It has been an up and down season for the Syracuse Orange. At 1-3, the ACC has not been kind to Syracuse, but after a win over Notre Dame the Orange still have a shot to make the ACC Tournament. A possible invite to the ACCT is dependent on a win over the North Carolina Tar Heels this weekend. Several weeks ago, a victory over the #4 Tar Heels would have seemed out of reach but with the Orange's excellent play over the last few games, SU has more than just a shot against UNC. An SU invite to the conference tourney would come through a tie-breaker scenario between several 2-3 teams. An SU win over UNC Saturday and a UVA loss to Duke on Friday would clinch a Syracuse ACCT birth regardless of whether Notre Dame wins or loses to Maryland at the end of the season.
North Carolina has put together four straight wins, beating Harvard, Maryland, Hopkins and Virginia. The Tar Heels sit at 2-2 in conference and 9-2 overall. Their two losses have come against Duke and Notre Dame, the latter of which was a hard fought 10-11 loss.
UNC is top ten in the country for a whole mess of statistics. They are 6th overall in the nation for groundballs, 1st in scoring margin, 3rd in scoring offense, 8th in shot percentage, and 4th in points per game. The Tar Heels have given up the 4th fewest turnovers in division I and their defense is 6th in allowed goals. North Carolina has a prolific offense on paper and can hold on to the ball well, which could be a problem for the Orange. One of their weaknesses has been transition defense. UNC has had problems getting their midfielders back on fast breaks and their defense struggles without the midfield presence. They started the season with a strong FOGO in freshman Stephen Kelly but after being sidelined with a broken wrist and a subsequent surgery several games ago, UNC has been relying on senior R.G. Keenan who has been somewhat mediocre with a .418 winning percentage.
The series between SU and UNC began in 1981, and Syracuse holds the edge 11-6. There have been 3 overtimes in the 17 game series, and although the Orange have won 3 straight against the Tar Heels the two teams haven't played since 1996 when SU defeated UNC 19-12 in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament.
#7 Syracuse will host #4 UNC in the Carrier Dome Saturday at 6 pm. The matchup can be seen on ESPNU and heard on WTKW 99.5 FM. Saturday's game is part of a doubleheader with the #3 SU women taking on #1 UNC at 3 pm. Prior to the women's game, former SU standout Mikey Powell will perform.
Joey Sankey, who leads the Tar Heel attack, has had at least 3 goals on 6 different occasions, including a 5 goal, 2 assist performance against Hopkins. Sankey has 27 goals and 20 assists on the season combined with a .370 shot percentage. Standing at just 5'5", 150 lbs., the junior out of Warminster, PA, can sneak up on the crease, and has extremely quick feet. His size and athletic ability allow him to evade and sidestep defensive players, giving him opportunities to shoot off balance. Sankey can score from impossible angles so keeping him off the crease on the goal line extended is extremely important. You might remember the controversial timer-on, no-call in the UNC-Hopkins game where Sankey stood behind the net for over two minutes as the defense was caught in front of the net, unable to attack him. The Orange recently had a similar situation, all be it a much shorter period of time, against Binghamton where the refs made the exact opposite call.
Jimmy Bitter has put up 19 goal and 7 assists in his sophomore season. Bitter's family is one long line of lacrosse players: father and two sisters played for Boston College, brother Matt played at Navy, brother Ward played at Williams, and other brother Billy played at UNC. Additionally, his family also owns Bitter Lacrosse. The youngest of all the Bitters has had 3 hat tricks this year in games against Dartmouth, Notre Dame and Duke.
The third attack spot has been rotated between several players. Spencer Parks, Steve Pontrello and Pat Foster have all gotten starts on the first attack line. Foster has gotten the last five starts. In 2013 Foster had 15 goals and 2 assists. The senior out of Lutherville, Maryland, has 15 goals, 14 assists and a .375 shot percentage through 11 games played and 7 starts. Last week against Virginia, Foster had 4 assists.
North Carolina has a very talented midfield squad. Their defensive midfielders play their marks close, even out of and high the box. The physical play of their d-middies has been a big reason why UNC gives up so few shots on goal as they force a lot of passes and bad shots. Offensively, the midfielders as a core have excellent dodging ability from outside of the box and can consistently beat their opposing defensive midfielder matchups, as they did against Hopkins.
Chad Tutton is in his third year starting as a junior. As a USILA Second-Team All-American Tutton had 35 points. In 2014, Tutton has 15 goals and 3 assists, including 2 game winners and 3 man-up goals. The Ontario native also has a team leading 3.5 penalty minutes. Tutton, with his box lacrosse experience, has a great ability to get under his defender using his big frame.
Steve Pontrello has one start at attack and ten starts at midfield. Steve's brother Nikko is a star attackman at Loyola. Last year the younger Pontrello had the third most goals of all midfielders with 12. He has almost reached his 2013 total, putting away 11 goals and 2 assists this year. Pontrello has a great outside shot which he can get a lot of heat behind. The Orange will have to be mindful of the attack elevating the ball from behind the goal line extended to Pontrello where he can be deadly. Shane Simpson has gotten the last 9 starts at midfield, netting 10 and assisting on 3 goals. The sophomore has a .741 shots on goal percentage and 2 caused turnovers.
Stephen Kelly has taken the majority of face-offs this season. The freshman came to UNC as the second overall recruit in the nation. He had won 74 of 121 face-offs through 8 games, a .612 winning percentage, which would put him 15th in the nation but you will not find him on the national rankings because he has only played in 8 of North Carolina's 11 games (a player must play in 75% of his team's games to make the list). Kelly broke his wrist against Harvard and was forced to undergo surgery, his timetable for return is uncertain as of now. In Kelly's place R.G. Keenan has shouldered most of the burden. The senior out of the Boys' Latin School won 198 of 374 last year and so far in 2014 he is just 28 of 67. When Keenan gains momentum though, things can get ugly. Against Hopkins, the Maryland native won the face-off with 1:59 left in the third quarter and ran it into the box. The unsettled, fast break situation caught Hopkins off guard and the defensemen were late to the slide giving Keenan a good shot leading to a back-breaking goal.
The UNC defense has allowed no more than 11 goals in every game this year, holding both Maryland and Johns Hopkins to season lows in goals scored. The Tar Heels do not cause a lot of turnovers but have given opponents just 85 goals on 348 shots. UNC opponents have combined for a dismal .244 shot percentage. The UNC long-poles are very physical and have no problem going body on body against their matchups. Saturday they face a Syracuse team that has an excellent attack and multiple options including Randy Staats who emerged last week as stud for the SU offense. Senior Jordan Smith started the final 14 games of 2013 and through 11 games has 10 groundballs and 7 caused turnovers on the year. Austin Pifani is the only freshman on the starting long-pole line. A 2013 Under Armour All-America selection, Pifani has 1 goal, 22 groundballs and a team leading 10 caused turnovers. Junior Jake Bailey out of Fairport, NY, is listed at 6'5," and started 6 games overall last year even after being sidelined by injury for much of the season. Bailey has 1 goal, 17 groundballs and 2 caused turnovers in 2014.
Kieran Burke is an exceptional goalie standing at 8th in the country for goals against average and 9th in save percentage. Burke has started 28 games in a row for the Tar Heels and this year he had 15 saves in a game against Duke while making 12 saves versus Maryland.