Duke, Syracuse Overcome Early Season Woes to Land in Title Game
by Patrick Stevens | LaxMagazine.com
|Duke and Syracuse overcame their
own set of challenges this season to land in Monday's national
title game tilt. The Blue Devils started the season 2-4 and
Syracuse opened with a loss to Albany in the Carrier
© Lee Weissman
PHILADELPHIA — Duke lost four of its first six games. Syracuse dropped its season opener as it came off an uncharacteristically lackluster year.
Both teams made goalie changes in March. Duke tumbled out of the national rankings and Syracuse nearly did.
Yet both teams survived decidedly uneven starts to advance to Monday's NCAA tournament final.
"They're a team," Duke coach John Danowski said Sunday. "That's your greatest opponent, is a team. Individuals can sometimes have a bad day, can hit the pipe, have a fight with their girlfriend the night before. But teams are tough to defend, and that's why they're the No. 1 seed, and that's why they're still alive."
The Orange (16-3) isn't built like a traditional Syracuse juggernaut, even if their knack for finishing off tight games is reminiscent of many of the program's past championship teams.
There was no way to really know that would become a defining trait in February, when the Orange was coming off a 9-8 season and then stumbled against Albany in double overtime.
A deep postseason run didn't appear to be Syracuse's likely fate at the time. Yet the Orange have lost only twice since their opener, re-asserting their usual place in the lacrosse world and reaching the championship game for the first time since 2009.
"I think we were rated anywhere between 14 and 17 to start the year off, and frankly myself, with the season we had a year ago and the number of losses, and with some of the kids that we had graduated, I could see polls or coaches voting us in that category," Syracuse coach John Desko said. "But especially this senior group took it personally and they thought they were better than that."
So did seventh-seeded Duke (15-5), but the Blue Devils still found themselves unranked after a 2-4 start. Dates with Loyola and North Carolina followed, hinting a hole potentially too big for even the championship weekend mainstays to climb out of.
Deep down, the Blue Devils figured they would play better. But playing on the final day of the season? That seemed a stretch.
"Our seniors made sure that the rest of the guys knew that we were just going to keep battling, keep fighting, trust our coaches and go back to what we do and just hope that a bounce goes our way and hopefully we can come out of it," Duke midfielder Jake Tripucka said. "But to say that we expected to come back here, I couldn't say that."
Both teams went through goalie changes as they navigated their way out of some early uncertainty. Duke turned to freshman Kyle Turri after incumbent starter Dan Wigrizer's career came to an end because of concussions in early March.
Meanwhile, Syracuse turned to Dominic Lamolinara in place of Bobby Wardwell at halftime of a March 16 defeat of Johns Hopkins, and the Maryland transfer never gave up the gig.
Perhaps the most striking element of how both teams adapted this season is balance they boast. Duke has a 50-goal scorer in Jordan Wolf, but all three of its starting attackmen have at least 45 points and its top six midfielders each have at least 20 points.
Syracuse, a program long known for its stars, doesn't have a player with more than 33 goals. The Orange collected only one of their 11 national titles without a 40-goal scorer (Casey Powell had 39 in 1995).
Perhaps most tellingly, Syracuse's signature player this year is a JoJo Marasco, a midfielder who topped the 40-assist mark.
"There's no Powells or Gaits running around out there, just a bunch of great hard‑working young men that know they're going to be in tight games and have found a way to win most of them," Denver coach Bill Tierney said after the Orange edged his team 9-8 in Saturday's semifinals.
Now, one more contest remains for a pair of teams accustomed to success that nonetheless might have been discounted in late winter.
"You come to Syracuse to win a lot of lacrosse games," Marasco said. "We knew we were going to have a great year this year."
Come Monday afternoon, either the Orange or the Blue Devils will wind up with a season they'll never forget.