Coming off a season in which his Syracuse Orange struggled mightily on the defensive end while under constant pressure, Gary Gait knew it was time for a personnel shake up.
Following the departure of defensive coordinator Dave Pietramala for UNC, Gait brought in young upstart John Odierna from Manhattan to head up his defense.
On the field, Gait called on as much of the cavalry as he could to bring more talent and depth into the program. The result was an offseason in which SU picked up a new FOGO, three new poles, one new shortie and eagerly anticipate the return of another heralded defender.
Last season, the Orange finished the season 64th in the NCAA in FO win percentage (41.9), 59th in GB per game (27.93) and 44th in total scoring defense (12.13 goals per game).
Let’s take a look now at the units that will attempt to correct those numbers in 2024:
Obviously, we’ve got to start with the much-maligned face-off unit, from whom all of last year’s struggles originated.
The good news is the unit’s gotten a complete makeover for this season, headlined by incoming Tufts’ transfer Mason Kohn, the 2023 Division III National FOGO of the Year. Kohn put up huge numbers last year, winning 71.6 percent of his draws (255-of-356) and scooping up 184 ground balls. Whether or not the Orange are able to improve significantly on last year’s 41.9 percent success rate will largely fall on his shoulders.
Last year’s primary FOGO’s, Johnny Richiusa and Jack Fine, are both back as juniors in backup capacities. A pair of incoming freshmen, John Mullen and Jake Spallina, are also names to keep in mind for the restarts.
SU wasn’t satisfied just adding Kohn, as Gait and staff also brought in reinforcements for the wings of face-offs. Princeton midfielder Jake Stevens might be better known for his offense, but he’s also an experienced wing who finished second on the Tigers last year with his 35 ground balls.
The Orange also added a pair of LSM’s who could absolutely factor in as poles on the wing. Matt Wright from UNC and Steven Schmitt from Mount St. Mary’s are going to help provide experience and depth for this team in a number of facets, and one of them is going after GB’s on face-offs. Schmitt, in particular, is coming off an outstanding GB year in which he averaged 6.0 per game, one of the best numbers in the country for someone whose not primarily a FOGO.
Also in regards to the face-offs, Terry Foy of Inside Lacrosse tweeted some takeaways that he heard about from SU’s scrimmage against Michigan over the weekend. As you would probably expect, it was a mixed bag of takeaways, but the word was pretty good on the face-offs:
•Boehm had 5G, G Hunter Taylor looked good.— Terry Foy (@TerenceFoy) January 28, 2024
•Cuse wasn’t ready for UM's 10-man, failed a lot of clears early.
•Figueiras looked good.
•Cuse's face off unit looked promising.
We’ll have to eagerly wait to see how it all plays out at the dot, but we already know we’re going to be watching a very different-looking face-off group for ‘Cuse this season.
Saam Olexo is back to lead the Orange defense after a stellar 2023 in which he led the team in caused turnovers (26) and finished second in ground balls (53). Saam is very important as both a wing on face-offs and in his role marking the opposing team’s best midfielder.
Behind him, transfers Matt Wright and Steven Schmitt give the Orange their best depth at LSM that they’ve had in a long time.
The SSDM position got dinged when Brandon Aviles transferred to Johns Hopkins, but retooled with the addition of two-time DIII All-American Jake Titus from Union. Titus has experience as a two-way midfielder in his undergrad days, so he could be a factor in transition as well as contributing to the SSDM rotation. He could also be another player to rotate in on face-off wings. Carter Rice, Max Rosa and Vinnie Trujillo all return to make for a pretty solid group of shorties alongside Titus.
The close defense is perhaps somewhat lacking in star-power coming into the season, but it is not lacking in depth of experience.
The entire starting trio from last season all return as juniors in Nick Caccamo, Caden Kol and Landon Clary. Primary backups Billy Dwan and Jordan Beck are also back after gaining valuable playing time as true freshmen last season.
Probably the most exciting development for the defense this season is the return from last year’s injury of Riley Figueiras, the No. 11-wearing, much-hyped defender who will be appearing in Orange for the first time in his career. His on-ball cover skills are superior, and his presence is a huge boost for a defense that needs to answer a lot of questions coming off last season.
Riley’s not the only addition to the close defense this year, as our final transfer on the defensive side of the ball is Zach Puckhaber from DIII Gettysburg. Zach was a two-time All-American and captain in his time at Gettysburg, and he’s a huge presence at 6’4”, 220 pounds. During his junior season, Zach held Cross Ferrara, now in the PLL, scoreless in a game.
I’m not sure exactly how the personnel is going to sort itself out among all these options, but without question the Orange defense has it’s most depth of quality talent that it’s had in quite a number of years with which to work.
We’ll close with the most clear-cut position, as two-time All-American Will Mark is back to patrol the crease as he leads the ‘Cuse defense for a second year.
Will is coming off an outstanding season in which he had a 54.2 save percentage and 13.8 saves per game while under constant pressure. He provides the Orange will an incredible backbone between the pipes, and gives his defenders added confidence knowing that he’s got their backs.
Patrick Duffy, Kyle Rolley, Jimmy McCool and freshman Michael Ippoliti will operate as the backups to Mark this season.
There are lots of questions to be answered coming off last year, and we won’t know definitively for a while yet, but I think you have to feel pretty good about the adjustments and personnel changes that were made in the offseason.
Gait obviously knew what the issues were with his team last year, and he and his staff did everything they could to attack the transfer portal in the summer. They improved the talent, depth and experience on this end of the field.
Now, they just need Mason Kohn and company to win more than 41.9 percent of the time.