Gary Gait loves a lacrosse challenge.
Since his All-America days at Syracuse 20 years ago, Gait has made an indelible mark on the sport at every turn.
He revolutionized the men's game with his stick skills and acrobatic attack moves, winning more than a dozen championships on the college, pro and international levels.
In 1994, he brought that same innovation and creativity to the women's game as an assistant coach at Maryland, inspiring a style of play that fueled a record seven-year run as NCAA Division I champion.
Gait, 41, also has coached and owned professional teams, designed sticks and is developing a line of lacrosse clothing.
When his alma mater presented another challenge last year, Gait was up for it. He returned to Syracuse as coach of the Orange women.
Since leaving Maryland in 2002 after being turned down for the head men's lacrosse job, Gait coached several pro teams, including the Baltimore Bayhawks, led Canada to its first world title and spent a lot of time with his children, Taylor, 14, and Braedon, 11.
"I didn't think I'd ever go back to college because there's so much time involved in being a college coach," he said. "I was very happy coaching pro, but everything fell into place perfectly for this job. It's a great opportunity and my kids are at the right age."
Eyes on Orange
Now, everyone's waiting to see if Gait will bring the next big thing in the women's game to Syracuse, which is 17-2 and the No. 5 seed in the NCAA Division I tournament.
Northwestern currently holds center stage as the Wildcats go for their fourth straight national title. Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, a four-time All-American who played for Gait at Maryland, turned the Wildcats into champs after resurrecting the program from club status in 2002.
If Gait has something up his sleeve, he's not telling.
"Sticks have evolved so the skill of the players is all pretty similar now," he said. "The way the high schools are teaching, the way the players are coming out, I think everybody's on the same page there, so there's not a lot of room in that area to take it to the next level. What Kelly did, she did with a style of play and with athleticism, but I don't know what the next big thing is."
Although the Orange boasts Division I's most prolific attack, averaging 18.8 goals per game, Gait hasn't changed a lot. He inherited a strong 11-year-old program that Lisa Miller built into a Big East champion before departing for Harvard last year.
The Orange repeated as conference champion this season and could advance to the final four for the first time if it gets past North Carolina in today's NCAA quarterfinal game at the Carrier Dome.
"I think he's going to have a great impact," said Towson coach Missy Doherty, who played for Gait at Maryland and whose Tigers fell to the Orange, 21-9, in the NCAA opening round last week.
"Syracuse, in general, is a great lacrosse area. It attracts great athletes. I think Gary will bring the next level of skills, just like he did with Maryland. He's always thinking of the next thing."
As Cindy Timchal's assistant at Maryland from 1994 until 2002, Gait arrived just as the women's game was poised to change. Molded-head sticks were replacing wooden sticks and Gait took advantage by getting on the field - something he still does - and teaching the Terps his style.
"The biggest thing that he brought to our team was his ability to think outside the box and to be so creative in our stickwork," said Jen Adams, a three-time National Player of the Year as a Terp and now a Maryland assistant coach. "That's something that he really instilled in us as players, to always stretch the limits and never be conventional."
While his approach ruffled a few feathers in the women's game, he never incurred the ire of the many traditionalists in the sport because he respected the game.
"He changed the game, but it wasn't like people thought we were going to be in helmets because of him," said Sheehan Stanwick Burch, CSTV women's lacrosse analyst and former Georgetown All-American.
"He didn't make people freak out that he wanted to change the rules or bring Air Gait [the lacrosse equivalent of a basketball dunk] to the women's game. He played within the realm of keeping the finesse that the traditionalists do like but also expanding the capabilities."
Gait is trying to bring that same creativity to Syracuse, but it hasn't been easy. The players aren't used to being allowed to make the mistakes necessary to hone those skills.
Mistakes come hard
"At first, it was kind of hard," said Orange midfielder Christina Dove, a Bel Air graduate. "People were like, 'Does he really want us to make mistakes?' It's just a mind-set that you want to limit turnovers and mistakes, but he's making us see there's no way to get better if you're not trying anything else."
Some aren't sure Gait can have the same impact on the game now because there are so many more teams bidding for recruits and because, despite Northwestern's run, there is more parity.
Notre Dame coach Tracy Coyne said she didn't see much change in the Orange's style this season, but that could come with more time and with Gait recruits.
"I just think that at the time when Gary was at Maryland, Maryland was almost the only game in town and it's not really like that any more," said Coyne. "These recruits can be really picky about what they want and where they're going. They have so many options now."
Still, Orange attacker Katie Rowan expects big things.
"I think he's going to have a big impact on the program for sure," said Rowan, a junior and one of five finalists for the Tewaaraton Trophy. "His personality makes me really comfortable, so I'm sure recruits will be comfortable with him. He's the best lacrosse player in the world so it doesn't get much better than that."