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College lacrosse: Syracuse surging at right time as NCAA tourney begins

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SYRACUSE — As coach of the Syracuse men’s lacrosse team, John Desko is used to the limelight. Heading into the postseason, it’s shining brightly on the Orange.

Despite three losses and a season full of close games, Syracuse (13-3) used a late-season push to earn the top seed in this year’s 16-team NCAA tournament field as the Orange chase their 12th national championship. Fresh from winning its second straight Big East tournament title, Syracuse will host Northeast Conference-champion Bryant (8-10) in the first round on Sunday night at the Carrier Dome. It will be the first meeting between the teams and Bryant’s first-ever game in the tournament. The Bulldogs are coached by former Duke coach Mike Pressler.

“I think we’re getting better,” said Desko, who has guided his alma mater to five national titles since taking over in 1999. “We’ve played well against all the ranked teams we’ve played.”

While title-winning Syracuse teams of the past usually relied on the prowess of some of the top-scoring players in collegiate history — Gary Gait, Tom Marechek and the three Powell brothers (Casey, Ryan and Mike) — this version of the Orange is a little bit different.

Derek Maltz leads the team with 28 goals. That’s just two more than Luke Cometti. Kevin Rice and Dylan Donahue each have 19, JoJo Marasco and Henry Schoonmaker have 18, and Scott Loy checks in with 17. Marasco leads the team in scoring with 53 points and the other six have at least 20.

In other words, if opponents elect to key on one player, they’ll likely pay for that strategy. After all, this Syracuse bunch has balance.

“I don’t know if you’ve seen a Syracuse team recently that has one player step up and score six or seven goals, and that’s how we win the game,” Desko said. “If you look at our stats, the scoring is really spread out. It’s just the way we’ve been playing, and it makes it hard to cover.

“You’ve got to cover everybody.”

In Syracuse’s 13-9 victory against top-seeded Villanova in the Big East tournament title game last Saturday, nine players had goals and nine of the tallies drew assists. Syracuse also converted three of its four man-advantage chances.

The season didn’t start so well, though. High-scoring Albany, behind Miles and Lyle Thompson, and their cousin, Ty, helped lead the Great Danes to a 16-15 double-overtime victory over the Orange in the Carrier Dome to open the year.

Syracuse rebounded with five straight victories, including a 9-8 overtime win against then-No. 6 Virginia and a 13-8 triumph over then-No. 4 Johns Hopkins, both at home. But there were also puzzling losses to Villanova (11-10), and Hobart (13-12).

In the evolving world of Division I lacrosse, Desko wasn’t surprised.

“That speaks to the parity in the game,” Desko said. “There’s so many more areas and players to recruit. Ten years ago, it was central New York, Long Island, and Baltimore. That was the only three places you would get kids. The pie was pretty small. Now, the pie is so big that everybody has a big slice.

“I look at these recruiting lists at all the schools out there, and years ago I knew everybody on everybody’s list. We recruited all the same kids. Today, I don’t even know who half the kids are. There are so many more players playing the game.”

Still, the Orange appear to be rounding into form at the right time. They beat Notre Dame twice in a six-day span — 10-4 in the season finale and 9-3 in the Big East tournament — when the stingy Irish defense had them ranked No. 1 in the Ratings Percentage Index, used to stack teams based on wins and losses and strength of schedule.

“We’re climbing. We’re not peaking, we’re climbing,” said senior defenseman Brian Megill, who figures he’ll skip graduation on Sunday so he can concentrate on preparing for the game later on. “I think we’re starting to play our best lacrosse. In the regular season, we were up for the big games but played down to our opponent. We can’t do that anymore. It’s win or go home at this point.”

That’s not something the team’s six true seniors care to contemplate. They have yet to make it to championship weekend, which once was a rite of passage here. The Orange advanced to the national semifinals 22 consecutive years (1983-2004) but haven’t won a championship since 2009.

“We’re real excited,” said Marasco, whose 35 assists this season are a school record for a midfielder. “We’re playing with a lot of confidence. Each game we’re getting stronger and stronger.

“There’s definitely some pressure. The whole team deserves a chance to get the opportunity to win a title. That’s been our focus all four years we’ve been here. Hopefully, we can put one up there.”

They have one more chance.

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