All of Your 2023 Syracuse Men’s Lacrosse Questions Answered
By: Ashley Wenskoski, Ryan Bridges, Peter Elliott
The snow is flying and the wind chills are in the negatives in Syracuse. You know what that means: it’s lacrosse season! Syracuse men’s lacrosse begins play this Saturday, February 4th inside the JMA Wireless Dome. It’s an SU team that is looking to right the ship in the second season under Head Coach Gary Gait after some first year growing pains that resulted in a 4-10 overall, 1-5 A.C.C record last year – notably, the Orange had never hit double digits in the loss column in program history before last season.
Syracuse lost numerous star veterans last season like Tucker Dordevic and Brendan Curry, but looks to make up for it with a loaded freshman class. Familiarize yourself with names like 5-star recruits Finn Thomson and Joey Spallina as well as Alex Simmons, a transfer attack from Denver. If the Orange are going to improve from last year’s abysmal four wins, the newcomers are going to have to gel together quickly.
Below, we answer your burning questions ahead of Saturday’s season opener.
1. What can we expect from the nation’s #1 recruit, Joey Spallina?
Spallina, a Mount Sinai, N.Y. native, is a generational talent that has been garnering national attention since he was eight years old. A three-time All-American, Spallina holds the Long Island career points record. His accolades include being named the National Player of the Year by USA Today and USA Lacrosse Magazine, as well as the number one recruit according to Inside Lacrosse and the top-rated player in their Power-100 freshmen. He will don the storied #22 on his back for the Orange.
Spallina told CitrusTV that he’s not worried about adjusting to the speed of the game in college, as he feels he’s been playing against this level of competition for years already. While some growing pains are to be anticipated for any freshman, his pure speed and athleticism combined with a work ethic that coaches marvel at will get him through it. New York State’s all-time leading scorer, Spallina is a pure playmaker that will quickly become a leader on this SU offense.
— Ashley Wenskoski
2. What is the toughest part of the schedule for the Orange?
Syracuse has dropped some notable opponents from last year’s schedule including Cornell, Stony Brook, and Army. But out with the old means in with the new, and SU will instead have to wrangle with four teams that they didn’t play last year: Vermont, Princeton, St. Bonaventure, and Hofstra.
The Orange will get to ease into things with America East opponents Vermont and UAlbany up first, followed by a Holy Cross team coming off of a one-win season. But after that, it’s straight into the fire for this young team, and they’ll open their most challenging stretch on February 18th with none other than the reigning national champs- the Maryland Terrapins – at College Park no less. After Maryland, SU opens ACC play against North Carolina and Duke at home, followed by the annual rivalry game against John Hopkins. This four-game stretch from late February to early March will be indicative of if SU has improved since last season and will shape their aspirations for the rest of the season.
— Ashley Wenskoski
3. Will Syracuse make the NCAA tournament?
At a first glance, the NCAA tournament may seem like something that isn’t possible for SU. The program is coming off one of its worst seasons ever, and while the coaching staff will be much more prepared to deal with top opponents, many of the best additions to the team are freshmen who have not played ACC-level lacrosse.
However, here’s why they have the potential to make it. One of the Orange’s biggest problems last year was goaltending. Syracuse had an abysmal 36.4% save percentage on the season which was by far the worst in the ACC. To cure this problem, the Orange brought in LIU transfer Will Mark who ranked top 10 in the country last year in save percentage at 55.7%. As previously mentioned, Syracuse can ease their way into the schedule this season as opposed to last year where they had to face two of the top teams in the country in two of their first three games. These games should buy talented freshmen such as Joey Spallina and Finn Thomson enough time to get used to the college game before a brutal ACC schedule rolls around.
— Ryan Bridges
4. Who will lead the team in goals this season?
It wouldn’t shock anyone if Finn Thomson or Joey Spallina ends up pulling away from the pack. However, there are some other names that many people could be sleeping on. Jackson Birtwistle has a chance to make an appearance this season after finishing his 2022 campaign on a scoring streak. He found the net 13 times in the Orange’s final four games of the season. Owen Hiltz also has a chance to take a leap as the most experienced player on attack for SU. Hiltz had an extremely impressive freshman season, posting 29 goals and 19 assists, before tearing his ACL in a preseason scrimmage to end his sophomore year.
The biggest question will be how long the five-star duo in Spallina and Thomson take to find their rhythm. If it takes them three or four games to get adjusted, then expect Hiltz to gain a sizable lead to start the season.
— Ryan Bridges
5. Are there any All-American candidates on the roster?
Goalie Will Mark was recognized as an honorable mention All-American in USA Lacrosse Magazine’s preseason list, the only Syracuse player it picked.
Why so little love for the ‘Cuse? It makes sense.
With three stellar seasons under his belt at Long Island University, Mark is one of the few known commodities on a Syracuse team that isn’t returning any of its three All-American selections from a season in which they finished 4-10. Still, it is Syracuse we’re talking about, the most historic program in collegiate lacrosse. We think there will be more than just one player representing the Orange on the end-of-season list.
Owen Hiltz seems poised to reenter the national conversation after a season sidelined due to injury. Alex Simmons, the senior transfer from Denver, was an honorable mention last season, and comes to the 315 in top form. And with all the hype Spallina has garnered, he seems like a safe choice as well. If he can perform at the level that Hiltz did when he was an honorable mention after his freshman season in 2021, it’ll be hard to exclude the nation’s no. 1 recruit.
That’s three attackmen, for those keeping score. How about a midfielder? Saam Olexo does the dirty work well, forcing turnovers and scooping ground balls, in addition to chipping in the occasional goal. His growth over the course of last season was noticeable, so there’s reason to believe he’ll continue his improvement this season. And just as he was recognized in the preseason list, Will Mark is our final postseason All-American pick.
— Peter Elliott
6. What position group will need to improve the most this season?
Last year, it was the goalies. Harrison Thompson and Bobby Gavin both struggled mightily between the pipes, with neither netminder averaging more than seven saves per game. The Orange addressed that issue by nabbing Will Mark. But the Orange failed to make as big of a splash in landing a faceoff specialist, which is why the FOGO unit will be scrutinized the most this season.
Jakob Phaup was as reliable as they came for the Orange at the X since he assumed the role of primary faceoff specialist in 2019. But now that Phaup has graduated, the Orange have a serious dearth of experience at the position. Of the four specialists on the team, only one has significant collegiate experience: Johnny Richiusa, a sophomore transfer from Canisius who won just over 52% of his faceoffs in 14 games last season. Sophomore Jack Fine — the only FOGO on the roster who has taken a faceoff in a Syracuse uniform — took five faceoffs in relief of Phaup during the tail end of the season-opening blowout of Holy Cross. Freshman Gavin Gibbs and sophomore Paul Lamonaca, a walk-on, round out the group.
It’s a unit sorely lacking in NCAA experience and size, both of which are necessary to consistently beat opposing faceoff takers, and the Orange will see some of the best in the country this season at the position, like Maryland’s Luke Wierman, Virginia’s Petey LaSalla, and Duke’s Jake Naso.
Ahead of his team’s season opener against Vermont, where they’ll face Tommy Burke, one of the best faceoff specialists in the country, Gait seemed to acknowledge that his faceoff unit could struggle to consistently win possession.
“We’re going to see our young faceoff group hopefully compete and win some,” said Gait. “If not, we’re looking for some turnovers and to get the ball back.”
Thankfully, Syracuse has TD Ierlan on its coaching staff, and he just happens to be the greatest faceoff specialist in collegiate lacrosse history. There’s no better mentor than Ierlan to shepherd a group that will be green and growing this season.
— Peter Elliott