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Syracuse men's lacrosse season preview: Face-off and Goalies

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The specialties are yet another area where the Orange rank among the best in the country.

Army v Syracuse Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images

Welcome back to the Syracuse Orange men’s lacrosse season preview series.

We’re now just two days away from SU’s season opener against the Army Black Knights at Noon on Sunday. We’ve already talked about ‘Cuse’s attack, offensive midfield, and defensive midfield/close defense, so now it’s time to finish off our look into the roster with the face-off specialists and goalies.

Both groups have the experience and talent to be a major reason for Orange fans to feel optimism heading into the season, so let’s get right to it:

Face-Off

Last season, the combined face-off group of redshirt junior Jakob Phaup, redshirt senior Danny Varello, and redshirt junior Nate Garlow finished the year ranked fifth in the country in face-off win percentage (67.1).

Individually, Phaup finished the year ranked sixth nationally (67.9) and Varello finished 12th (63.1) while they essentially split face-off duties. Both marks were good enough to make them the top two face-off guys in the ACC.

I think it’s safe to say they will be the main two contributors at the dot for ‘Cuse again this season, although another name to keep an eye on is true freshman Jack Savage. Savage was an All-American in high school, and brings superior size (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) to the group over Phaup (5-foot-10, 190) and Varello (5-foot-10, 201).

Fun fact about Savage: he comes from Lakeridge HS in Lake Oswego, OR. That’s the same hometown and high school as Syracuse football’s hurdling, high-kicking legend Eric Dungey. Let’s hope he has even a portion of the success Dungey enjoyed when he stayed healthy for the Orange.

While the face-off group was one of the best in the country and returns its key players from last season, there are two lingering questions that remain, in my mind.

The first question is one that will be presented to every team and face-off specialist in the country: the offseason rule change prohibiting the use of the “motorcycle grip” in favor of the “standing neutral grip”.

Now, we can hope that the grip and stance change is something that Phaup, Varello and company will have been able to work on and adjust to successfully this past offseason, but we won’t have our answer to that until we actually see them in action.

And the change itself is not insignificant. We’re talking about a change in grip where one hand is facing palm up and one is facing knuckle up, versus the old grip where both hands could be knuckle up. We’re also talking about a change in stance where you can no longer go down to one knee. You must now keep both knees off the ground.

These are significant changes the could alter the landscape of success in the face-off game. Imagine a baseball player being told he had to alter his batting stance and his swing. There’s going to be an adjustment when you have to change the way you’ve been doing something.

There’s nothing saying that Phaup and Varello won’t continue to be good at what they do, but it certainly creates an element of unknown heading into the season.

The second question revolves around the departure of Jared Fernandez to Johns Hopkins.

While we like to focus on individual names and winning percentages when it comes to face-offs, it’s important to remember that face-offs are really a unit the way that attack, midfield, and defense are units.

The two wings play critical roles in the success of any face-off unit, and Jared Fernandez was the starting long-pole wing for Syracuse. Scooping up ground balls on face-offs may have been the best aspect of Fernandez’s game.

He was an absolute vacuum, and now the Orange are left looking to fill that void. Whoever the coaching staff plugs in on face-offs will have big shoes to fill in the always-paramount ground ball game.

Goalie

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the guy who plays this position for Syracuse is one of the best at what he does in the country.

His name is Drake Porter, and the redshirt senior’s decision to return to Syracuse for his extra year of eligibility might be the most important of any of the returning seniors.

Porter was selected my multiple publications to the preseason All-American first team, and however you slice it, he’s one of the best goalies in the country. He’s led the ACC in save percentage each of the last two seasons, and in 2020 he finished the year as an All-American.

Beyond his actual play between the pipes, Drake plays a massive leadership role for this defense. He was selected as a team captain by his teammates, and his experience and communication on the field is huge for a defense that has some young and less experienced pieces to it.

The Orange defense is going to be attempting some Herculean tasks when they try to slow down the prolific offenses of the Duke Blue Devils, Virginia Cavaliers, North Carolina Tar Heels, etc. Their movement and communication on defense will need to be operating at peak efficiency is they have any chance of doing that, and Drake’s presence as the leader of the defense gives them a chance.

Given the other members of the goalie brigade, Drake Porter may be the single most valuable player on the entire Syracuse roster. The drop-off from Drake to the next man up is probably more significant than anywhere else, and it really just comes down to a lack of experience.

There are four other goalies on the SU roster: redshirt sophomore Nathan McPeak, redshirt freshman Harrison Thompson, redshirt freshman Shahe Katchadurian, and true freshman Patrick Duffy.

Of the four of them, the only one to ever appear in a college game is McPeak, back in 2019 when he played exactly three minutes and 10 seconds against Hobart.

Hey, they may be capable, and they may not be. That’s the point: we have no idea. Enter the importance of Drake Porter.

There’s a reason why most people agree he’s the best Orange goalie since the great John Galloway stood between the pipes.

Specialist Overview

The main players in these parts of the team heading into the season are Jakob Phaup, Danny Varello, and Drake Porter.

They’re all among the best at what they do in the conference and the country, and what they do is very important to the success of any lacrosse team.

Good goalie play is always important for any team that wants to compete. After all, if you can’t make stops, you can’t beat anybody. And sometimes, you need your goalie to do just enough to keep you in the game. For proof of that, see last year’s Army game where Drake made a career-high 18 saves while the offense sputtered to keep SU in striking distance until the offense woke up.

As for the face-offs, they may be more important this year than ever before. We all know about the devastating offenses that our ACC brethren have.

So, what's the best way to slow down the likes of Michael Sowers, Chris Gray, and Matt Moore? I’d wager the most effective thing to do is keep the ball away from them and in the sticks of our prolific scorers, and there’s no better way to do that than win as many face-offs as you can.

Phaup and Varello are two of the best, and we’ll need them to adjust quickly and effectively to the “standing neutral grip” if this team is to have the kind of success we all expect and hope for this season.

Be sure to check back with us in the final installment of our season preview series, when we’ll take a look at some of the big questions that this Syracuse team must answer on their road back to glory in 2021.