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Syracuse men’s lacrosse: Why are some big recruits decommitting?

Four top recruits in a span of just over a month have flipped to different schools.

Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images

Fall ball concluded for the Syracuse Orange about a week and a half ago. Based on my previous experiences, the team will now go through some smaller group practices for the next few weeks before resting up for the start of regular season practices in January. (EDIT: They’re not doing those small group practices, according to a few people close to the program).

The current team has plenty of promise. After being on campus for Alumni Weekend, many of the younger guys have vastly improved from a year ago. Owen Seebold looks like a much different player, same with Lucas Quinn and Jacob Buttermore. Jared Fernandez and Tucker Dordevic are healing up from injuries and will make impacts on the field come January. Many of the new freshmen have caught the eyes of the coaching staff, notably Griffin Cook.

There’s a new strength and conditioning coach as well. Mike Missen joined the program after spending three years with the Kentucky Wildcats working with the men’s tennis, men’s and women’s golf, and men’s cheer teams. He also assisted with baseball, men’s soccer, track and field, and swimming and diving. Current players and staff members have raved his performance thus far.

So while the current team has promise for 2019, there’s been growing concern about future members of the Orange.

In a span of 40 days, four top Orange recruits have decommitted and flipped schools. The list and where they were ranked according to Ty Xanders of Inside Lacrosse:

  • Graham Blake, Attack, Marin Catholic (CA): Flipped to Harvard (#35 in Class of 2020, now a member of the Class of 2019) on Sept. 20
  • Russell Maher, Attack, Mt. Sinai (NY): Flipped to Virginia (#15 in Class of 2020) on Oct. 19
  • Carter Parlette, Midfield, Ponte Vedra (FL): Flipped to Notre Dame (#19 in Class of 2020) on Oct. 22
  • Josh Zawada, Attack/Midfield, Hill Academy (ON): Flipped to Michigan (#37 in Class of 2019) on Oct. 30

Four members of the top 40 in two different classes have flipped in a span of six weeks. And looking at those rankings, these were pretty much Cuse’s four best recruits. This is very abnormal for a program, especially for a major program like Syracuse.

Two of them flipped to other ACC schools, while the other two flipped to Harvard and Michigan, who don’t have the same caliber of program and history as Syracuse has. There was a lot of excitement with Maher and Zawada coming in to the program, but now that won’t be the case. Even former defensive star Ric Beardsley was stunned.

The team did add three recruits during that time span in juniors Blake Erlbeck (A), Tommy Drago (LSM), and Jack Witherspoon (D). Xanders has Erlbeck ranked 81st, Drago 84th, and Witherspoon, a former UNC commit, unranked. So there’s that.

But if you look at the Class of 2019 and Class of 2020 rankings Xanders has, it paints a bleak picture. The Orange don’t have any 5-star recruits in these classes.

In the Class of ‘19 list, the first Syracuse appearance comes in at 79 with JJ Levandowski, followed by Michael Page at 80. And that’s it. Zawada was the highest prospect in that class until he flipped. Schools such as Boston University and UMass have prospects in the top 10, while others such as Army-West Point, Brown, Georgetown, Lehigh, Penn, and even Bryant and High Point have recruits in that list before Syracuse does.

In the Class of ‘20, Syracuse’s first appearance is Camden Hay at 39, followed by Marquez White at 52. Erlbeck and Drago are the other two players that appear on that list. They’re a little better off than some of their ACC counterparts in that list, but are still getting out-recruited by Duke and Virginia. The Blue Devils just landed top recruit Brennan O’Neill a few weeks ago after he decommitted from Penn State.

Even current college players that were originally Syracuse commits are performing well elsewhere. Matt Gaudet, the Most Outstanding Player of last year’s NCAA Tournament with Yale, Chase Scanlan (incoming freshman at Loyola and played for the Iroquois Nationals in the FIL World Championships), and George Baughan (Princeton) were all originally committed to the Orange. Since the high school class of 2016, 11 former Orange recruits have flipped, according to Xanders.

Add to these recruits flipping, Syracuse has had some notable players transfer out in recent years and some that have thought about transferring. Dylan Maltz and Logan Wisnauskas were notable ones that went from Syracuse to Maryland, with Maltz scoring a hat-trick in a Terrapin win over the Orange in the 2016 NCAA Quarterfinals. Gale Thorpe transferred to Ohio State last season. And back when TD Ierlan was transferring out of Albany this summer, Syracuse was reportedly a school he was considering. He never chose them because of the lack of interest he received from the coaching staff back when he was in high school and looking at colleges.

So why is ‘Cuse losing these top recruits? It’s probably a mixture of reasons and each recruit would have a different one if they came out and said why. One that I’ve heard was due to money. One school offered a recent recruit a better package, which he took. Tuition at Syracuse is over $50,000. Add a few other fees for billable costs, as noted on SU’s website, and you’re now well over $67,000. Then you add some non-billable costs, and the chances are a family has to pay over $70,000 for one year. That’s a ton of money, but it’s also on par with Duke and Notre Dame. UNC and Virginia are cheaper for out of state students. Yet there’s plenty of cheaper options available and still get a great education and play Division I lacrosse.

Could it be the program’s recent absences from Championship Weekend for the past few years? Syracuse has done well in the regular season, only winning fewer than 10 games twice (2012 and 2018) since winning the second of back-to-back national championships in 2009.

But outside of that, Syracuse hasn’t been the Syracuse of old in the last five postseasons. Whether it’s been upset at home by Bryant in 2014, or three straight losses in the NCAA Quarterfinals, or the recent blowout losses at home, including an 18-7 loss to archrival Johns Hopkins this past season. Cardiac Cuse has made appearances in the past, but when they were needed the most, they failed to show up. The 2017 quarterfinal loss to Towson marked the first time a senior class didn’t appear in the final four since 1979.

Since winning it all in 2009, Syracuse has been 1-4 in the NCAA quarterfinals. The Maryland Terrapins have gone to the quarterfinals in eight of the past nine seasons with a 7-1 record. They’ve won their last five quarterfinal games, including that previously mentioned 2016 matchup against the Orange.

In my interview with Jovan Miller, he compared the state of the program and its legacy to that of the New York Yankees.

“We can’t live off our legacy for too much longer...I feel like we’re almost the equivalent of the Yankees. We have all of these national championships, but when’s the last time we won? You can’t live off the past for too long, and I think that in our case until we get back to some final fours consistently or at least challenge for a national championship, you might hear more of the same.”

And he’s right. The legacy of the program is a reason why some recruits go to Syracuse. But at some point, there has to be a focus on the now. You can brag about the number of championship you have and that the program once went to championship weekend 22 years in a row. But two appearances in the last nine years is something you also have to look at regarding where the program is now.

Or could it be the coaching staff? I’ve been around them for four years and it was truly an honor working alongside some of the best lacrosse minds around. But it might be time for at least one new face to be on the sideline, preferably a younger guy. And that might help build relationships with current and future players.

One example is with Terrapins head coach John Tillman. Despite being a regimented and disciplined leader, Tillman has also built relationships with many of his players. During Maryland’s national championship run in 2017, he made a bet with Matt Rambo and Colin Heacock to get a tattoo if they won it all. They did, and he got a tattoo. He also brought a big speaker for the players to use during that run, which gave way to the team’s theme song “Money For Nothing.”

John Desko is one of the brightest lacrosse minds on the planet during a game. He’s been with the program either as a player or a coach since 1976 and is entering his 21st year as head coach, trailing only Notre Dame’s Kevin Corrigan and UMass’ Greg Cannella for the longest tenured head coach in the country. Kevin Donahue is entering his 31st year on the sideline. Lelan Rogers (14th year) and volunteer assistant Steve Scaramuzzino (5th year) are the “newer” additions to the coaching staff.

Director of Operations Roy Simmons III has been around the program as a coach or in an administrative role for nearly 30 years. His current role doesn’t involve planning for an opponent or scouting possible recruits.

Along with a fresh face or two, maybe give the program a revamped identity. The #22 jersey hasn’t been wore since Jordan Evans graduated in 2017. There’s no sign of it being given to someone this year either. The #11 jersey has become the #22 of the defense in recent years. What if you gave the jersey out to some random player on the team as a normal number for a short time? Has the jersey lost its lust since then?

The insane redshirting of freshmen also needs to end. When I was a freshman back in 2015, everyone was going to redshirt. In the end, only one player took the field and took a single faceoff in a blowout game against Hobart. Five of those players are listed on the roster for this year’s squad. There are six redshirt-juniors and five redshirt-sophomores listed on the team’s roster. There’s no redshirt-freshmen listed despite Nate McPeak not appearing in any games last year. There’s 14 freshmen on the roster this year, but how many of them will be asked to redshirt?

The college lacrosse landscape is much different than it was 20 or 30 years ago. There’s 73 teams playing Division I lacrosse this season, with schools such as Michigan, Jacksonville, and even Utah getting in on the action. Lacrosse’s stalwart programs can’t necessarily just bank on success anymore when promising new upstarts arrive each year.

While that focus can look nationally at the emergence of programs like Denver, Ohio State, or Loyola, Syracuse can even look within its own state borders and see the rising tide of other programs recruiting elite talent and finding success — see: Albany, Army West Point, and Cornell right off the bat.

They’re not the only “old guard” school facing those challenges, either. Johns Hopkins and Virginia recently went through different changes to try and reinvigorate their programs.

The Blue Jays missed out on the NCAA Tournament in 2013 for the first time in 41 years and joined the Big Ten conference. Since then, they’ve won two conference titles and appeared in a Final Four while also landing Inside Lacrosse’s top recruit twice (most recently this year with Joey Epstein).

After Virginia won the National Championship in 2011, the Cavaliers lost to Notre Dame in the 2012 NCAA quarterfinals. They had 7-8 campaigns in 2013 and 2016 that bookended two straight NCAA first round exits against Johns Hopkins in 2014 and 2015. Add to that some bad years in ACC conference play and that resulted in a messy breakup with Dom Starsia. Since Lars Tiffany took over, we’re starting to see the Wahoos improve.

Last season, Virginia defeated North Carolina for their first conference win since 2013 and also defeated Syracuse in the ACC semifinals. That win helped the Cavaliers make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2015, but it resulted in a first round loss to Loyola. But along with Hopkins, they’ve done well in recruiting. They have IL’s top-ranked incoming class (Syracuse is at 15, Hopkins is at five), the top-ranked goalie this year, and three 5-star recruits in the 2019 class.

I really don’t like criticizing the program that I’ve grown to be a part of and that holds a place in my heart. I want them to do really well, and it’s the sentiment that’s shared with plenty of recent Orange alums that were a part of this special program. But there’s also a growing urge for some kind of change.

In the past, everyone was chasing Syracuse atop the college lacrosse landscape. Now, Syracuse is doing the chasing.