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Syracuse men’s lacrosse: Biggest question marks heading into the season

There’s a lot of unknowns coming into 2023, but which ones hold the biggest keys to success for the Orange this year?

With just over a week to go before the start of the 2023 Syracuse Orange men’s lacrosse season, it’s time to take a look at some of the biggest question marks that we have about a team going through a lot of roster turnover and a coaching staff entering their second season helming the program.

Let’s jump right in:

1. Who the heck is on this team, anyway?

It’s an important question to start with when you consider that this program lost 23 players off last year’s roster, and has replaced them with 22 new pieces, including 15 freshmen and six transfers.

Many of these fresh faces are going to play important roles for this edition of the Orange, especially for an offense that’s replacing almost all of its big contributors from last year, which is why I dedicated an article solely to diving deeper on the new roster earlier this week.

2. What are we going to see from this brand new offensive group?

Most of the talk during the fall and early spring has revolved around the concept of team offense for this year’s team, and Gary Gait has more than once raved about how his players are buying into the idea of sharing the ball and working to find the best shot for the team to score.

We’ve even seen brief glimpses of what might be during SU’s fall scrimmages down at Loyola.

If that brief fall ball clip is any indication, then the combination of the talent infusion (Owen Hiltz, Joey Spallina, Finn Thomson, Alex Simmons, Cole Kirst, Michael Leo, on and on) with a willingness to move the ball in the name of team scoring is a tantalizing prospect for this offense.

3. Can the defense improve from a dismal year one under Dave Pietramala?

There’s just no way around it. Year one for Pietramala and his defense in CNY was an unmitigated disaster.

The Orange finished 66th out of 72 Division I teams in overall scoring defense with 14.71 goals against per game. The only teams to finish below SU were NJIT, UMass Lowell, Detroit Mercy, Holy Cross, St. John’s, and Hampton.

To quote Austin Powers, “Ouch, baby. Very ouch”.

I lost count of how many times per game my head would drop because I just witnessed another time-and-room goal due to a complete communication breakdown in the Orange defense.

But enough about last year. What do we expect for year two? Gary Gait was sure to note in his first media session that Petro has simplified aspects of his defense coming into this season after the issues of last year. The impact of those simplifications will be seen in time, but hopefully that fact combined with the numbers of players returning for year two in the system will help improve their communication and rotations and our frustrations on that end of the field.

Nick Caccamo, Saam Olexo, Brandon Aviles, Carter Rice, Nick Fraterrigo, and Landon Clary are the primary returners on defense.

4. What can we expect at the face-off X without Jakob Phaup?

So, the Orange are losing one of the best FOGO’s in school history as Jakob Phaup finished his SU career with the third most wins (587) and sixth best winning percentage (.588) all time.

He was also an iron man for ‘Cuse last year, taking literally every single SU face-off after the opening game blowout of Holy Cross. He finished the year with 419 face-offs taken, and that number is likely to be the most difficult one for Gait to have to replace.

It’s very unlikely that one player will replace all of Phaup’s takes from last year, which means we’re probably looking at a committee approach to the X, at least at first.

That approach starts with Canisius transfer Johnny Richiusa, who comes to Syracuse after completing his freshman season with the Golden Griffins last year. It was a solid freshman campaign for Richiusa, who won .521 percent of his restarts. The problem is that he only took 286 face-offs on the season, 133 fewer than Phaup. Is he ready to drastically improve his number of takes in his second collegiate season?

He better at least be ready to take a certain amount more, because the other three FOGO’s on the roster (sophomore Jack Fine, freshman Gavin Gibbs, and walk-on sophomore Paul Lamonaca) have taken a combined five face-offs in their college careers.

5. Can we get more consistency between the pipes?

During his first media session, Gary Gait threw out a number when he was talking about the goalie position for this year’s team. That number was 10. As in, he wants his goalies this season to improve their save percentage roughly 10 percent over last year.

It’s an ambitious increase, but there’s a good reason for wanting it. Last year’s goalies, Bobby Gavin and Harrison Thompson, combined for a save percentage that finished the season at — get ready for it — .408 percent. Do I even need to go back to the Austin Powers quote?

That’s an unthinkably low save percentage for any team to have. Yes, they were getting basically no help from the defense in front of them, but the bottom line is that the buck stops with a goalies save percentage. Too often last season, the buck didn’t stop at all.

The good news for SU is that reinforcements are on the way in the form of Will Mark, a two-time honorable mention All-American who has a career save percentage of .558 over his three seasons at LIU.

He’s certainly taking a step up in class by making the move to SU, but it’s pretty clear that Mark is an improvement over last year’s net minders. Now, can he manage to keep his head above the 50 percent line?

I think that pretty well covers each phase of this Syracuse team and what general questions we have about all of them. What other questions do you guys have related to the roster, the coaching staff, or how the Orange might look on the field this season?

Stay tuned next week when I’ll be diving deeper into each of the position groups in the lead up to the first game of the season next Saturday, February 4 against Vermont.