‘This is the Playoffs’: Syracuse Men’s Lacrosse Raises the Stakes for Regular Season Finale
By Peter Elliott
Gary Gait knows a big game when he sees one. He may be in just his second year at the helm of his alma mater, but Gait has a lifetime of drama-laden lacrosse under his belt. He knows how different those games feel.
“Absolutely, you always get some energy, you get pumped up,” said Gait.
Saturday’s regular-season finale against Duke is one of those games, and Gait wasn’t in the business of pretending — like coaches often do — that Saturday is just another game.
“This is the playoffs,” said Gait. “It’s essentially our first round of playoffs, so we’re ready to get after it.”
Syracuse (8-6, 1-4 ACC) is on the outside looking in at the NCAA Tournament, in desperate need of a showpiece win it can point to for the selection committee. A victory over Duke (11-2, 4-1 ACC) could be the deciding factor for the committee to lend SU one of the eight at-large bids to the Big Dance.
“I think there’s a legitimate chance to make the NCAA Tournament if we do win,” said Gait. “I think it gives us the wins that we need, a win against a top-three team would go a long way.”
But it also may be too little, too late. Gait’s squad has struggled mightily against ranked opponents all season, and its two wins over top 20 teams — North Carolina and Princeton — look less impressive by the week, as both the Tar Heels and Tigers are just a game above .500.
And last weekend, SU suffered a disfiguring loss against Virginia, a 19-12 shellacking that featured a particularly rough showing for the offense, which mustered just 37 shots to UVA’s 60. Freshman phenom Joey Spallina had an uncharacteristically quiet game — he didn’t score a single goal and tallied just one assist.
Still, the door is cracked open for Syracuse, even if ever so slightly.
And it’s not hyperbolic to say SU has a chance against Duke on Saturday, because it nearly upset the Blue Devils back on March 5th at the JMA Wireless Dome. The Orange took Duke to overtime, but the visitors walked it off in the extra period in a 14-13 win.
Gait thinks a lot has changed since that game almost two months ago.
“Well, more importantly, I think we’re different,” said Gait. “I think we’re much more experienced and we’ve had another run of top-ranked teams and had a little bit of success with a couple of them and got some more confidence, so I think it starts there, that we have a little bit more experience and we’re a little bit better prepared.”
Dave Pietramala’s defense will have to slide on Brennan O’Neill, one of the most productive attackers in college lacrosse, and Dyson Williams, who, like SU’s Jackson Birtwistle, is a shoot-first sniper. Together, they notched a combined six goals in their last meeting against the Orange, and figure to pose just as dangerous a threat this time around.
SU also needs to clean up the mistakes. It turned the ball over 15 times last week against UVA, but there’s no room for error against this Duke team, and certainly not on the offensive end, where Pat March’s offense can’t afford to throw away the ball.
And, while it is certainly easier said than done, Syracuse needs to at least remain somewhat competitive at the Faceoff X with the Blue Devils. Duke’s junior faceoff specialist Jake Naso had his way last time around with Johnny Richiusa and Jack Fine, going 20-for-31 at the dot, a dominant performance that led directly to Duke’s unanswered six-goal run in the third quarter.
It’s do-or-die for the Orange on Saturday.
Opening faceoff is set for noon at Koskinen Stadium in Durham, North Carolina, and the game will be televised on ESPNU. Duke is undefeated in seven home games this season.