Thought of no NCAAs has Orange feeling blue

No. 10 Heels on track for return to tourney

Men's notebook

April 18, 2007|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun reporter

When junior attackman Mike Leveille arrived at Syracuse in fall 2004, the Orange was coming off of its third NCAA title in the previous five seasons. The school had won eight national championships dating back to 1983, and had been to every tournament final four since then.

Little did Leveille know that he was walking into a new era of Syracuse lacrosse - an era during which the Orange has begun to slide into the ranks of the ordinary, an era during which increasing parity in the Division I game is stalking the big boys.

You think No. 8 Johns Hopkins, with its 14-9 record since the start of the 2006 season, has problems? Look way up north, where the Orange stumbled badly at the start of 2005 and 2006 and now is on the edge of elimination from the NCAA tournament for the first time since missing it in 1982.

The No. 17 Orange (4-6) is out of breathing room. Starting with Friday night's visit by No. 2 Albany, a team that has lost back-to-back 14-13 decisions at the Carrier Dome, Syracuse must win its final three games to make the postseason.

"Every year I've been here, we've dug ourselves a hole we have to get out of," said Leveille, the team's leading scorer with 29 points.

"It's a tough situation to be in. Obviously, we don't want to be there. It's all about the parity in the game these days. No matter who you play, if you don't bring your best effort, you might not come out on top."

Syracuse has learned that lesson for three years. In 2005, a 1-3 start led to a 7-6 finish and back-to-back losses to Massachusetts, which denied the Orange a trip to the final four. Last year, a 1-4 start, including the school's first loss to Hobart since 1986, culminated in a 10-5 finish in the final four.

This year, a road loss at Loyola and three home defeats - against Army, Hopkins and a heartbreaking 16-15 decision to top-ranked Cornell, despite 22 saves from sophomore goalie Peter Coluccini - helped knock the Orange to 3-6. That matched the school's worst nine-game start since 1974.

"Everybody on our team has been unhappy with their play. But there are no easy games. Nothing is guaranteed, like it was in the '80s and the '90s," said Coluccini, who has saved only 49.8 percent of the shots he has faced for a defense that has allowed 11.4 goals per game.

"It makes you upset to your stomach, when you know what kind of a team you have and what kind of tradition you have, and you're 4-6. We can't look at the big picture [making the playoffs]. We have to look at small parts. It's a daunting task."

Heels' bright outlook

Only once since 1998 has No. 10 North Carolina made the NCAA tournament, but the Tar Heels (8-4) are in good shape to make that happen for the first time since 2004.

Carolina's 13-10 victory over Hopkins last month should be enough, although a victory at the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament would seal the deal.

Senior defensive midfielder Ben Staines (Severn), one of three Staineses to play for the Tar Heels - and younger brother Mark is on the way - has lived through it all. As a freshman, he was part of the Carolina team that lost to Hopkins in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals. Then, the Tar Heels tumbled to a combined 9-18 record over the next two years.

"The last four years has been a lot of ups and down, mostly downs," Staines said.

Tigers' lament

No. 18 Hofstra (5-5) might not have a prominent spot on the radar screen. But the Pride, which has suffered all its losses by a goal, knows how to compete. Tony Seaman, coach of No. 19 Towson, learned that Saturday.

Seaman watched the Tigers (7-4) blow a two-goal lead with under a minute left in regulation, before losing in overtime, 9-8, at Johnny Unitas Stadium.

"You just sit there and think, `Man, that's impossible,' " Seaman said. "We played great for 58 minutes. Then, we had five things go wrong."

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