Ralph D’Agostino also saw a good amount of time on the field a year ago and tends to rotate in depending on personnel matchups. Freshman Nick Mellen was highly touted, and earned a starting spot right away.
The defensive starters against Siena were Mullins, McDermott, and Mellen. Mellen stole the show, earning him ACC defensive player of the week honors in just his fist college game. He already shows an uncanny knack for takeaways, both through checks and picking off passes, while also leading the team in ground balls. What really shocked me about Mellen actually didn’t come to light until I re-watched the game’s telecast.
The color analyst was ‘Cuse alum Ric Beardsley, one of the most decorated defensemen in the program’s history. His praise may have been enough, but then he said how Mellen’s high school coach, the legendary Mike Messere of West Genny, once referred to Mellen as the best defender he had in the program in at least 20 years. While that praise often gets heaped on top players at a school, that school probably isn’t the same one where the reigning MLL Defensive Player of the Year (Joe Fletcher) graduated from just a few years ago.
Rounding out the defensive unit are the long poles and short stick defensive middies. The top LSM coming back is junior Scott Firman. Firman has been seeing time on the field since his freshman year and really shows huge potential in terms of loose balls. He is joined by a slew of underclassman, but redshirt freshman Austin Fusco was the primary LSM rotating in on face offs and in set situations.
Tom Grimm looks to be the leader at the short stick spot, which is a position on the field he has truly owned for several years now. He was an offensive player in high school and provides a great threat to score on fast breaks. Paolo Ciferri joins him here as well and he showed some great improvement over the course of the season in 2015. Both players are going to be tasked to replace the ground ball production of Mike Messina who was a revelation on the faceoff wings working with Ben Williams.
FOGO – Speaking of Ben Williams, he took the lacrosse world by storm along with Trevor Baptiste of Denver as the new wave of faceoff players in college lacrosse. He has a very quick first move and can sprint to open space once he has the ball. I will forever defend Chris Daddio (who Williams succeeded at the X) as he took the lion’s share of fan frustration as Syracuse has been in their title drought. The reason Daddio took on this role is because faceoffs are pointed to as the reason Syracuse lost the 2013 championship to Duke and Brendan Fowler. Daddio was the primary FOGO that year, but he only took four draws in the title game before giving way to Cal Paduda who went 3/13. Paduda sat out 2014 while Daddio soldiered on to his senior season.
Fast forward to 2016 and now Paduda is the primary backup to Williams. According to Desko, Paduda gives Williams some excellent competition every day in practice and can easily jump into the game if needed. They also have Austin Wentworth and Joe DeMarco available if they work their way down the depth chart even further.
The really curious thing to keep an eye on is that even at the end of last season, Coach Desko was hinting at leaving Williams on the field more and more after a faceoff. He believes Williams possesses the skills to actually be more of a standard middie than just a FOGO. I don’t think we’re talking about another Jeremy Thompson level of non-faceoff involvement, but only time will tell and Williams’ health is going to be a big concern. Players with styles like his tend to wear down over the course of a season, and things will also depend on the success of his backups. He didn’t show this side of his game much against Siena, so it is definitely a little bit of a wait and see while the rest of the offense shapes up.
Offense – As was mentioned before, offense is the big question mark for this team with the only returning starter being Dylan Donahue. His 50 goals a year ago put him in some elite company. It was the highest since the great Tom Marachek did it in 1991, and he was only fourth player since 1967 to score 50 or more goals in a season. If he manages to do it again this year, he’ll be only the first player since Gary Gait to do so two times in a career. Donahue is anything but a pure finisher, though. His versatile skill set is what already has him on the short list of potential Tewaraaton finalists by most in the lacrosse world. It is his senior year and he will be the leader.
Around Donahue are still plenty of familiar faces, even though they were not starters in 2015. Jordan Evans is the bearer of the fabled #22 jersey and is going to try to fill the shoes left by Kevin Rice the best he can. He has been battling the injury bug his whole career at Syracuse, but is going into this season at full health, so his expectations are sky high. Tim Barber is the other player who saw plenty of time in 2015 and spent time at both attack and midfield. Against Siena, Barber was running with the first midfield while Evans was at attack.
They also added a pair of transfers in Nick Mariano and Nick Piroli who will provide some immediate experience assuming they pick up the system quickly. Piroli had the starting nod at attack while Mariano was on the first middie line.
Some of the players returning to the team who are hoping to expand their roles much more are Matt Lane, Sergio Salcido, Nick Weston, Ryan Simmons, Gale Thorpe, and Derek DeJoe. With the amount of offense Syracuse put up last season, nearly all of these players were able to see a good amount of time on the field. Weston was seeing a large amount of time in 2015, but was rotating in on the second line against Siena and was not in their first mix there. Lane is a 6’7″ 224 pound matchup nightmare who can play both attack and midfield, but ran with the second line of middies.
DeJoe has been a man-up specialist who has been finding more and more time in even number sets as his career has moved along, this time he was on the first grouping of second line middies. Salcido has made his mark as a bit of a scout team hero, helping the defense prepare for the likes of Matt Kavanaugh and Joey Sankey due to his extreme quickness. He was the final piece of the first line of middies.
That was maybe a bit of a convoluted way to describe who was out there, so I’ll put it a little simpler. While the main starter sets were out there, the starting attack was Donahue, Evans, and Piroli. The first line of middies was Barber, Salcido, and Mariano. The second line of middies had several configurations, but the first group was Lane, DeJoe, and Simmons. Weston took Lane’s spot the next time this group came up. By the end of the game, the bench was virtually emptied, and plenty of other names had their shot. These middie lines are going to take some time to shake out. At attack, the main person rotating in was Gale Thorpe while the other starters were on the field. We may see him on some highlight reels this year.
Syracuse in 2016 – Big Picture
While a number of top 10 teams struggled early on, Cuse got an early lead, and dominated Siena from start to finish. Goaltending, defense, and face offs all looked like immediate points of strength, and the Orange offense delivered with Dylan Donhaue having a career day. As younger players step up, Cuse could certainly be on the path to glory in their 100th year as a program.