There are not many instances where you can see a rivalry first take shape and start its foundation. However, for Syracuse University and Duke lacrosse fans, they have front row seats to a rivalry that is starting to take shape and may ultimately develop into the showcase game for the ACC.
After suffering one of the worst losses in program history (21-7) to the Blue Devils during the 2014 regular season, the Orange rebounded with the game of the year in the ACC tournament, stunning Duke with just one second left on a Dylan Donahue turn around goal. Duke is 4-1 in the last five games against the Orange but the Devils return to the Carrier Dome for the first time since 1994. This match up will pit two of the game’s best and brightest coaches as John Danowski and John Desko have a combined eight national titles with Duke claiming the last two (2013, 2014).
Here a few match ups and players I will be keeping a close eye on.
Syracuse Attack without Randy Staats
If Randy Staats’ knee injury keeps him out Sunday as expected, the Syracuse offense will have a big hole to fill. Staats has put up nine goals in his last two games, including five against St. Johns and four versus John Hopkins. Staats brings a unique skill set to the team and the starting attack that simply can’t be replaced. While his loss is a big one Syracuse does have a multitude of options to fill in for what is hopefully only one game. Most fans’ first choice to fill in at attack would be Nicky Galasso, the former high school All-American who was a Freshmen All-American attackman at North Carolina before injuries led to his transfer to Syracuse. While Galasso certainly has the pedigree, his injury history and now full transition to midfield make him an unrealistic choice. With a starting attackman already out it would make little sense for John Desko to break up the starting midfield as well.
Jordan Evans another top option, having played attack for a portion of the second quarter versus Johns Hopkins when Staats was originally injured. However, much like Galasso, Evans is still trying to rebound fully from a lower body injury and is still missing the firepower and speed that made him the No. 1 recruit in the 2013 recruiting class. Evans did not look comfortable at attack versus JHU and it’s unlikely he could hold up for a full 60 minutes at attack against an opponent of Duke’s caliber. The best choice may be former JUCO All-American Tim Barber, who played attack for two years at OCC before transferring in the fall to the Orange. Barber, who has been playing on the second midfield line this year, has extensive experience playing at attack and brings a skill set as a shooter and a dodger from out top, which is the opposite of Kevin Rice and Dylan Donahue, who both prefer to initiate and dodge from behind the cage. The other potential option is red shirt frosh JT Forkin, who has been the fourth attackman this year for the Orange. Forkin, however, has very limited experience at the Division 1 level and his skill set is very similar to that of Kevin Rice and Dylan Donahue, which would cause a chemistry issue with three attackmen who all prefer to work from the X. If Staats is forced to miss the game I believe coach Desko is likely to lean on a combination of Barber and Donahue or Barber and Forkin to try and hold the fort for one game.
There is no happier fan base in all of Division 1 men’s lacrosse to see Brandon Fowler graduate than the Orange. Fowler was a thorn in the Orange’s side for years, dominating at the X in every matchup and ultimately costing the Orange a national title in 2013. Luckily for the Orange faithful Fowler has exhausted his eligibility and Syracuse now boasts the No. 1-rated faceoff specialist in the nation in Ben Williams. Williams is winning just under 70% of his faceoffs and continues to be a godsend for a Syracuse program that has struggled with faceoffs since Danny Brennan graduate in 2008. Duke is still winning 60% of its own faceoffs this year with senior Jack Rowe, who unexpectedly wrestled away the starting job from his younger brother Kyle, who transferred in from Stony Brook in the fall. Even if the two teams battle to a 50/50 draw at the X it will be a big win for Syracuse after the Orange struggled to get over 30% in the last three matchups against the Blue Devils. In Duke’s lone loss on the season against Denver, Duke was manhandled at the X in the second half. If Syracuse can win 60+% of the draws against Duke it’s reasonable to think Duke will have a slim chance to win.
Syracuse Defense vs Duke Offense
Despite the loss of All-American Jordan Wolf and Josh Dionne the Blue Devil offense remains as potent as ever. Myles Jones, the do-everything midfielder who looks like an NFL linebacker, leads the nation in midfield scoring and is nearly impossible to cover. Jones is complimented by fellow juniors Deemer Class and Chad Cohan. The starting Duke midfield rivals Virginia for the most potent attack in the nation with Class and Jones doing extensive damage to Syracuse in the past. The Devil attack boasts stud freshman Justin Guterding, who leads the team with 27 goals. Case Matheis, who scored three goals against Syracuse in the ACC tournament last year, has struggled so far in 2015 after being suspended for multiple games. Sophomore Jack Bruckner rounds out the attack with an under the radar 19 goals for Duke. The match up is daunting for a Syracuse defense that is sixth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 7.83 goals per game. Duke is third in the nation in scoring offense with a sizzling 16 goals per game average against a solid schedule that included Denver, Harvard, Loyola, and Georgetown.
The most daunting task is obviously matching up with Myles Jones (6-foot-4, 240 lbs). The obvious choice would be starting LSM Peter Macartney, who has had an excellent senior season slowing down opposing offense’s top midfield options. However, based on the freakish size of Jones and his importance to the Devil offense I suspect the Syracuse staff will have Brandon Mullins mark Jones. Mullins, the pre-season All-American, is far and away the top defender for the Orange and the only player who has the physical size and toughness to match up with Jones. It’s almost unheard of for a an All-American close defender to be assigned a midfielder but its clear Mullins is the only logical choice for the Orange. When dealing with a player the caliber of Jones you have to counter with your best and Mullins is the Orange’s best. I am looking forward to watching two All-Americans battle it out for 60 minutes. The remaining matchups are less clear. Frosh attackman Justin Guterding does a lot of damage around the crease, which would make Sean Young the best choice to match up. Syracuse is sure to double the midfield like they did against UVA. Look for Peter Macartney to draw Deemer Class and Jay McDermott to cover Jack Bruckner. The key matchups for Syracuse will be the ability of McDermott and the two short stick defenders, Mike Messina and Thomas Grimm, to cover the remaining Duke offensive players. The biggest test will be the defender who draws Case Matheis, if Syracuse chooses to place a short stick defender on him.
Despite averaging over 14 goals per game and ranking in the top seven in overall scoring average, the Syracuse offense still doesn’t appear to be clicking on all cylinders. Outside of the Virginia game the Syracuse offense has struggled to put together a full and complete 60 minutes. This is even more puzzling considering the fact Syracuse has a starting offense that boasts senior starters at five of six positions and is benefiting from an abundance of offensive possession from Ben Williams. It seems like “first world problems,” critiquing the offense of a 6-0 team averaging over 14 goals per game, but the offensive talent is such that they are still just scratching the surface of their overall potential.
So why is Syracuse not putting up numbers to rival the Powell era teams? In a word: inconsistency. Kevin Rice and Dylan Donahue were some of the most efficient offensive players the last few years for the Orange. However, this season with Williams winning so many possessions the pressure to maximize every possession is gone and the shooting percentage of the Orange has declined. The last few games both Rice and Donahue have struggled with shot accuracy, especially Donahue, who has missed multiple point blank shots that he normally buries. Rice has also taken some uncharacteristic shots this season, again most likely a result of increased possessions lessening the pressure to only risk a high percentage shots due to the faceoff woes. Rice and Donahue are still playing at a very high level but tightening up the shot accuracy in Donahue’s case and shot selection and placement for Rice would be a welcome development and lead to Syracuse scoring goals in the upper teens versus the lower. Syracuse would also benefit from more consistent production from its starting midfield.
After a scalding hot start Hakeem Lecky has come back down to earth the past month and has shown some of the flaws that slowed him his first three years on the field at Syracuse. Nicky Galasso has been the most consistent midfielder for the Orange but has hesitated to take a more leading role in the offense. With Staats likely out for Sunday, Galasso will have an opportunity to become more aggressive and take a more selfish role in the offense in looking to score. Henry Schoonmaker got off to a slow start but broke out last Saturday against Johns Hopkins. Much like Galasso he needs to look for his opportunity to score, especially with teams concentrating so much on the Orange attack.
On paper this looks like a game that will see-saw back and forth and come down to the wire. Unless one team has a complete meltdown at the X or on defense it’s hard to see how this isn’t a close game until the end. Both teams boast high powered offenses with good X play and consistent, steady goalies. John Danowski is an A+ coach and very hard to dislike even for an opposing fan. A key dynamic will be the adjustments made by both staffs. With these two teams likely to meet up again in the ACC or NCAA tourney it will be interesting to see if the two staffs choose to leave some new wrinkles out of the game plan and save them for a possible second or third matchup.
While I didn’t mention him above, Bobby Wardwell will be key for the ‘Cuse. Wardwell is having by far his best season at Syracuse, as he has shown the ability to make saves on shots he would have let in his first three seasons. The last few games Wardwell hasn’t been as sharp, allowing UVA to have a massive second half and only making five saves against Johns Hopkins. With Duke’s high powered offense on tap it’s imperative Wardwell play like a higher end goalie as opposed to the inconsistent net minder we saw his first three years. If Wardwell struggles again like he did against JHU, coach Desko maybe tempted to give Warren Hill a look. With a senior laden offense and the best faceoff man in the nation Syracuse is in a prime spot for a trip to Memorial Day weekend, and because of that if the goalie play isn’t up to par I don’t think Desko will hesitate to make a change.
This game will tell me a lot about the 2015 Orange. With Staats out and facing the defending national champions can Syracuse stay unbeaten and lay claim to the top spot in the ACC? While a loss wouldn’t be the end of the world it would be a blow going into the heart of the ACC schedule, with a road trip to Notre Dame on tap for next Saturday.
With Staats out I am going to hold off on a prediction but my head says Duke in a close one.