Men's Lacrosse

Gutierrez: Syracuse’s resiliency in 1-goal games means it can contend for national title

Cody Hendrix | Staff Photographer

The barometer for Syracuse’s success this year should not be margin of victory but victory in and of itself, beat writer Matthew Gutierrez argues.

UPDATED: May 21, 2017 at 1:15 p.m.

Nearly lost amid the hubbub over the parity of this year’s NCAA field released last weekend was another piece of abnormality. Syracuse committed 17 turnovers against unranked Colgate — its highest total in 19 games dating back to last year — and its leading scorer, Nick Mariano, didn’t notch a single point. Still, SU prevailed for its 10th victory over the last 11 games.

The most impressive piece of Syracuse’s season has been its resiliency to win, almost regardless of the situation. The Orange, ranked No. 7 in the preseason Top 20, possesses a knack for squeaking out victories as seen in its 8-2 record in one-goal games. It’s a forte that propelled Syracuse to its longest winning streak in six years, the No. 1 ranking for three straight weeks and a shot at its first Final Four since 2013.

Throughout 2017, Syracuse has won against some of the best teams in the country without playing its best lacrosse. Backed by the winningest active coach in the game, No. 2 Syracuse’s (12-2, 4-0 Atlantic Coast) resiliency in one-goal games provides reason to believe the team can contend for a national title. Now’s the time for Syracuse to reap the benefits of a season stuffed with heroism, wild finishes and triumph.

“We’re getting everybody’s best game,” said Syracuse 19-year head coach John Desko. “And we’re winning.”

The barometer for Syracuse’s success this year should not be margin of victory, but victory in and of itself. There’s something to be said about close wins, especially when they come nearly as often as the wins themselves. Syracuse is a team that’s skated on the lines of both vulnerability and dominance, and still has not excelled in all facets of the game.

The Orange has not won the national championship since 2009, the program’s longest drought since 1983. Four straight senior classes have left Syracuse without a title. This year’s senior class could be the first grade to not reach Memorial Day weekend since 1982. Senior attack Jordan Evans could be only the second player to wear the venerable No. 22 since 1988 and not capture a national title.

Over the last three seasons, SU is only 2-3 in NCAA tournament games. The clock is ticking.

mariano

Ally Moreo | Photo Editor

The fact that Syracuse has squeaked out one-goal wins has so dominated attention that few have noticed what is happening in these moments: redshirt senior Evan Molloy makes a big save, sophomore defender Marcus Cunningham steps up or one of SU’s many offensive weapons delivers a game-winner. (There have been five of those — by four different players.)

In February, the Orange lost All-ACC defender Nick Mellen to a season-ending injury. The graduation of leading attack and All-American Dylan Donahue left a hole at the top of the offense, which featured three new faces at attack. Molloy entered his first year as the clear-cut starter. Back then, nobody really thought SU would go 6-2 versus Top 20 teams, 5-1 versus top 10 teams, and 2-0 against those in the top five.

Senior midfielder Nick Mariano’s game-winner over Albany foreshadowed a season of big-time moments. With an array of tools to rely on, Syracuse is 3-0 in overtime, which only benefits SU should it appear in a sudden-death moment in the NCAA tournament. Senior midfielder Sergio Salcido, speedster and assist man, hit the game-winner against Virginia, the start of SU’s nine-game winning streak. Three more game-winners ensued.

“It’s a different vibe from this team,” said Evans, who has 10 points over SU’s last two games. “We’re not stopping until we reach our maximum potential. You still have yet to see that. It’s coming.”

There is freshman Jamie Trimboli, who has made a rapid emergence on the starting midfield, starting with his game-winner in his debut start against Duke in March. There is Evans, whose late-season rise for a player whose career has been marked by failing to meet expectations couldn’t be any timelier. “He’s playing his best lacrosse,” Desko said this week. There is senior faceoff specialist Ben Williams, who is heating up after more than half a season of inconsistency. There is senior Scott Firman, who has grown into a lockdown defender. And there is the one-two punch of Mariano and Salcido.

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Ally Moreo | Photo Editor

Both of Syracuse’s losses had tremendous upside. In the first, against an Army team that catapulted into the top 10 after starting the season unranked, Williams went down with an injury. A freshman with hardly any experience at the faceoff X, Danny Varello, held his own and won 10-of-17 faceoffs to keep SU in it until the final seconds. The second loss, in the conference semifinals to North Carolina, included a terrible defensive half followed by what would have been the greatest comeback in Syracuse lacrosse history since at least 1982. Down nine at the break to the defending national champions, SU pulled to within one goal by the start of the fourth quarter.

“The best thing that happened to them at Carolina,” ESPN lacrosse analyst Paul Carcaterra said, “is they didn’t come back. When it comes to the pressured moment, I don’t think they will fold.”

Syracuse knows how to win in every way possible: Start slow and finish fast (UNC on April 15), blow you out (Siena, Cornell), get a heroic play in a clutch moment (five times) and buckle down late to preserve a lead (at St. John’s and then-No. 1 Notre Dame).

The Orange has no glaring weakness and each player knows his role, where he fits at his position, and how he works into the bigger picture of the team. One way or another, Syracuse can replicate close-game success and climb high. Syracuse has grown adept at overachieving. It’s playing out before our eyes, and a memorable May could very well be in store.

Matthew Gutierrez is an assistant sports editor at The Daily Orange, where his column appears occasionally. He can be reached at mguti100@syr.edu and on Twitter @Matthewgut21.

CORRECTION: In a previous version of this post, the latest Syracuse men’s lacrosse senior class to not reach Memorial Day weekend during the NCAA tournament was misstated. The last senior class to not reach Memorial Day weekend was the Class of 1979. The Daily Orange regrets this error.

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