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Syracuse men’s lacrosse season preview: Biggest questions

There is so much optimism for this Syracuse team, but on the eve of the 2021 season, we take a look at some of the burning questions surrounding this roster.

Army v Syracuse Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images

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

It’s officially college lacrosse season eve in Central NY as the men are set to host the Army Black Knights in the 2021 season opener at Noon tomorrow!

And with that extremely exciting news, its time to bring our 2021 season preview series to a close. After combing over the entire roster from attack, to offensive midfield, to defensive midfield/close defense, and finally with face-off specialists/goalies, its time to finish off with a look at the biggest burning questions heading into the start of the season.

‘Cuse is coming off a resurgence of a 2020 in which they finished 5-0 and No. 1 in the country to finish the season, making them the unofficial (or official if you prefer) #2020NationalChamps.

However, with the 2020 season behind us, it’s the dawn of a new day in college lacrosse, and it offers a different landscape than what we experienced last year.

While the Orange are still immensely talented and should be one of the main challengers to make it to Memorial Day weekend, there have been changes to the sport and the roster that offer up a few as-of-yet unknown answers to the 2021 season. Let’s take a look:

Late Start

Despite the incredible talent this team possesses, Syracuse is going to begin the season playing the catchup game.

First, they play and Army team that has one game under their belt against the Virginia Cavaliers. Then, in Week 2, they’ll play that Virginia team that will have played three games to SU’s one by the time the teams meet.

Taking talent and roster construction out of the picture, it’s a tough ask to have to play your first and second games of the season against two teams that already have a game or three games played before they get to you.

They’ve had a chance to work out the kinks and try things and make adjustments that the Orange simply hasn’t been able to do in a real game scenario.

Combine that with an Army team that always plays us tough and physical because, you know, they’re Army, and you’ve got a very dangerous recipe for Syracuse’s season opener.

Face-off

New year, new face-off rules. In an effort to reduce the number of face-offs where the face-off specialists end up locked in a virtual draw pushing against each other and the ball for too long, the college lacrosse rules committee offered up a change to the technique for this season.

Out with the “motorcycle grip”, a technique where you could put both hands knuckle-up on the stick and place one knee on the ground as a stance.

In with the “standing neutral grip”, the technique where you must have one hand palm up and one knuckle up, and you must have both knees off the ground in your stance.

The idea is to offer up face-offs that end quicker and in more loose ground ball opportunities for the players. It was met with some controversy when it was first introduced last offseason, but it is now the law of the land, and all FO guys must adjust to it.

In a way, it makes the face-off X a little more difficult to predict this season than ever before, because it’s impossible to know who will find the most success from the new technique. I mean, it’s probably safe to assume that the guys who were already good at face-offs like TD Ierlan or Syracuse’s own Jakob Phaup and Danny Varello will continue to be good with the new technique.

However, not all adjustments will be created equal for every face-off man. Some will adjust with relative efficiency and ease, while others will struggle to find the flow in the new stance and grip.

We know that Syracuse finished last year with the fifth best face-off percentage in the country last year as a unit. With Phaup and Varello returning, the expectations will be high for that unit once again. It will be fascinating to see how comfortable they look and, more importantly, how many face-offs they win under the new rules.

Owen Hiltz

In most other years with most other rosters, the No. 2 overall ranked recruit in the incoming freshman class would come in and immediately find a known spot to contribute to the team.

But this Syracuse team returns every starter from an offense that averaged a whopping 16.6 goals per game last year, so Owen Hiltz finds himself without a defined spot heading into the season.

Don’t get me wrong, Hiltz is going to see the field and I’m sure plenty of it. But his natural position of attack has all of its starters back, and we know all about the midfield situation on this team.

I believe that Griffin Cook will start the season as the third attackman, which means Hiltz will be relegated to runs on offense coming off the bench. We’ll probably see him getting runs at attack when Desko wants to give the starters rests, and possibly on the second midfield line as well.

This kid is way too talented to not see the field a bunch. He can do it all from an attacking perspective, and brings with him an IQ and box lacrosse background that make him impossible to keep on the bench.

Jared Fernandez

While Owen Hiltz’s arrival presents some questions for playing time on the offense, it’s Jared Fernandez’s departure that offers playing time questions on defense.

With Fernandez gone, there is a hole at LSM that doesn’t look like it’s going to be filled by Brett Kennedy due to the team need for him at close defense.

So, with the two best options for the position doing others things for very different reasons, the LSM position is left as a relative unknown at this point. It looks like redshirt freshman Landon Clary has the inside track to fill the void. Clary was one of only three true freshman to see the field last year, but he’s got very minimal collegiate experience to this point.

The other concern with Fernandez gone is the spot he vacates on the face-off unit. Fernandez was the starting long-pole on the wings of face-offs, and he was exceptional at picking up the kinds of loose ground balls that make the difference in tight ball games.

We’ve already talked about the new face-off rules for this season, which are presumably going to lead to even more ground ball scrums off restarts, a role for which Fernandez would have been perfect.

Who steps up on the wings to help the FO unit? If Clary gets the call at LSM, he may be the natural choice to start on the wings as well.

The importance of winning face-offs is more important than ever before as the Orange try to keep the ball away from some of the most elite offenses college lacrosse has ever seen, so whoever steps into Fernandez’s role on face-offs has a big task ahead of him/them.

Newcomers

We’ve talked a lot about Hiltz, who we expect to be the most impactful newcomer to this year’s team. But who else will join him in making an impact in their first year for the Orange?

I'd say top candidates include Gettysburg transfer Mitch Wykoff, true freshman midfielder Jackson Birtwislte, true freshman attackman Liam Ferris, Utah transfer Nick Hapney, and Furman transfer Cole Horan.

Wykoff, Hapney, and Horan are all long-pole transfers from this past offseason, and they’re all listed as close defenders on the official roster. I’d imagine we’ll see at least one of them contributing, probably most likely on the man-down unit as the primary backup close defenders.

Birtwistle will probably be in contention for some second midfield line runs with a few other guys. It’ll be tough for him as a midfielder with so many talented and experienced guys in front of him, but he is the second-highest ranked true freshman after Hiltz, so we can’t count him out for playing time.

Liam Ferris, meanwhile, appears to be one of the primary backups at the attack position alongside Hiltz and Owen Seebold, so we may see him getting some runs at attack when any of the starters need a possession or two of rest.

Final Four Drought

The question to end all questions for Syracuse men’s lacrosse: when will the team end their Final Four and National Championship droughts?

The men haven’t been to Memorial Day weekend since 2013 and haven’t won it all since 2009.

I think we can all agree that, at the very least, that the Final Four drought needs to come to an end in 2021. Sure, there are plenty of contenders out there, but ‘Cuse is one of the most talented, deep, experienced, and determined teams in the country.

Memorial Day weekend or bust baby!!!

Recruiting News

While we’ll start getting our answers to these questions on Sunday afternoon, Friday evening brought a great answer to the Class of 2021 for Syracuse.

SU picked up a big flip commitment from former Yale prospect Nick Caccamo, one of the top defenders in his class.

As we see from Inside Lacrosse’s recruiting coordinator Ty Xanders, Caccamo is a Long Island native, who along with Joey Spallina, might just play a big role in helping SU regain some ground in the LI recruiting arms race.

Those efforts have fallen by the wayside in recent years, and some of LI’s best have left both the island and the state to the power programs in other areas of the country.

With Spallina and now Caccamo’s flip, it appears the Orange are starting to re-establish themselves in one of the hottest beds of lacrosse talent in the entire country.

That's great news for the Class of 2021, but for now SU has bigger fish to fry.

The day is dawning. Our offseason wait it over. The unfinished business and the march to a 12th National Championship starts now.

Army. Sunday. Noon. ACC Network.

Let’s. Go. Orange!!!