The fall ball season wrapped up this past weekend with the annual late-October scrimmages as the Syracuse Orange men’s lacrosse team headed down to Baltimore to play Loyola and High Point.
According to Terry Foy of Inside Lacrosse, who was on hand for the scrimmages, there were conflicting reports on the final score of SU-Loyola. Apparently, the Loyola bench thought they won by two (14-12 or 13-11), and some Syracuse parents thought they won by one or two (13-12 or 13-11). So, we don’t really know since nobody official was keeping score. Foy also said that the Orange lost to High Point, 12-7.
The bottom line to keep in mind is that final scores aren’t the focus of fall ball. Coaches are experimenting with different lineups, combinations, and schemes, and that's especially true with such a new and young roster.
So, what are we taking away from last weekend’s scrimmages? Let’s take a look, and thank you to Terry Foy for providing his in-person analysis for all of us:
With all the new pieces in town, the most obvious question at the moment is who will be playing where and with whom. Gait gave us a glimpse at what he’s thinking, at least during the fall, with the following:
- Attack: Joey Spallina, Owen Hiltz, Alex Simmons
- Midfield: Finn Thomson, Michael Leo, Luke Rhoa
- Backup Midfield: Cole First, Tyler Cordes, John Cohen (transfer from Hopkins)
- Backup Midfield: Pete Fiorini, Barrett White, Caelin Lewis
- Defensive Midfield: Saam Olexo, Brandon Aviles, Carter Rice
- Defense: Nick Caccamo, Caden Kol, Landon Clary
- Backup Defense: Billy Dwan, Jordan Beck
- Goalie: Harrison Thompson, Jimmy McCool
- Face-off: Johnny Richiusa, Jack Fine
It’s also important to note that there were a handful of players not playing due to injury or ineligibility, such as Riley Figueiras, Will Mark, and Griffin Cook.
It’s certainly no surprise to see Spallina and Hiltz at attack, but I’m a little surprised Alex Simmons was the one to join them on the line. My guess was we’d see him at midfield since he did it last year for Denver, but obviously Gait and Pat March like what they see from him in that spot. In this formation, Spallina operated from X while Hiltz played the left and Simmons played the right.
The top midfield was an all-freshman group which included a pair of converted high school attackers in Thomson and Leo. Interestingly, none of the six offensive starters from Sunday suited up for the Orange last season, and only Hiltz was in the program at all back in the spring.
The defensive midfield of Olexo, Aviles and Rice is the only unit on the team that returns even remotely in-tact from last season, and Caccamo is the only defender who played meaningful minutes returning for a unit in heavy transition.
Harrison Thompson and freshman Jimmy McCool split the day in net with LIU transfer Will Mark unable to play in a scrimmage with the team this fall. His playing eligibility doesn’t kick in until the spring, but Mark has been able to practice with the team all fall.
Offensive Ball Movement
The biggest, most important takeaway of the day, outside of the lineups themselves, seemed to be how impressive the team’s ball movement was in their offensive sets.
It seems that this young group is already doing a good job of keeping the ball moving at a quick, precise pace. Talking to Foy after the scrimmages, Finn Thomson cited Pat March’s “one touch” offensive system, implying both that everyone touches the ball on every possession and also the concept that one simple touch may be all any player needs to help make an impact on the team scoring a goal.
The concept of March’s system seems great, but it definitely requires an offense loaded with great talent to buy in completely to playing an unselfish brand of lacrosse that will have the offense operating at top efficiency. Early indications are that this group is doing just that.
Words are great and everything, but how about we get a LOOK at this ball movement in action. Come for the quick ball movement, stay for the incredible, pinpoint ability of Owen Hiltz to find the open teammate. Trust me, you’re going to want to see these clips:
I mean, seriously, Hiltz is absolutely ridiculous. All it took was one 20-second highlight package to remind you of just how good of a passer he is (the best in the country, in my opinion). I can’t wait to see him back out there this spring.
What’s that? You want to see another example of great teamwork, this time in its entirety? Well, if you say so:
:52.1 Q2: This is a play that will get @CuseMLAX fans excited: Finn Thomson & Michael Leo slipped pick up to, Hiltz give&go with Thomson with a one-more touch pass to Spallina for the backside dunk.— Terry Foy (@TerenceFoy) October 23, 2022
Spallina had an EMO G a minute ago, I think it’s 7-5. pic.twitter.com/y62LO0ZX6s
It’s clean. It’s crisp. It’s quick decision making. There was absolutely nothing individually spectacular about that play, and yet the 6-on-6 nature of it was supremely spectacular. Loyola had no chance in stopping that play as every run and every pass was perfectly executed as it needed to be, finished off by Spallina on the back end. *chef’s kiss*
Dodging their way to victory?
Okay, so perfectly executed team offense is great. But not every possession is going to be as clean as the one we saw above. When that’s the case, sometimes you need to win an individual matchup off the dodge to help initiate your offense.
Last year’s Orange offense was almost entirely built around individual dodgers trying to win their specific matchups, a la Tucker Dordevic from the wing or Brendan Curry down the alley.
Something else that Terry Foy noted about the offense was that while the team ball movement looked great, he did have questions about which players would be able to initiate offense off the dodge and draw slides to help free-up space for their teammates.
With Dordevic and Curry gone, that mantle appears up for grabs. I think the gut reaction would be that Spallina will be the guy to accomplish that, and while he possesses all the skills, it does remain to be seen how consistently he can do it against the elite college/ACC level defenders he will face.
Who will be this team’s version of a point guard getting penetration on a defense? That question appears open-ended for the time being.
Defensive Question Marks
Foy commented on the improved size and athleticism of the defensive end for SU in comparison with last year. He was especially impressed with that combination from freshmen Billy Dwan and Jordan Beck. Both are listed at 6’4” and well over 200 pounds, and Foy mentioned how well they both move for such big dudes.
Size and athleticism are great qualities to have for defenders, but we know that the communication and awareness of last year’s defensive unit was the real weakness. For that, we’ll have to wait until the spring.
The unfortunate thing for the defense right now is the absence of freshman stud close defender Riley Figueiras. He’s the top ranked defender in the Class of 2022, but he’s currently out and on crutches with a lower body injury. According to Foy, “He (Figueiras) was to undergo imaging this week, and there’s significant concern that he may miss the ’23 season”
To make matters even murkier, Nick Caccamo, the team’s lone returning contributor from close defense, left the High Point scrimmage with an upper body injury and was later seen with his arm in a sling.
We’ll have to wait on the injury news for both, but we are talking about possibly the team’s two best defenders looking at significant injuries. That is news that a struggling defense (from last year) does not need.
The good news on the defensive end is the defensive midfield returning all of its starters from last year in LSM Saam Olexo and SSDMs Brandon Aviles and Carter Rice.
Without a doubt one of the biggest question marks coming into next season for the Orange is how they plan to replace one of the best face-off specialists in program history in Jakob Phaup.
The early returns on that question are focused on sophomore Canisus transfer Johnny Richiusa and sophomore Jack Fine, who Foy said performed well for the most part over the weekend.
We’ll really just have to wait and see, but right now those two look like they’ll be sharing duties in the effort to replace the iron man Phaup.
That's a wrap
There is much for Syracuse fans to chew on coming out of fall ball. There are injuries and question marks about certain personnel, to be sure, on the negative side of things.
But my main takeaway is how excited I am about this offense and how pumped I am to see it in complete action for myself. And with that, I’ll leave it to Gary Gait to send us into the winter session: