Andrew Renneisen | Staff PhotographerMen's Soccer
After knocking off Cornell, Syracuse defense focused on slowing VCU’s prolific offense to reach tournament’s third round
Head coach Ian McIntyre knew his team would be in for a difficult challenge against Cornell’s explosive offense.
On Tuesday afternoon, two days before the most significant game for Syracuse since 1984, McIntyre made sure his team was ready.
Ted Cribley drilled a one-timer toward the goal off a pass from McIntyre, who stood cemented in the center of the box. The ball sailed over the bar. Mark Brode took a shot, but the ball flew just right of the goal. Though a few shots found the back of the net, SU goalkeeper Alex Bono stopped the vast majority, serving as a stone wall for Syracuse, as he’s done all season.
Bono’s practice with that drill, along with other similar high-pressure drills, helped prepare him for Cornell’s dynamic offense. With tremendous help from the back four, Bono shut out the Big Red, leading the Orange to its first-ever win in the NCAA tournament. Now SU’s defense will square off against another explosive offense, as Syracuse (13-6) faces No. 14-seed Virginia Commonwealth (12-3-5) Sunday, with a spot in the third round of the NCAA tournament on the line.
“We had to grind it out as always,” Cribley said after the win over Cornell. “We’ve been under pressure this season – similar games like that, where teams have put their big men forward and stuck it in the box. We’re accustomed to that. We train like that as well.”
Despite Bono’s clean sheet, the goalie doesn’t hesitate to give the majority of the credit to his back four.
“The back four was absolutely phenomenal,” Bono said. “I didn’t actually have much to do. Just a couple crosses for me here and there.”
Cornell players swarmed into the box, frantically trying to salvage their 15-1 season and ensure it wouldn’t end in heartbreak.
Yet, as each shot flew toward the net, communication and cohesiveness enabled the Orange to thwart each attack with poise.
McIntyre praised his defense as well, saying that a collective effort led Syracuse to the win. He did single out two players in particular, though, players who have seen an increased role in the weeks since defender Skylar Thomas’ season-ending injury.
“Chris Makowski was awesome tonight,” McIntyre said. “(Nick) Bibbs alongside. Since Skylar Thomas went down at Cincinnati those two have been rocks.”
Those rocks, along with Jordan Murrell and Tyler Hilliard, have anchored a Syracuse defense that has posted 12 shutouts on the season, the most for the program since 1982.
Now Syracuse will look to continue to ride that momentum against VCU and keep its postseason run alive. SU will be in for yet another difficult challenge, though, as the Rams’ offense is in the top 20 nationally scoring at two goals per game.
Jason Johnson, VCU’s most lethal scorer, comes into the game tied for 11th nationally with 32 points. The Orange defense will look to shut down Johnson, as it did Cornell’s Daniel Haber, in order to help lead the team to another victory Sunday night.
“We’ve got a solid back four,” Cribley said. “We’ve got some very good players back there.”
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