Loyola attack Kevin Lindley, right, is second in Division I with an average of 3.8 goals scored per game. (Loyola athletics)
Syracuse N.Y. — After coming up on the wrong side of what amounted to a flip of a coin, the Syracuse lacrosse team has quickly turned its attention to what could either be a springboard game or a final challenge of the season.
Head coach John Desko and players were philosophical when giving their reviews of the NCAA tournament committees work on Monday. That body slotted Syracuse (9-4) as the first team outside of the top eight seeds, a position that sends SU to eighth-seeded Loyola (11-4) for a first-round game at noon on Saturday.
“Im not surprised, given the criteria that the committee used. I think they wandered a little bit from a year ago, but it seemed to be pretty consistent across the board, Desko said. “I thought all in all, the committee did a pretty good job.
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SU is coming off a loss to North Carolina in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals on April 25. Loyola fell to Army in the Patriot League semis but still edged out Syracuse for the final home game spot.
“There was a lot of speculation flying around. We didnt really know where we were going to end up, said SU midfielder Peter Dearth. “Honestly, Im a little excited that were going on the road. Usually the guys have a good time. And it also gives us a little bit of a chip on our shoulder, which is, I think, something that we perform very well with. Actually I think the guys are pretty fired up to be going on the road and to be going on to play Loyola.
The game puts Syracuse directly into the path of a steamroller offense. Attack Pat Spencer (40-54) is one of the most dangerous players in the country, and hes closely followed by attack Kevin Lindley (57-4) and midfielder Chase Scanlan (40-14). Overall, Loyola is tied for sixth in Division I at an average of 14 goals per game.
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“We were just excited to see ourselves in the tournament. It was a little nervous watching those big eight (seeded) teams come down and we thought wed be in there, said SU defender Marcus Cunningham. “But after we saw that we were going on the road and playing a team like Loyola, I think we were just very excited to extend our season, have the opportunity to play a team like them. Theyre a very good team. They have a very good offense. Thats definitely their strength. It definitely throws something new at us, its going to throw a new challenge.
Head coach Jeff Tambronis team won its first Big Ten title over the weekend by topping John Hopkins 18-17 in overtime thanks to Mac OKeefes overtime marker in the conference final. It came only after the Lions surrendered a two-goal lead late, but Tambronis team was able to rally back to win.
And the speed bumps would only get a lot bigger from here for Syracuse. The winner of the Orange-Greyhounds game will likely face No. 1 Penn State in the quarterfinals.
The Lions will play the winner of a play-in game between Marist and UMBC on Wed., May 8 in first-round action on Sunday. ESPNU will televise the contest, which starts at Noon. The team seeks its first NCAA tournament win.
“Youve got to play them sooner or later, Desko said of a possible Penn State showdown. “Everybody would like an easier road. But right now weve got to focus on Loyola and then we can worry about Penn State.
SYRACUSE — Way up at the top of the Carrier Dome, a stream of national title banners serves as a reminder of the rich lacrosse tradition here. After long, cold winters in Central New York, the Syracuse Orange would win game after game, and a new banner would eventually rise.
But its been a while: A program with a record 22 straight Final Four appearances from 1983 to 2004 and 10 national titles hasnt claimed the championship in a decade.
The two teams, both unseeded in the tournament, have already met this season, with the Quakers winning, 8-7, on March 9. Fridays winner will go on to face fifth-seeded Syracuse on Sunday.
Syracuse is not alone. The last Orange championship in 2009 marked the end of an era for the Big Five powers of mens college lacrosse: from 1978 until then, Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, North Carolina and Virginia won every N.C.A.A. title; since then, they have won just two.
For decades, that handful of schools had a lock on the best recruits, many of whom grew up in the lacrosse hotbeds of New York State, Ontario and the regions surrounding Philadelphia and Baltimore. Native Americans from the Upstate Iroquois tribes who popularized the indigenous game once headed straight for Syracuse. But as lacrosse expanded far beyond its Mid-Atlantic base, the balance of power has shifted in the college game, which remains the marquee version of the sport, outshining pro lacrosse.
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Four first-time champions have been crowned this decade — Duke, Loyola (Maryland), Denver and Yale — and top-ranked Penn State could become the fifth if it wins the N.C.A.A. tournament that begins Wednesday. The Nittany Lions have never won a tournament game before, and play in a lacrosse conference, the Big Ten, that didnt even exist until four years ago.
When I played, the best schools just reloaded, said Casey Powell, a four-time Syracuse All-American and lacrosse evangelist who moved to Chicago last year to spread the game there. Now theres so many more players, where Johns Hopkins and Syracuse are still getting their bunch, but other schools can too. Syracuses exposure revolutionized the game and created a new era of lacrosse.
Coaches, analysts and former players say parity has come primarily from the youth talent boom, as players from outside the traditional hotbeds look beyond the traditional powers. The sport was once rarely on TV and was played mostly in the East. Games are everywhere now: played by amateurs and professionals across the country and, increasingly, the world, and broadcast on TV and online, exposing the game to new audiences.
Lacrosse has been the fastest-growing U.S. team sport at the high school level for at least the past two decades, according to U.S. Lacrosse. The number of high school players doubled from 162,021 in 2006 to 324,689 in 2017. Players from California, Florida and the Midwest have created a more level playing field for schools like Denver, which became the first mens Division I champion west of the Mississippi.
The Blue Devils ended the season with an 11-4 record, falling in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who fell to the Virginia Cavaliers in the ACC Championship.
Denver Coach Bill Tierney, who won six national titles at Princeton, understands that athletic departments may not be willing to pay for a burgeoning travel budget, a reality for a program with only two Division I competitors in the same time zone. He thinks his Pioneers title in 2015, coming relatively soon after the program launched in 1999, makes for a strong pitch: If Denver won quickly, why cant another new program?
In lacrosse, you can be like us and win a national championship as a mid-major, Tierney said. Thats not happening in football or basketball. Were seeing more kids on other rosters from Colorado, and more of ours are from the Northeast. Its like two trains passing in the night.
Western athletic departments are considering converting club teams to intercollegiate squads, the way Utah got its start. David Neeleman, the JetBlue founder whose son plays on the team, donated the money needed to take Utah from a club team to Division I.
Because Neeleman attended the school as an undergraduate, because of his love for lacrosse, and because he wanted to help the game shift westward, he gave the Utes the financial boost needed to support a team. Coach Brian Holman said travel isnt easy — players log homework and tutor sessions on long flights — but Utah won five games in its inaugural season this year. They expect more schools to join them.
Part of why we came out here was based on that assumption, said Holman, a former North Carolina assistant.
Meanwhile, the University of Jacksonvilles upstart program is the only mens Division I team in Florida. The Dolphins are coached by John Galloway, a 30-year-old two-time national champion at Syracuse who played on its last title team. Now, hes part of the wave thats made it harder for a school like Syracuse to dominate.
While the mens game has swelled from 56 Division I teams in 2008 to 72 today, the womens game has far outpaced it. Including six teams in the Pac-12 Conference, there are now 116 womens Division I squads. Florida, Vanderbilt and Stanford have only womens programs. Last year, Maryland, winner of three of the last five titles, was left out of the final as first-time champion James Madison beat Boston College, which was also vying for its first title.
Parity is approaching as womens lacrosse marches westward. Take Michigan, where it became a varsity sport in 2014. Led by Coach Hannah Nielsen, a four-time player of the year winner, the Wolverines are a Top 10 team this year, and made their first-ever N.C.A.A. tournament this week.
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Theres nothing better than the spread of the wealth in the college game, Nielsen said. Anybody can beat anybody. That never used to be the case. It makes the sport more fun to watch.
Michigan is an anomaly in the mens game: a Midwestern football power that is a newcomer to mens lacrosse. That is due in part to Title IX, the 1972 federal law mandating gender equity in higher education, including college sports. Vast football squads, without any female equivalent, must be balanced with several womens teams; creating another mens team only makes the math more difficult.
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Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said that large donations would bolster the creation of new teams, and non-football schools are more likely to add mens lacrosse than schools with football. For now, he says he realizes the best players still must consider going East to play collegiately. Aside from Utah, Denver and Air Force, no other Western programs have Division I mens lacrosse.
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This year, Syracuse again made the N.C.A.A. tournament, but as one of the last at-large teams in. Johns Hopkins and Maryland, another perennial contender, also barely made it in, while blue-chippers North Carolina and Cornell didnt.
Theres been a drought here, said John Desko, in his 21st season as head coach at Syracuse. Im a little disappointed with it. But the last couple of years, with our recruiting, playing some younger players last year, weve made some strides. Anybody can win.
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Syracuse, which last made the mens final in 2013, continues to draw the most fans in the country. But the sports exploding talent pool has made dozens of schools competitive. And whats good for lacrosse has made life difficult for its once-dominant powers.
With this drought, little kids dont look up to Syracuse like I looked up to Syracuse, said Paul Carcaterra, an ESPN college lacrosse analyst who helped lead the Orange to the 1995 national title. One Final Four in 10 years is probably a hard thing to swallow for fans in Central New York. Its no longer Syracuse, Johns Hopkins or bust.