Somehow, the Syracuse men's lacrosse team found a way to relax, recover and return to the place it has come to feel it belongs.
After losing four of its first five games, after season-ending injuries to several veterans forced freshmen into more prominent roles, after Hobart had knocked the Orange to rock bottom with its first win over it in 20 years - and first at the Carrier Dome - Syracuse was at a crossroads.
Would the Orange, which missed the NCAA tournament final four last season after 22 consecutive trips there, sink deeper by missing the postseason altogether? How would Syracuse dig itself out of its worst start in 31 seasons?
"I know people were looking at our schedule, saying there's no way we're going to beat this team or that team," recalled fifth-year senior attackman Joe Yevoli, who praised Orange coach John Desko for providing a calming influence at a meeting after the 9-8 loss to Hobart on March 28. That marked the program's first four-game losing streak in 25 years.
"Instead of running us, Coach just asked us if we wanted to be remembered as an awful team or be remembered as a team that turned it all around," Yevoli added. "He let us go and put the responsibility on us."
"It was difficult, [deciding] whether to approach the team with a must-win situation [talk] or just take a half step back and re-evaluate," Desko said. "At 1-4, it seemed there was a new injury every week to an important player. We had to get more freshmen on the field. They needed time, and they got time against some very good teams. Fortunately, they stepped up and got better every week."
Nine consecutive victories later, Syracuse is back on a familiar stage. As the tournament's fifth seed, the Orange will try to do the improbable by taking down undefeated, top-seeded Virginia in tomorrow's national semifinal round at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
Don't think Syracuse, which suffered its first loss in a 20-15 shootout at Virginia on March 4, is lacking confidence as it prepares for what should be a high-scoring rematch. The Orange has won four one-goal games, including two in overtime, has been more patient in its settled offense, and is getting too much production from its young and old players to think that winning the school's 10th NCAA title is out of reach.
The attack of senior Brett Bucktooth, sophomore Mike Leveille and Yevoli keeps humming along as the team's top three scorers. Bucktooth (53 points) has seven hat tricks in the past eight games. Leveille (50 points) is the only player to score in every game. He had four goals in last week's 13-12 quarterfinal win against Johns Hopkins. Yevoli, the graduate student and transfer from Virginia, is an excellent dodger and feeder with 23 goals and 16 assists.
The midfield and defense are where Syracuse has really grown. After losing senior midfielders Greg Rommel and Steven Brooks and sophomore midfielder Greg Niewieroski to injuries by early March - all after faceoff specialist Danny Brennan was ruled academically ineligible - the first-year players gradually arrived.
At midfield, freshman Patrick Perritt scored three fourth-quarter goals in a huge 12-11 win at then-No. 4 Cornell, which evened the Syracuse record at 4-4 and turned the season around on April 11. Perritt has scored in every game since. Midfielders Dan Hardy (10 goals, nine assists), Kenny Nims (7, 4) and Matt Abbott (6, 1) each have had their moments throughout the winning streak.
Defensively, moving junior Steve Panarelli from close defense to long-stick midfielder has made the Orange more dangerous in transition. But the emergence of second-year freshman goalie Peter Coluccini might be the biggest key.
After a rough March, Coluccini has been a difference-maker. In critical back-to-back wins over Princeton and Cornell, he had a combined 34 saves. Last week, he stung Hopkins with eight of his 16 saves in the fourth quarter.
"You don't want to think you're one loss away from not making [the tournament] after five games of the season," Coluccini said. "You don't want to talk about that, because it turns the season into every game is a playoff game. But that was the reality of it. That also helped me prepare myself mentally for the tournament."
After enduring a rare postseason failure last May, Bucktooth feels rejuvenated and senses it throughout the squad.
"As a sophomore, I rode the wave of the seniors. I took things for granted, kind of expected to be in the final four. Last year was a reality check for us," he said. "The last thing we wanted to do [after starting 1-4] was poke fingers at each other. We rededicated ourselves and came together as a team."
Men's final four
Maryland (12-4) vs. Massachusetts (12-4), 11:30 a.m., ESPN2
Virginia (15-0) vs. Syracuse (10-4), 2 p.m., ESPN2 Monday's championship
Semifinal winners, 1 p.m., ESPN
Syracuse at a glance
Founded -- 1870
Location -- Syracuse, N.Y.
Enrollment -- 12,268 undergraduates
Tuition and fees --$28,285
Famous alumni -- Actors Peter Falk and Taye Diggs; actress Vanessa Williams; TV star Dick Clark; sportscasters Bob Costas and Marv Albert; broadcast journalist Ted Koppel; ESPN sportscaster Mike Tirico; NFL players Marvin Harrison and Donovan McNabb; NBA player Carmelo Anthony; lacrosse players Gary and Paul Gait.
Academic ranking --No. 50 among national universities, according to U.S. News & World Report
School color -- Orange
Nickname -- Orange, first college to adopt only one official color.
Last trip to final four --2004
NCAA lacrosse titles --Nine, 1983, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1993, 1995, 2000, 2002, 2004