Today at 2:00 p.m., the rivalry that elevated college lacrosse into the mainstream and produced what many believe is the greatest lacrosse game of all-time will see Syracuse take on legendary foe Johns Hopkins. Syracuse versus Johns Hopkins is the equivalent of Michigan versus Ohio State in football and North Carolina versus Duke basketball. It’s a heated rivalry that for years has pitted the two most historic and winning programs in all of lacrosse history. Johns Hopkins considers itself the Notre Dame football of lacrosse, a school with the most wins in Division 1 history and with a pedigree that goes back to the early 1900’s.
Syracuse, which has played the sport at the college level nearly as long, didn’t really break out on the national scene until 1983 when it upset Johns Hopkins for the National Championship, its first in school history. Since that game the two schools have had developed an fierce rivalry that had produced dozens of incredible games including the 1989 National Championship game that many consider to be the greatest lacrosse game of all time. Unlike the Syracuse/Virginia rivalry, where both fan-bases have a mutual respect and admiration, the Hopkins/Syracuse game leaves no love lost between the two alumni and fan-bases – who in many cases despise each other.
Since meeting in the 2008 National Championship the Syracuse versus Hopkins rivalry has lost a bit of the former pageantry and ferocity that many were used to. JHU has struggled to maintain its elite level status and has gone through a prolonged period of mediocrity that many felt was unfathomable. Since ’08, Hopkins has failed to reach Memorial Day weekend and two years ago failed to reach the tournament altogether. Syracuse has dominated the series since ’08 with a 5-1 record including last year’s win at storied Homewood Field. Jays coach Dave Pietramala understood changed needed to be made and in 2014, he revamped the Hopkins offense and installed a motion offense for the Jay. Many contribute this change to Hopkins landing Shack Stanwick, the #1 mens lacrosse recruit in 2014, and current freshman standout for the Jays. The transition has been far from seamless but the Jays have put together a formidable offense that blends highly skilled veterans (Ryan Brown, Wells Stanwick) with hot shot freshmen (Shack Stanwick, Joel Tinney). Despite their 3-3 record this game is likely to be the stiffest test for #1 Orange to date. Here a few match-ups I will be keeping an eye on:
Lost in last year’s season saving win for Syracuse was that Hopkins faceoff specialist Drew Kennedy won over 80% of the faceoffs as the Orange were mauled at the X. That however was BBW – or before Ben Williams. Williams, the sophomore Holy Cross transfer, is currently winning over 70% of his draws and is the Division 1 leader in faceoff winning percentage. Williams has completely changed the game for the Orange and for the first time since Danny Brennan, gives Syracuse one of, if not the best faceoff specialist in the nation. Hopkins will counter with the senior Kennedy, who is over 50% for the year himself. Kennedy, however, has been dealing with nagging injuries since the second half of last season and still doesn’t appear to be 100%. He has also had some issues adapting to the new faceoff rules but continues to be an above average faceoff man. If Kennedy struggles with Williams, expect to see a myriad of other players including Kevin O’ Toole and Hunter Moreland. Jays coach Dave Pietramala has even used long stick defender Michael Pellegrino when his regular faceoff specialists have struggled, so don’t be surprised if he makes an appearance. For Hopkins, keeping the faceoff battle to a 50-50 split will be critical. Their defense has struggled mightily this season and they can ill afford for Syracuse to play make it take it for long stretches. If Ben Williams is over 60% for the game Hopkins is unlikely to win.
Syracuse D versus Hopkins Offense
Despite the 3-3 record the Hopkins offense has shown flashes of brilliance. Wells Stanwick, the lone senior, has provided a much needed calming presence and is the quarterback of the Jays offense. With Wells Stanwick leading the way his younger brother Shack has joined him on the starting attack and shown why he was the #1 freshman recruit in the country. Both Shack and fellow frosh Joel Tinney have combined for 28 points so far this year, including 10 goals from Shack. The Jays offense also boasts a plethora of deadly shooters including Ryan Brown, Tinney, Patrick Fraser, and Holden Cattoni. Syracuse knows first hand how dangerous Ryan Brown is after he scored an incredible eight goals against the Orange, many far from the crease. Hopkins has one of the most complete starting offenses that Syracuse will face this year with legit stars in both the attack and midfield.
The Jays offense is, luckily, far from perfect. The offense has been inconsistent at times and the Hopkins shooters have struggled at times with accuracy, especially from the first midfield. Hopkins also has limited depth beyond the staring six as their second midfield has failed to make much of an impact, with only converted attackman Wilkins Dismuke producing consistently. Despite the second midfield struggles the Jay offense is a daunting task for the Syracuse defense. Starting goalie Bobby Wardwell has struggled in his career to stop accurate long range shooters, which Hopkins appears to have in spades. It’s going to be critical that the Syracuse defenders – especially the short sticks – keep there sticks on the hands of the Jay offensive players and try to force the Jays to look inside. As for specific matchups, coach John Desko has several options. For the past two years senior Sean Young shut down the now the graduated Brandon Benn, who was a crease specialist for the Jays. With Benn gone I believe the staff may choose to place Young on Wells Stanwick despite him being an obvious match up for Brandon Mullins. Wells Stanwick plays a lot around the crease and behind X which is a good match up for Young, and it would also free up Mullins to cover Shack Stanwick or Ryan Brown. Expect to see a mix and match at long stick middie for the Orange. Scott Firman especially could be in for more playing time today as he continues to blossom.
Extra Man Defense
Johns Hopkins has drawn a ridiculous 43 extra man opportunities against its opponents to date and has scored a blistering 20 man up goals, which leads the nation. Freshman Patrick Fraser leads the team with seven man up goals and he has one of the hardest shots on the entire Jays team. Syracuse has struggled with its man down defense and has left man shooters open, including long range specialist John Glessner from Army, who buried two from 15 plus yards. Syracuse has to avoid committing more than one or two penalties against the Jays as their extra man offense is hitting on all cylinders. It will be interesting to see if John Desko makes any adjustments to the man down D. It’s critical that Syracuse stay with Fraser and Ryan Brown when they are on the man up.
Syracuse Offense vs the Jays D
If one thing has been puzzling so far for the Jays this year it’s been the play of their defense. The Jays starting defense is comprised mostly of seniors and coming into the year it was thought to be a strength. Unfortunately they have struggled mightily at times, especially senior goalie Eric Schneider, whose save percentage is a very underwhelming .440. To make matters worse one of the Jays best close defenders was lost for the year against North Carolina, forcing them to move a long stick midfielder, which has produced less then optimal results. Michael Pellegrino, the team’s starting LSM, is the team’s best defender and the heart of the defense. A very emotional player, Pellegrino has been known to have his emotions get the better of him. The Jays coaching staff will have to be sure he keeps his emotions in check, especially if he is matched up against one of the Orange starting attack. John Kelly and Nick Fields are the two best close defenders the Jays have and one of them will surely draw Kevin Rice.
The past few years Hopkins has done a good job slowing down the Syracuse attack but has been unable to contain the Syracuse midfield. Last year Billy Ward and Scott Loy scored two goals apiece and the year before Luke Cometti used a dominating first half to bury the Jays. Keeping an eye on Nicky Galasso and Henry Schoomaker today, if Johns Hopkins elects to pole Hakeem Lecky these two could be in for a monster afternoon. Hopkins’ third close defenseman, Nikhon Schuler, has struggled since moving from LSM and could be in for a long day, especially if he draws Randy Staats or Dylan Donahue. Look for coach John Desko to utilize his offensive depth this game and mix and match his midfield lines. Last year he played Dylan Maltz (transfer to Maryland) extensively in the second half after he had barely played the entire year leading up to that game. Hopkins was unprepared and Maltz played a major impact in the Orange winning. Jordan Evans, Tim Barber, and even Hayes McGinley could play big roles in today’s game if Syracuse tries to use its depth to wear down the defense of the Jays.
This promises to be very tough game for Orange. Hopkins brings in a very underrated, mostly young offense that can do a little bit of everything and has super upperclassmen to compliment its young guns. The Jays issue is that their faceoff dominance is now gone and defensively the team is struggling mightily. The Jays gave up 16 goals to a Princeton team that was held to four the following week. Unless the Jays can get an unbelievable performance from Eric Schneider and the rest of the defense it will be hard for the Jays to get the W. Syracuse’s offense is not without its own struggles but with so many intelligent and senior starters it seems almost impossible for the Jays to hold them under double-digit goals. Look for this to be a close game throughout with the Jays even leading for large stretches until the depth and experience of Syracuse becomes too much in the second half.