When the Syracuse men's lacrosse team opened fall workouts several months ago, the sense of excitement and hope in the air was palpable. But there was another element pervading the atmosphere:
With the graduation of three first-team All-Americans, two second-teamers, one third-teamer and one honorable mention, seven starting positions were up for grabs, and players who had previously toiled on the sideline had an opportunity. That made for an interesting set of practices, according to junior defenseman Brian Megill.
"A lot of the guys last year who are on the team now didn't really go out there and give 110 percent, as they are now, because they knew that most of the team was already filled with seniors who were returning All-Americans," Megill said. "They kind of knew, 'Well, I'm not really going to get the spot. So I'm not going to go 110 percent in practice.' This year, they're coming out and every practice is like game day. Everyone's running around and hitting people. It's crazy."
By the same token, however, those departures have sapped the No. 7 Orange — which meets No. 2 Johns Hopkins on Saturday at Homewood Field — of some of the luster usually associated with the program. A perennial Top 3 team and national championship contender, Syracuse has been downgraded in the eyes of many after losing the services of those seven All-Americans.
The team is 3-1 with the lone loss coming at top-ranked Virginia on March 4. But the doubts that were quashed by the Orange's gritty battle with the reigning NCAA champion resurfaced Saturday when Syracuse barely escaped with a 9-8 win at St. John's, breaking an 8-8 tie with 1:25 left in the fourth quarter.
So which squad is the more accurate representation? CBS Sports Network analyst Steve Panarelli said it's probably a combination of the two.
"Watching them against Virginia, I thought they went down there and did a really good job," said Panarelli, a former All-American defenseman at Syracuse. "For a lot of those guys, it was their first big game, a televised game against the defending national champs and the No. 1 team in the country on the road. I thought they went down there and did a good job of keeping it close. They made a few mistakes, and that's why they lost, but I think overall, it was a strong performance. And then they had a tough game against St. John's, and you think, 'What's the reason behind that?' Sometimes with a young team, maybe they didn't go out there with the right amount of respect for St. John's. [Syracuse has] obviously done well against them in the past, and maybe coming off a loss, they were still shaking that off."
This year's Orange team is young. Among the starters are a sophomore attackman, a redshirt freshman midfielder, redshirt junior and sophomore defensemen, and a redshirt sophomore goalkeeper. Megill, redshirt senior attackman Tim Desko and junior midfielder JoJo Marasco are the only returning starters.
That youth could be a factor in the team's numbers dropping from last season. Comparing the stretch of games leading to the annual contests against the Blue Jays, the offense is averaging fewer goals per game (10.3 in 2012 compared with 12.6 in 2011) and fewer shots (37.5, down from 40.2). The squad is averaging more turnovers (17.5, up from 12.8), winning fewer faceoffs (47.9 percent, down from 56.5 percent) and allowing opponents to collect more ground balls (34.8, up from 25).
Contrasting the two squads might be an unfair proposition, but Syracuse coach John Desko said that's the nature of playing for a program that has captured an NCAA-leading 11 national titles.
"I think we expect that. Is it an unfair comparison? I don't know," he said. "It's a different group. I think it's a good group that has to continue to improve and eliminate mistakes. The past couple years, we had three- and four-year starters. So they had a lot of experience and saw many different game situations. That group defensively didn't make a lot of mistakes and were pretty stingy about giving up goals, and now we've got some new players out there for the most part that have made a couple mistakes this year, but we're hoping that they learn from them, and if we eliminate those as we go along, we're going to be a good lacrosse team."
The Orange's less heralded players actually raise the level of difficulty for Johns Hopkins, who must do more-intensive film review to accurately craft scouting reports.
"When you scouted them last year, you knew about their guys," Blue Jays junior midfielder John Ranagan said. "It was easy to say, 'OK, this is [long-stick midfielder] Joel White, [goalkeeper] John Galloway, [defenseman] John Lade. These guys are all real good.' But we don't really know that much about the team that's coming here on Saturday except that they're talented. So it's a little tough for us to scout them."
Still, Johns Hopkins doesn't plan to overlook Syracuse, which still likes to take advantage of transition and unsettled situations. And with upcoming games against the Blue Jays, No. 9 Villanova, No. 14 Duke, No. 18 Princeton and No. 5 Notre Dame on the horizon, the Orange will find out how good it is.
"I think with them, you'll know what you've got in the next few weeks," Panarelli said. "You've got obviously Johns Hopkins coming up this week, Duke, Georgetown, Notre Dame. It's too early to tell what type of team they've got there. I think they have talent, I think they have a lot of capability, but it's going to take time. I think as you see them play more battle-tested teams like Notre Dame and Hopkins and those guys, you'll see where they're at and how they're progressing."