This time a week ago, Cornell was the lone undefeated team in Division I and was No. 2 in the nation. Consecutive 14-9 losses at home to Harvard and Syracuse have altered its national standing dramatically, but coach Matt Kerwick and his players say the team's psyche remains undamaged.
"I'm not concerned," Kerwick said. "We have great leadership in that locker room. Two games don't determine a season. We're not worried about that at all. Confidence is a very important part of lacrosse, probably more so than any sport I've been around, and we have to make sure we continue to stay confident because we have all the faith in the world in this team and I don't second-guess it at all."
"Our ticket's the Ivy League," defenseman Tom Freshour said after Tuesday's loss to the Orange. "This one definitely hurts. It's an upstate rivalry, it's a huge game for us, but the Ivy League is where we make our money."
And it is the remaining Ivy League contests against Brown and Princeton and the ensuing Ivy League tournament that will ultimately determine the Big Red's NCAA tournament fate. Harvard and Syracuse appeared to find the key to defeating Cornell — winning at the faceoff X and forcing players other than star quarterback Matt Donovan and superstar midfielder Connor Buczek to do the offensive damage. Harvard shut out each; Syracuse wasn't as quick as the Crimson to slide to either, but Brandon Mullins still blanked Donovan, and Buczek was held to two goals and two assists.
Kerwick said the concentration on his two big offensive talents is nothing new.
"Coming into the season, you knew guys were going to try to stop our key guys offensively," he said. "I felt we have plenty of good opportunities tonight [vs. Syracuse] to get to our goal of 10, 11, 12 goals a game, but we just can't play that much defense. We have to continue to work on our ground-ball play and be tenacious on that. We'll be fine offensively, and we'll do a better job defensively if we don't have to play so much defense. We're in a position where we can be where we need to be."
Syracuse tinkering with offense
The addition of Randy Staats, a two-time junior college Player of the Year at Onondaga (N.Y.) CC, at starting attack has made an already potent Syracuse offense even more dynamic heading into the stretch run of the regular season.
Three games ago, a team that many believed was capable of competing for the national championship was 4-3 and coming off a 21-7 loss at Atlantic Coast Conference rival Duke, the worst drubbing in John Desko's 15-plus seasons as head coach. The Orange's season was slipping away rapidly thanks to too many turnovers, too many faceoff losses and too many uncharacteristic defensive breakdowns.
Through it all, Desko maintained that his veteran offense, which featured returning starters Kevin Rice, Dylan Donahue and Derek Maltz at attack and two veteran midfield lines, would be fine if it could only get its share of possession time. So why mess with success and insert Staats at attack in place of Maltz, who has scored 70 goals over the last two-plus seasons as the Orange's crease attackman?
The answer became obvious Tuesday night at Cornell, where Staats learned of the move just before the opening whistle and responded with a Syracuse career-high nine points on four first-half assists and five second-half goals. Like Maltz, who moved to the second midfield line, Staats is a solid finisher in close.
"If you find him, you can start celebrating before he scores, because he never misses," Rice said.
Unlike Maltz, Staats (18 goals, 15 assists in eight games) is also at home dodging and creating shots for himself or finding open teammates when he draws the slide. The Orange already has two such players in Rice and Donahue. Adding a third — and the most creative and productive one-on-one talent of the three — should make the Orange a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators the rest of the way.
And for the most part, Desko has bucked conventional wisdom by continuing to employ of goalie rotation of senior Dominic Lamolinara (first half) and Bobby Wardwell (second half) regardless of the score or how well Lamolinara (St. Mary's) fares in his 30 minutes.
Desko credits the unselfishness of the players involved for making it work, going out of his way to praise senior captains Ward and Maltz for accepting their new assignments without a peep of dissent.
"Maltz recognizes Randy Staats' ability," he said. "He and Ward, almost to a fault, have been amazing. They are all about doing what is best for team."
Air Force seniors have coach's back through adversity
Over the winter, there was concern that budget cuts passed by Congress would force Air Force to drop nine varsity sports, possibly including lacrosse.
That will not happen, however. A decision announced last month by the academy said there will be budget cuts but the cuts will not cause programs to be eliminated.
That said, Air Force lacrosse does not have a conference for 2015 or beyond. The picture is expected to become clearer in May.
But for now, the irony is that Air Force's program has brand-new facilities — including a weight room indoor practice facility built within the past two years. Yet the budget cuts come at a time when the Falcons are looking at playing as an independent, and with a lot of games on the road in 2015.
And as a government employee, coach Eric Seremet is not allowed to fundraise.
"I have to be careful with what I say to alums," he says. "It's a pretty fine line."
There is a new 501c3 arm of the Air Force athletic department — the Air Force Academy Athletic Corp. — that can help with fundraising, but it has been in existence less than a year.
The ideal situation for the Falcons is to find a home in a conference for 2015 or 2016. Barring that, they hope teams will travel to Colorado Springs, Colo., or, more likely, they hope teams will agree to play neutral-site games.
All this, however, pales in comparison to what the program went through last fall.
In October, Seremet's wife, Sonia, the mother of two young daughters, was killed in a car accident near the academy grounds.
And these days, when the players and coaches break the huddle, they know their message goes beyond lacrosse.
"When I was going through my crisis, the players were always there for me, but especially the seniors because I've known them the longest," Seremet says. "They have bought in to everything we are trying to have this program be about."