The 2021 men’s college lacrosse season is right around the corner, and Duke vs Syracuse feels like the debate before the games begin.
With polls beginning to drop for the 2021 campaign, there seem to be two teams considered above the rest, both hailing from the ACC. The Duke Blue Devils, consensus No. 1 among the polls so far, are the presumed favorite. Syracuse, meanwhile, finished 2020 as the No. 1 team and was the presumed favorite until Duke’s offseason acquisition of Michael Sowers.
With both teams playing in the ACC, we’re going to get at least one opportunity (probably more than one) to settle this thing on the field. But for today, though, we are going to dive a little deeper into the two title favorites. We will be breaking down the teams head-to-head in the first installment of our new Versus series that will provide #LaxTwitter with a weekly thing to argue about.
So, let’s rile up ACC lacrosse, Duke vs Syracuse style.
Duke vs Syracuse Lacrosse: Who Has the Edge in 2021?
Well, this one right off the bat has swung majorly in the favor of Duke during this offseason. Duke added Michael Sowers, one of the best college attackmen in history, as a graduate transfer from Princeton. Meanwhile, Orange fans are waiting in nervous anticipation to see how the Stephen Rehfuss transfer saga plays out. The honorable mention All-American, who led Syracuse with 18 assists in 2020 (good for second in the ACC and eighth nationally), reportedly entered the transfer portal after being punished by the program for violating COVID-19 protocols and is reportedly seen as a “precaution” in case his appeal is rejected.
So, with that, we’re looking at a Duke attack room that features Sowers, Dyson Williams, JP Basile, Joey Manown, plus two strong additional transfer additions in Phil Robertson (Princeton) and Jon Coffey (Amherst). It could also feature 2020’s No. 1 recruit in Brennan O’Neill, although I anticipate him to start off running at middie due to the depth that Duke has.
Meanwhile, Syracuse returns Chase Scanlan, whose first season in the Carrier Dome resulted in a team-leading 23 points, and Griffin Cook. Additionally, the Orange bring in Owen Hiltz, the No. 2 recruit in the class of 2020, who could realistically be a day one starter.
I project the starters to be Sowers-Williams-Robertson vs Scanlan-Rehfuss-Hiltz, assuming Rehfuss stays. Edge here goes to the Blue Devils, and that’s before we even get into their insane depth.
ADVANTAGE – Duke
If there’s one thing this Syracuse squad was famous for last year, it was the first-line midfield. Through five games in 2020, the Orange’s starting midfield of Jamie Trimboli, Brendan Curry, and Tucker Dordevic combined for 51 points. Trimboli was one of the best scoring midfielders in the nation, averaging 3.4 goals a game, including a signature dominant performance in a 9-7 win vs Army (five goals). Curry put up multiple goals in every single game. Dordevic, who started quietly coming off missing 2019 to a foot injury, dropped seven points (5/2) on Hobart, then finished the year with a hat trick against Hopkins. Additionally, Syracuse brings back Peter Dearth for a sixth year of eligibility. Dearth, a massive presence at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, is one of the best SSDMs in the country.
Duke, meanwhile, has plenty of weapons of its own. Owen Caputo finished second on the team in points last season, and Cameron Badour and Nakeie Montgomery are both back for their senior seasons. The Blue Devils should also be able to rotate some of their insane attack stable through the offensive midfield, which benefits their offense overall. Still, the edge here feels obvious. Syracuse has one of the best midfield units we’ve seen in years.
ADVANTAGE – Syracuse
Duke has one of its best defenders in program history back again this year in JT Giles-Harris. Meanwhile, Syracuse lost its top defender, Nick Mellen, from last year’s squad. That makes it seem like Duke should have the easy win here, but it’s a little more complicated than that.
For starters, the Orange do get Brett Kennedy back after the redshirt junior was named a third-team All American for a second straight season in 2020. Sure, he’s an LSM, but we’re counting him among the defense here, and he might be the second-best LSM in the country right now behind only Virginia’s Jared Conners. The Orange also bring in a string of transfers to help shore up the defense. Cole Horan, who started every game for Furman last year, is here now. So is Nick Hapney from Utah.
Meanwhile, back in Durham, Kenny Brower had a strong start to his career as a freshman last season. He started all eight games for the Blue Devils, racking up 15 GBs and five CTs. Walker Scaglione was the final starter for the Blue Devils, at least for the last three games.
We’re going to have to see which team comes together best. This one feels like a bit of a tossup. We’ll give the edge to Duke based on JT.
ADVANTAGE – Duke
Jordan Ginder for Duke against Jakob Phaup for Syracuse. Ginder, as a sophomore last year, finished third in the ACC (22nd nationally) in faceoff win percentage and second in the ACC (21st nationally) in ground balls per game. He finished above 50% in six of the Blue Devils’ eight games last season.
Phaup, meanwhile, finished as an honorable mention All-American after posting a 67.9% win rate (first in the ACC, sixth nationally). If he’d kept up the same numbers over the course of a full season, that would’ve been good for the fourth-best faceoff percentage in school history.
The edge here has to go to Syracuse, at least for now. One thing to keep an eye on: Duke brings in five-star freshman FOS Jake Naso, which could help them narrow the gap.
ADVANTAGE – Syracuse
On the ‘Cuse side of things, we’ve got Drake Porter. The senior goalie is the preseason All-American for US Lacrosse this season after he posted a 58% save rate in 2020. Porter’s best game last season, a 9-7 win vs Army, saw him post a staggering 72% save rate. He’s a fantastic goalie (and Twitter presence) and should be in consideration once again as the best goalie in the nation. He finished 2020 as the Second Team All-American goalie.
Meanwhile, Duke’s presumed starter is new to Durham but not new to goalie fans. Mike Adler comes over for a graduate season after being named a 2020 All-American honorable mention last season for Saint Joseph’s. Adler posted a 59% save rate in 2020, and his career save rate of 56.9% ranks fourth in program history for SJU.
Both teams have an elite goalie. We’ll have to wait and see how Adler fits in at Duke, but he should be just fine. That said, Syracuse gains the slight edge here due to Porter’s experience at Syracuse.
ADVANTAGE – Syracuse
John D vs John D. I’m not sure there’s necessarily a wrong call here. Desko, who has been running the ‘Cuse program since 1999, has a career winning percentage of .750 and boasts a playoff record of 34–15. He most recently led the Orange to a title in 2009 and has won national championships at the helm for Syracuse. He was named the USILA’s Coach of the Year in 2008. In 2006, as the head coach of the U.S. men’s national team, he led the Americans to a silver medal.
Danowski, meanwhile, has been running Duke since 2007 after moving over from Hofstra. He led Duke to its first-ever national championship in 2010 and won back-to-back titles in 2013 and 2014. He won the F. Morris Touchstone award for the NCAA’s top lacrosse coach in both 2010 and 2013. As the head coach for the USMNT in 2018, his USA squad went undefeated, taking down Canada in a last-second thriller to win gold in Netanya, Israel.
In recent years, both coaches have a bit of a reputation for flopping at different times. For Danowski, his Duke teams have famously been terrible at the beginning of seasons, dropping early games against unranked opponents before solidifying into a powerhouse for the playoffs. For Desko, his Syracuse teams have done the opposite, often being a top seed heading into the playoffs before being upset early in the bracket.
This might be controversial, but I’m giving the edge here to Duke. Danowski is one of the best coaches out there, and I’d trust him in a championship more than I’d trust Desko at this point in time.
ADVANTAGE – Duke
So, we’ve got Duke winning three categories here (attack, defense, coaching) and Syracuse winning three (midfield, faceoff, goalie). That means that, like nearly everyone else, we’ve got these two squads damn near neck and neck entering the 2021 season. The pollsters have, so far, given the edge overall to Duke, as the Blue Devils have usurped the top spot from Syracuse since the end of the 2020 season.
But now it’s time for you to decide. The final point here, the fan vote, is up for grabs. So, let us know here, and on Twitter, which team is truly the best entering the 2021 lacrosse season: Duke vs Syracuse?