What You Need to Know: No. 20 Syracuse Men’s Lacrosse vs. No. 5 Duke

Sunday, Mar 05, 2023 at 1:45 pm by Sports Editor

By Peter Elliott | @PelliottSports

Last year, on March 26th, Syracuse men’s lacrosse was reeling. Gary Gait’s first season at the helm of the program he helped take to new heights in the late 1980s was not going according to plan. SU had lost four of its first seven games and was set to take on Duke, the No. 10 team in the country.

But what seemed like a surefire loss was instead an upset that stunned the world of college lacrosse, as Tucker Dordevic netted five goals — including a breathtaking between-the-legs goal — in a stunning 14-10 win.

It seemed to signal a change, that the ‘Cuse had come roaring back after a lackadaisical start to the season.

But it was really more like a dead cat bounce, as that game was the last time Syracuse won all season. Instead of being the revitalizing win that stemmed the losing tide, it was the high water mark for a lousy year in which the Orange broke the program record for most losses in a season.

Now, almost a year later, the Orange are a completely different team at every end of the field.

That historic losing drought ended at the start of this season, with a win over Vermont and subsequent strong performances against UAlbany and Holy Cross. But while Syracuse had its way with inferior non-conference opponents, the Orange have yet to take it to a ranked opponent this season.

After back-to-back losses to Maryland and North Carolina, both top-20 teams, Syracuse (3-2, 0-1 ACC) can flip the script on Sunday against No. ​​5/6 Duke (4-1, 0-0 ACC).

Here’s what the Orange need to do if they’re looking to blow the Blue Devils away once again.

Na-so Good

The biggest challenge will present itself from the moment the opening whistle is blown. Duke’s Jake Naso is one of the top faceoff specialists in the nation, winning possession for his team 62.8% of the time. Naso is a workhorse, who has taken and won more faceoffs than any other FOGO in the country.

He’ll face Syracuse’s sophomore faceoff specialist Johnny Richiusa, who has been through the wringer at the faceoff X this season. He’s locked horns with some of the best players at his position — Vermont’s Tommy Burke, Maryland’s Luke Wierman, and North Carolina’s Andrew Tyeryar — and he hasn’t exactly held his own.

Richiusa has yet to win more than 50% of his faceoffs in any of SU’s five games. He’s succeeded on just 42.7% of his attempts, the lowest for a primary faceoff taker in the ACC.

But when asked how his team was preparing for the challenge of trying to neutralize Naso, Gait chuckled and

“Well, we’ve been doing it for the last few weeks,” Gait said with a laugh. “We just keep continuing to process and we made adjustments on wing play and faceoff guys and strategies, so hopefully we can fight for that 50 percent and give ourselves an opportunity to have success.”

But if Richiusa, a Canisius transfer, struggles once more, Duke’s dynamic offense will have more opportunities to score, tiring out SU’s defense in the process. That’s why Gait may need to lean on his wings to step up and fight for possession alongside Richiusa.

However, that may be easier said than done — Duke has recovered the second-most ground balls in the country this season.

Off the Mark

In the opening game of the season against Vermont, Will Mark announced himself as the solution to one of Syracuse’s biggest problems: stopping shots.

The LIU transfer made 13 saves in a nail-biting 7-5 win over the Catamounts, and through the opening three games of the season, Mark allowed just 15 goals in total, good for an astonishing save percentage of 73%.

But last week, Mark stumbled against UNC in a 19-13 loss. Facing a higher volume of shots, Mark made just 17 saves against the Tar Heels.

“At times I saw goals go in that he hasn’t been letting in,” said Gait after the game. “It’s tough on a goalie when he’s getting 40, 50 shots a game. We just gotta help him out a little bit more, especially early on, and get him so he sees the ball.”

Duke’s offense is just as prolific, averaging nearly 16 goals a game, the seventh-best scoring rate in the country. Dyson Williams leads the country in goals with 19, and his fellow attackman Brennan O’Neill isn’t far behind with 15.

If the Orange want to turn heads by knocking off Duke once again, Mark will have to put last week’s struggles behind him.

“He’ll bounce back, he’s a competitor and he wants to be successful, but it takes the entire defense to help make those saves, so we’ll work on that,” said Gait.

Time to Man-Up

If the Orange want to have a shot at beating the Blue Devils, the burden can’t just fall on the defense and Mark.

Duke has yet to score less than 12 goals in a game this season, meaning this game will likely be another track meet. It can keep pace with Duke’s scoring output by taking advantage of man-up opportunities. Through five games, Syracuse is the best man-up team in the nation, tallying 16 goals on 23 opportunities, good for a conversion rate of 69.6%. For reference, last year, the ‘Cuse scored just 14 man-up goals all season.

Canadians Finn Thomson, Alex Simmons, and Owen Hiltz turn the turf into a box, zipping quick touches to whichever teammate is left unguarded. The offense’s prowess on man-up chances is the reason why Joey Spallina leads the team with 15 goals. The freshman is positioned near the net to receive the final pass and fire on cage.

Last week, the Orange struggled to convert on power play opportunities against a physical North Carolina that committed 11 penalties. The game featured a particularly tantalizing moment during the third quarter, in which Syracuse was up a man for two minutes and in need of a goal, but couldn’t find twine.

Gait’s squad can’t let those opportunities slip away on Sunday against Duke, who won’t wait for the Orange to keep up. But when the SU man-up offense is firing on all cylinders, there’s almost nothing like it in college lacrosse.