WLAX : After historic season, determined Syracuse aims to continue status as championship contender
The heartbreak could be felt throughout LaValle Stadium.
After compiling the winningest season in program history, mounting two near-insurmountable comebacks in the national quarterfinals and semifinals, Syracuse’s storybook season ended in disappointment with an 8-6 loss to Northwestern in the national championship.
There was no first national championship in program history and no first women’s championship in Syracuse athletics history. The Orange players, some with their heads down, sulked toward midfield for a team huddle after the final seconds ticked off the clock in Stony Brook.
But only 30 minutes later, when sophomore Alyssa Murray sat behind the table for the postgame press conference, there were no tears in her eyes. Her voice did not quiver through the 20 minutes of questioning.
A day later, Murray reflected warmly on the historic season.
‘We have nothing to be ashamed of and I think it really showed how proud we are of ourselves, our positive attitudes coming out of the game,’ Murray said. ‘As disappointed as we were, we were all proud of each other.’
SU (19-4) stayed true to its motto of ‘big energy’ throughout the season. Early-season victories over elite powers and eventual final four participants Florida and Maryland showed how improved this year’s team was after the Orange lost in the first round of the Big East tournament and failed to qualify for NCAA tournament in 2011. SU rolled through the regular season and not only made the 16-team field, but advanced to the championship game.
Murray led the country with 74 goals, and junior attack Michelle Tumolo finished with 52 goals and 43 assists, receiving national recognition as WomensLax.com’s Attacker of the Year and one of five finalists for the Tewaaraton Trophy, given annually to the nation’s best player.
‘We’ve learned a lot, first time through a championship game,’ SU head coach Gary Gait said. ‘(The players) were determined and overcame a lot to get here and I’m proud of them and what they accomplished this year.’
An 11-9 overtime loss to Northwestern on Feb. 29 was the initial evidence that this year’s Syracuse team could hang with the nation’s best.
Following that defeat, SU strung together 15 consecutive wins and rose to No. 2 in the national polls, the highest ranking ever in program history.
A double-overtime win over the Gators on March 3 was one highlight. Blowing out then-No. 6 Dartmouth 22-4 on April 9, another.
‘It was definitely a huge win for us,’ SU defender Becca Block said after the game. ‘I think we really got the win together as a whole team, which feels good. We made a statement.’
After slipping up to Loyola (Md.) in the Big East tournament championship game, the Orange immediately got back on track despite a tough NCAA tournament draw as the No. 4 seed. SU thrashed Dartmouth 15-5 in their first-round matchup.
Then came a matchup with fifth-seeded North Carolina. The Tar Heels came into the Carrier Dome and gave SU all it could handle. If not for late-game heroics from Tumolo, the Orange’s season would have ended.
With the Orange trailing 16-14 and less than three minutes left in regulation, Tumolo forced a turnover, scored twice and assisted on a Kailah Kempney goal to send the Orange to its third final four in five years.
An even more remarkable seven-goal, 17-minute comeback against No. 1 seed Florida in Stony Brook propelled the Orange one step closer to becoming national champions.
But despite Murray and Tumolo scoring in the second half to pull SU even with Northwestern, the Wildcats prevailed.
‘This season was awesome,’ SU midfielder Katie Webster said. ‘The loss at the end kind of stung for a little bit, but then we realized how much we achieved this year and how much closer we are as a team. Obviously we were a bit sad, but we realized how great we were this year and we were still happy in the end.’
In the postgame press conference, Murray said she was already yearning to get back to work. The Orange can’t hold team practices until the fall, but both Murray and Webster said each player plans on training hard over the summer to come back and avenge the loss.
With a returning offensive core, the Orange will certainly be in the discussion to make another run at the national title.
Said Murray: ‘This isn’t the last you’ll see of us.’
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