On a cool, mid-April night in Ithaca, N.Y., the Syracuse Orange men's lacrosse team settled into their defense for the first time in overtime. The Cornell Big Red took a shot that redshirt junior goalie Evan Molloy, making just his second career start, saved, but the home team retained possession. Not 20 seconds later, Cornell senior midfielder Ryan Matthews dodged down the right alley and put the game winner past Molloy.
As the ball came to a rest in the back of the net, Syracuse fans everywhere paused for a moment of stunned reflection.You've got to be kidding me. Not again. How can this be? What do this team have to do to close out games?
The parade of question marks surrounding this team and this program had officially begun. At the time, the Orange had an overall record of 6-4 and had lost four of their last five games, including going 0-3 in games that went to overtime.
Everyone was asking the same question: 'What is wrong with Syracuse?'
The shouts of "Fire Desko" were everywhere. The very nature of the way this program operates was under the microscope. Has the most modern version of the game passed Syracuse lacrosse by, leaving them to toil in mediocrity? Can the Orange ever get back to seriously competing for the national title every season? Why are Duke and Denver able to make the Final Four every year while we've only been once in the past six seasons?
While the mood outside the locker room was sheer panic, inside the locker room, it was all about staying focused. Evan Molloy was the embodiment of that after the Cornell game. He had this to say in his post-game interview:
"I think we're fine. I don't think anyone would argue that was Cornell's best game of the season. I think that we lost to a great Hopkins team and a great Duke team, and it's by one goal. That's not a knock on us at all. We've just got to finish here."
Now, when you've got the kind of history that Syracuse lacrosse does, fans don't want to hear players categorizing the team as 'fine' when they've just lost their third overtime game and dropped to 6-4 on the season. It's just not acceptable for a program of Syracuse's caliber.
In the same interview, Molloy even had the gall to say this about their impending clash with the North Carolina Tar Heels:
"We have a great team. I think that we all have great heads on our shoulders and we know what we have to do to win. North Carolina's coming to the Dome, and they're in for a tough one. We're going to give it our all this week in practice and we're going to play hard."
They're in for a tough one?! The team that had actually just beaten Duke in overtime a couple days earlier? The team that was starting to play their best lacrosse of the season? They're going to be in trouble, coming in to play a team that had lost four of five and was looking like the worst version of Syracuse lacrosse since the historically bad 2007 Syracuse team?
Well, it turns out that Evan Molloy really did know something that we didn't. It turns out that his calm demeanor after the Cornell loss was, in fact, justified. In the three weeks since that night in Ithaca, the Orange have played four games, three of which have come against North Carolina (twice) and Duke. The team has gone 4-0 since losing to Cornell, picking up three marquee wins in the process.
So, how did this happen? How did we go from the brink of missing the NCAA Tournament for only the second time since we first won the NCAA crown back in 1983, to ACC champions who will probably host a first round NCAA tournament game?
Let's take a look at the key points to Syracuse's season turnaround:
In the midst of the Notre Dame debacle, a 17-7 dismantling of the Orange in the Carrier Dome, John Desko decided to switch out Warren Hill for Evan Molloy. Warren, just like basically everyone else on the team, was struggling mightily on that night to get the job done. Desko decided it was time to get a look at his redshirt junior who had only ever played 'garbage time' minutes in his Syracuse career.
After the game, Desko said that they would have to re-evaluate the goalie situation in practice moving forward, and re-evaluate it they did. Four days later, when the Orange took the field in Geneva, NY against longtime rival Hobart, it was Molloy who stood between the pipes. It has been that way ever since, and, barring injury, it will remain that way for the rest of the season.
Molloy has been getting better with every new start that he gets, and this weekend in the ACC Tournament, he was the star. Facing two of the most talent-laden offenses in the country, Molloy made a combined 27 saves (many of them of the spectacular variety) while surrendering only 15 goals. That's a save percentage of .643. It was no surprise when the all-tournament team was announced, that Molloy was named the MVP of the weekend.
Molloy has shown an ability to go low to make the save and a willingness to throw his body in front of shots to stop them, whatever he has to do to keep the ball out of the net. His insertion into the lineup has been a major factor in Syracuse's turnaround, for a team that had struggled through the first half of the season to find consistent goalie play now has found the goal-stopper they need to make a run through May.
Evan Molloy has not been alone in helping to turn fortunes around on the defensive side of the ball. The Syracuse defense has shown a remarkable turnaround in a few short weeks from the team that surrendered 17 goals to Notre Dame.
The defense has unquestioned individual talent, lead by Brandon Mullins, Nick Mellen, and Scott Firman, but they were struggling to play well as one unit. Poor off-ball defense, loose man-marking, and poorly-timed slides were the marks of that struggle. But, after the Notre Dame loss, this team took time to re-evaluate their deficiencies. They started spending much more time in practice working on their slides and recoveries, their off-ball defense and their man-marking.
The results have been obvious. The defense has been able to stymie some of the most talented offensive players in the country, including Myles Jones, Deemer Class, Steve Pontrello, and Luke Goldstock. As a unit, this defense has only given up 27 goals in the four games since the Cornell loss. That's an average of 6.75 goals against, and the opponents have been North Carolina and Duke.
The improved efficiency of every part of this defense (shout out to the shorties, who have been much improved since early in the season) has probably been the most important key to the turnaround for this season. Just keep doing what you do, Syracuse D.
Ben Williams and the Face-off Wingers
Ben Williams went through somewhat of a mid-season slump this year. In the four game stretch that comprised Hopkins, Duke, Notre Dame, and Hobart, Ben won only 50.5 percent of his face-off draws. That is significantly below what we have come to expect from the Holy Cross transfer.
Not only that, but, especially during the losses to Hopkins and Duke, Ben faltered late in the game. He was unable to win crucial face-offs to slow momentum for the other teams, when the defense needed a breather and the offense needed a chance to get momentum back on our side.
Those critical face-off losses were a troubling sign, but Ben has done well to squash any concerns about his play in recent weeks. In the five games since his "mid-season slump", Ben has won 67.3 percent of his draws, right back up to his lofty standards of play.
This weekend in the ACC Tournament, Ben went face-to-face with Stephen Kelly (UNC) and Kyle Rowe (Duke), two of the most intense, in-your-face, grind-you-out face-off guys in the country. In each game, Ben fought hard and came out on top, going 12-21 against Kelly and 14-25 against Rowe.
These are the types of performances Ben will need to have moving forward. He doesn't necessarily have to be at his dominating best, but when he comes up against the tough opponents at the X, he's got to be able to grind them out and gain the majority of possessions for our offense. As well as the defense has played the last few weeks, we'd still always prefer to have them standing around at midfield watching the offense like the rest of us.
After the Cornell loss, John Desko talked about the missed opportunities in the shooting game as one of the primary reasons for the loss to the Big Red. After all, Ben Williams had won 18-22 face-offs and the defense had played pretty well for much of the night. The problem had been on the offensive end, where the Orange shot a pathetic 22.5 percent for the game.
In fact, shooting had been a problem for Syracuse through much of their losing streak. In the five game stretch where they lost four games, the Orange shot a combined 28.3 percent from the field. Typically, 30 percent is the benchmark for where you want to be shooting as a team. Anything in the 20's is not going to be getting the job done, especially against elite competition.
In the four game winning streak since the Cornell game, the Orange have upped their shooting accuracy to 30.4 percent. It's not a hugely significant jump, but even a small uptick in shooting percentage can help make the difference between a win and a loss.
In short, improved efficiency and consistency from every area of the team have been the keys to this team's turnaround. In three weeks, we've watched as Syracuse has gone from the fringe of the NCAA Tournament to an automatic bid and a likely home game. The way this team is playing, all things are possible for them. For the moment, all things are rosy in the world of Syracuse lacrosse.
The Orange return to the Carrier Dome for their final regular season game this Saturday, May 7 at 1 p.m. against the Colgate Raiders. The game will be broadcast on ESPN3 and locally on Time Warner Cable. It'll also be found via radio on TK99 in Syracuse.