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Syracuse women’s lacrosse: Looking ahead to 2019, what can we expect?

You’ve had enough time to digest last year’s disappointing end. Now what’s next?

2014 NCAA Division I Women’s Lacrosse Championship Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

First off, a belated congrats to James Madison on winning their first women’s lacrosse title in program history with a thrilling 16-15 victory over Boston College on Memorial Day weekend (and thanks for knocking off the Eagles in the process...). It was certainly an exciting game to watch, coming down to the wire and looking like everything one wants to see in a championship final.

But on the Syracuse Orange front, SU finished the season 9-10 after an 11-10 OT loss to Princeton in the first round. It had the dubious distinction of being the first team in program history of finishing below the .500 mark. Given the amount of talent on the team and expectations, there’s no question that it was an overall disappointment despite some big wins.

Personnel Losses

As it stands right now, the Orange lost five major players this year. Riley Donahue is definitely the biggest loss on offense. The attacker finished 3rd on the team with 48 points (26g, 22a) as well as 13 ground balls. She had a knack for finding creases in opposing defenses and exploiting them accordingly but she was also equally adept at dishing off to a fellow player for a score. Neena Merola had an aggressive style that helped her on both ends of the field as well as lead the team in draw controls (52). The midfielder also had 23 points (20g, 3a) and 15 ground balls. Taylor Gait also played both ends of the field as a midfielder and finished fifth on the team in scoring with 31 points (18g, 13a) as well as 13 ground balls. Alie Jimerson finished the year with 20 points (7g, 13a), but was injured in the Maryland game and missed several games. On the defensive end, Mia DiBello ended her career with 15 ground balls and 10 caused turnovers (tied for 6th and tied for 4th respectively).

Returning

Despite the losses above, Syracuse remains stacked with lots of returning talent.

Emily Hawryschuk will certainly make some noise on the offensive end. The rising junior attacker led the team in points (61) and goals (53), tied for 4th in ground balls (20) and despite being placed in the draw circle late in the year came up 4th on the team with 34. Nicole Levy will be another scoring threat and finished 2nd in points (51) and goals (41) and has one more year donning an Orange uniform.

Rookie talents Sam Swart and Molly Carter both had a good year and stood at 4th and 6th on the team in scoring with 38 and 30 points respectively. Swart also managed 15 ground balls and 11 caused turnovers on the year. Mary Rahal should continue to make important contributions to the Syracuse attack. The redshirt junior to-be midfielder had 23 points (17g, 6a) and 12 ground balls. Vanessa Constantino should also be another contributor. Although she had a quiet freshman year with little playing time (seven games and no starts), the junior to-be midfielder saw much increased playing time this year as a sophomore (19 games, 7 starts) and finished with 23 points (15g, 8a) and 20 ground balls. Julie Cross has one more year in Orange and ended the 2018 season 2nd on the team with 51 draw controls.

A couple of other players to watch next year are redshirt juniors to-be Cara Quimby and Emily Resnick. The pair of midfielders finished with 16 and 12 points respectively but both saw extensive time on the field this year and could have a significant impact in 2019.

The defensive side of the field will see a return of six players (a pair each of defenders, defensive midfielders and goalies). Junior to-be midfielder Ella Simkins was the biggest contributor statistically, leading the team in caused turnovers (18) and 2nd teamwise in ground balls (33). Senior to-be defender Alexa Radziewicz was tied for second with 15 caused turnovers and third with 22 ground balls. Junior to-be midfielder Kerry Defliese was also a big contributor with 20 ground balls (tied for fourth), 15 caused turnovers (tied for second) and 42 draw controls (tied for 3rd). Lila Nazarian played in every game this year and started in 12 of them. The rising junior defender had 19 ground balls and 10 caused turnovers on the year.

Asa Goldstock had an improved performance in goal this year. The junior to-be had 159 saves for a roughly 44% save rate in a little over 820 minutes of play. She also led the team in ground balls with 42. Hannah Van Middelem finished her freshman year with 40 saves in 250 minutes of play (12 games, no starts) for a 43.5% save rate. She also had 12 ground balls.

New Players

In addition to the returners, the Orange will be getting five Under-Armour High School All-Americans next year. Meaghan Tyrrell (Mt. Sinai, N.Y.), Megan Carney (John Paul II, Tex,), Lexi Ledoyen (Bishop Ireton, Va,), Alex Marino (Bryn Mawr, Md.) and Sarah Cooper (Notre Dame Prep, Md.) were all selected to play in the 2018 Under Armour All-American North-South high school women’s lacrosse game on June 30 at Johns Hopkins University (the first four are attackers, Cooper is a defender).

You can’t argue that Gait fails to get the talent as these SU commits represent the largest contingent in this coming game (in comparison, Maryland and Boston College have four commits each, North Carolina and Florida three each). This contest could be a good indicator of the incoming talent as Swart, Carter and Van Middelem all played in this game last year (Van Middelem had five saves against nine goals and Carter had a pair of goals and three assists for the North team while Swart had a goal for the South). All three of these had a solid freshman year for Syracuse so there’s good reason for assumption that these incoming five All-Americans will make an immediate impression next year.

This Year’s Problems

There were several major issues that had consequences for the team’s performance in 2018. Some of them couldn’t be helped. Others were entirely preventable. Here is a short list of these:

Fall Ball

The Orange did not play fall ball in 2017 due to a mumps outbreak (this affected the men’s team as well). Looking back, I think this might have had major consequences in the draw circle. The rules changed this year to allowing only three players from each team into the draw circle (as opposed to the general free-for-all that occurred in previous years). The draw control specialists were also required to change their stick stance to a horizontal position as opposed to a slightly angled position that was still technically above the waistline. It’s a small but significant difference that can take some getting used to.

Unfortunately, with no fall ball against other teams, there was no way to familiarize in a game-like situation. Yes, you can develop that in practice, but it’s still not the same as actually playing, even in exhibition, competitively against another team. This meant that other teams could get used to the new system in the fall, digest the information throughout the winter and be ready in the spring.

I’m sure Syracuse did practice this to some extent but they literally had to learn as they went as the season went on. If one looks at the very first game against UConn (who finished 8-9), you can see just how much the Orange struggled with the draw right from the beginning of the season. The Huskies started the game with seven of the first eight draw controls before SU bounced back to even out that category by game’s end. Being able to play fall ball in the fall of 2018 will almost certainly help the team by getting some experience and develop more on-field chemistry as well.

Injuries

Although a number of players got banged up from game to game, there were several major injuries this year. The most significant one had draw circle implications when Morgan Widner (who was dominant at the draw in 2017 with 156) tore her ACL just three games into the season. It was a step backwards for a Syracuse team already struggling with the draw control. The second one was to Natalie Wallon, who played in only four games this year. This is a player who was tied for 3rd on the team in goals (29), 3rd in ground balls (39), led the team in caused turnovers (22) and 2nd in draw controls (27) in 2017. Both of these players will return for the 2019 campaign and should be eligible for a medical redshirt. Jimerson was also out for five games in the middle of the season (left the Maryland game) and it likely hampered her performance for the rest of the year.

Execution

While the lack of fall ball and injuries certainly caused some issues in 2018, there’s no question that the lack of execution at times hurt the Orange just as bad. While there were times that Syracuse played very well (1st half of Loyola, 2nd half against Princeton/NCAAT, most of the second half against Boston College), they also had forgettable moments (both North Carolina games, Duke game, 1st half against Boston College, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame for most of those games, 2nd half against Virginia). Consistency was a real problem all year long. Certainly draw controls were an obstacle (see above), but it also seemed like the passing in general was really off at times.

Clearing was an issue towards the end of the year and the Orange finished with an 82% success rate. To put it in perspective, only one ACC team (Louisville) had a lower clear rate (80%) in 2018. While I don’t think Syracuse made a ton more mistakes than their opponents, it generally seemed to be the timing of those errors at critical moments that hurt them the most. Seven out of SU’s 19 games came down to a single goal and they lost five of those. In those five losses the Orange had opportunities to win. The lack of execution at key moments in those games was the difference between a team finishing 9-8 going into the ACCT and perhaps 14-3.

Scheduling

There’s no question that Syracuse’s schedule was fatigue-ridden this year with two-thirds of their games away from the Dome. There were a number of games where the Orange had very little turnaround time to rest up and it showed in several games (the Duke game probably the most obvious case). Coach Gait blamed some of the away games on the fact that the university had plans to renovate the Dome (which fell through). If this is the case, hopefully we’ll see less traveling in 2019 at least with regards to non-conference games (can’t do anything about ACC contests).

Looking Ahead to Next Year

Is this year’s 9-10 finish the start of a downward spiral or is it an anomaly that will soon be forgotten? My guess is that it’s the latter. The lack of fall ball probably did impact their performance a bit and I don’t (hopefully) think that we’ll see the crazy away scheduling that occurred this year. While it’s true that Syracuse did lose several good players, there are plenty of returners who can fill those gaps. Add in the incoming class of freshman and this is a team that should be pretty solid all around, particularly on the offensive end.

The draw control situation alone should be considerably improved given that we now have two players (Cross and Hawryschuk) who have made significant contributions and have gained a lot of experience. We will also have Widner returning so between the three of them, there will be a lot of depth in this area, something the team sorely lacked through much of the early and mid season.

Goldstock will continue to improve next year and she could very well have a breakout year in 2019, particularly if she can keep the turnovers down. Van Middelem showed a lot of promise in her freshman year and will continue to get better next year. Again, we’ll have a bit of depth in the goalie position, which is never a bad thing.

The defense, which was pretty solid all year long (especially given the amount of pressure they were under at times in games), should be improved and will have more experienced (mostly juniors). It’ll interesting to see how much of an impact that the incoming Cooper will have on this end of the field.

However, it must also be said that the competition will be fierce, particularly in the ACC. Boston College should be the team to beat next year (seniors Sam Apuzzo, Kenzie Kent and Dempsey Arsenault on the offensive end) with North Carolina remaining towards the top despite the loss of several seniors to graduation (Marie McCool, Ela Hazar & Maggie Bill). Virginia Tech will probably continue their meteoric rise to the upper echelons of the conference and is far from the basement pushover it once was. Virginia, Duke and Notre Dame will look to improve on their 2018 performances.

While the Cavaliers did make the NCAAT 2nd round, the Irish and Blue Devils failed to reach the tournament and they should be gunning for a spot in 2019. Even Louisville had a 6-4 record against non-conference opponents this year and I do believe that coach Scott Teeter will have that program turned back in the right direction in short time. Bear in mind that this a Cardinal team that made it to the NCAAT in 2017 and could very well have done so again this year if it weren’t for the internal problems in the off-season that had several of their best players leave.

In short, we’re looking at an ACC conference that will have very few (if any) weak spots headed into future play. And this doesn’t even take into account the non-conference scheduling. SU routinely plays Maryland, Florida, Northwestern, Loyola and Albany. Will Princeton be added to this mix in the future (Syracuse has played them three times in the last two years)?

But given the amount of returning quality starters and with the incoming talent, there’s no reason to think that they cannot make a run to Memorial Day weekend next year. For now, there’s the Under Armour All-American game next weekend to watch.