Without title, UVa. not in Syracuse's league

May 27, 2006|By MIKE PRESTON

The accolades and the comparisons are starting to come because Virginia's lacrosse team is on the verge of greatness. The best compliment is putting the Cavaliers in the same class with the great Syracuse teams that won three straight national championships from 1988 through 1990.

But before anyone goes any further, there seems to be one tiny problem: Where's the championship trophy? Before Virginia gets compared to Syracuse, the Cavaliers have to win the national championship Monday in Philadelphia. If not, then all the comparisons are chucked in the trash like an old TV guide.

"Time will tell," Syracuse coach John Desko said.

The comparisons are understandable.

A lot of lacrosse fans are bored with today's game because there is too much specialization and too many substitutions. The game, once billed as "the fastest game on two feet," has come to a near crawl (see Maryland). But Virginia gives us a running offense and a relentless pace. The Cavaliers pressure the ball all over the field. Their defensemen are athletic, and handle long poles like some attackmen handle the short ones.

They conjure up the days when Paul and Gary Gait were running midfield for Syracuse, and dumping nifty over-the-shoulder passes to attackmen such as John Zulberti and Tom Marechek. Like Syracuse before them, the Cavaliers like to run and gun.

And then run some more.

"They play the game the way it should be played," said Towson coach Tony Seaman. Amen.

But it's not all about the similarities on offense. Syracuse's defenses were always underrated, but the Orangemen turned out one of the game's best shutdown defensemen in Pat McCabe. Syracuse had physically tough guys in the back such as Jim McNamara, John Winship and Mark Stopher, who would gobble up ground balls.

Michael Culver is Virginia's shutdown guy, and Ricky Smith is the big gambler who runs around and tries to make plays. Mike Timms can match up defensively with any midfielder.

With Virginia, as it was with Syracuse, you can feel comfortable on defense, but there is a major difference.

"When I coached at Penn and we played Syracuse in the late '80s, I had some success against Syracuse because we could slow them down with a zone," Seaman said. "I don't know if a zone will work against Virginia because they attack the ball. They come out to get you because they just don't give a [care] about giving up a goal or two because it won't change their playing style."

Offensively, Virginia is too high-powered for the opposition, as was Syracuse. The Cavaliers work the ball much better than the Orangemen did. Few teams can match Virginia six-on-six. Five times this season the Cavaliers have scored 20 or more goals, and all came against pretty good competition including North Carolina, Syracuse and Georgetown. Attackmen Matt Ward, Ben Rubeor and Dan Glading have had excellent seasons along with midfielder Matt Poskay, but the best player on the offense is midfielder Kyle Dixon.

"They are so unselfish," said Maryland coach Dave Cottle. "If we're all lucky, maybe one day they'll start caring more for the names on the back of their jerseys than the one on the front."

Syracuse could pass just as well, but the Orangemen didn't have to. Midfielder Paul Gait had one of the best and hardest shots in the game, lethal from just about anywhere. Syracuse coach Roy Simmons Jr. would often invert Gary Gait, allowing him to work one-on-one from behind the goal.

The Gaits were ahead of their time: bigger, stronger, and faster than any other players on the field. Zulberti and Marechek also were fantastic players, and the Orangemen also had other complementary players such as attackmen Jim Egan, Greg Burns and midfielder Rodney Dumpson. In the final three seasons with the Gaits, Syracuse averaged a little more than 18 goals a game and scored 20 or more goals in 18 games.

"What you see are two teams that have a lot of balance," said Desko, who was the Orangemen's top assistant in the late 1980s. "Not only are they unselfish, but you see some really great shooting."

Matt Palumb was the goalie for all three years during the Syracuse championship run. Palumb was far from spectacular, just solid throughout the regular season. He always came up big in big games. There are some who believe Virginia goalie Kip Turner, a junior from Severna Park, is the Cavaliers' weak link.

That might have been true earlier in the season, but not lately. He keeps coming up big in big games, too.

"He's the guy that doesn't get much credit and often gets overlooked, but he has played extremely well in the second half of the season," said Dave Pietramala, the Johns Hopkins' coach who played against the Gaits.

It's fitting that Syracuse faces Virginia in the semifinals today, and stands in the way of possibly linking the two to greatness. It's more than just a game, it's two teams with great athletes who take lacrosse fans back to yesteryear.

Only one team can win, but only Virginia can claim a spot alongside one of the sport's greatest teams.

"I understand the comparisons," Desko said. "They're having an undefeated season and our styles are similar. We're both teams that like to go out and put the ball in the back of the net. Virginia is extremely athletic and sound across the board. But we had two Hall of Famers on that Syracuse team, two of the greatest players to ever play the game. We won some championships. Does Virginia have that? Only time will tell."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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