No magic involved in Orange's '08 act

Defensive work, recommitment guide reversal

On Syracuse's turnaround from last season

May 21, 2008|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,Sun Reporter

Dan Hardy has grown a little tired of talking.

Not the act itself. Hardy, a junior midfielder for the Syracuse men's lacrosse team, is eloquent and doesn't mind meeting with reporters.

But when it comes to a rehash of the Orange's disastrous 2007 season, he isn't effusive.

"Last year is over," Hardy said, in the style of former New York Yankees great Yogi Berra. "We're moving on. This is a new year."

Coach John Desko took a more deadpan approach when asked about the difference between the previous and current seasons. "About eight wins," he said.

And yet it's difficult to ignore the reversal the Orange is enjoying this spring. Syracuse (14-2), the third seed in the NCAA tournament, will meet second seed Virginia (14-3) in a semifinal Saturday at noon at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.

If the Orange - which is 14-10 when reaching the final four - can get past the Cavaliers, it will meet the winner of top seed Duke (18-1) and fifth seed Johns Hopkins (10-5) in the championship game Monday at 1 p.m.

That Syracuse is just two victories away from capturing its ninth national title (the 1990 crown was vacated by the NCAA because of violations) is a remarkable departure from last season.

Last spring, the Orange lost six of its first nine games en route to compiling a 5-8 record and failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1982.

A variety of factors played a role in the team's first losing season since 1975.

Perhaps the most significant problem was a porous defense that surrendered 11.4 goals per game. The last time Syracuse had been that generous to opponents was 1997, when opposing team averaged 11.9 goals.

During the offseason, Desko shook up his coaching staff, moving defensive coordinator Roy Simmons III to offense and making director of lacrosse operations Leland Rogers the defensive coordinator.

The addition of Rogers, Onondaga Community College transfer Sid Smith and freshman goalkeeper John Galloway has revitalized the defense, which is giving up just 7.3 goals per game - the unit's best mark since 1970, when opponents averaged 7.0 goals against the Orange.

"I think last year, they had a lot of schemes, a lot of different slide packages and sometimes that can be more confusing to the defense than it is actually to the people you're playing against," ESPN analyst and former Army coach Jack Emmer said.

"I think they've simplified that this year and just gotten better execution. ... The additions of Sid Smith and John Galloway along with a different approach have really made a big difference."

Syracuse has also avoided injuries and the off-field controversies that hampered last year's squad.

Senior midfielder Steven Brooks, who struggled with knee and back injuries last season, is third on the team in goals (27) and points (38).

Junior midfielder Pat Perritt, who left the team last season after his arrest related to an off-campus altercation, is the ninth Orange player to score at least 10 goals.

With the team intact, the players threw themselves into an offseason conditioning program and rededicated themselves.

"We came back this fall ready to go right from the start," said senior attackman Mike Leveille, a finalist for the Tewaaraton Trophy who leads the team in goals (43), assists (30) and points (73).

"We put in the hard work, saying that it would pay off. Now that it finally has, it feels great."

But Syracuse can't rest yet. One of its two losses came at the hands of Virginia, which edged the Orange, 14-13, in overtime in the Face-Off Classic at M&T Bank Stadium on March 1.

"We're not satisfied yet," Leveille said. "We're going to get back to work this week and shoot for two more."

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