Harris’ move to back line improves struggling Syracuse defense
Logan Reidsma | Staff Photographer
Heading into Saturday’s game against Johns Hopkins, Syracuse’s defense needed a facelift.
Somewhere — amid the countless faceoff losses, question marks in the cage and injuries to key players in the midfield and attack — the team’s back line sputtered.
Despite the defense’s evident experience, it yielded 16 or more goals to three of the four ranked teams it faced before squaring off against the then-No. 3 Blue Jays at Homewood Field.
But SU head coach John Desko shifted senior long-stick midfielder Matt Harris to close defender in an eventual upset win over JHU. And for a unit that spent the early portion of the season searching for more answers than it provided, something clicked.
“Matt coming down the past two weeks we’ve gotten a lot better at communicating,” senior goalie Dominic Lamolinara said. “He’s a captain, he’s been down there before, so he’s got all that experience.”
Harris’ contributions on defense didn’t necessarily surface on the stat sheet. Syracuse (4-2, 0-2 Atlantic Coast) didn’t collect more ground balls than the Blue Jays — an area that Harris excels in — and still allowed 10 goals. But his leadership and experience keyed a pivotal first half in which the Orange gave up just three goals, and had Desko singing the defense’s praises after the game.
With a date with Duke this coming weekend and SU needing to improve its in-conference play to qualify for the ACC tournament, Harris’ insertion into the back line couldn’t come at a better time.
“I think that in previous games, the goals we’ve been giving up were just too easy for me,” Desko said. “We’ve had some young guys in there and we’ve mixed and matched, and we decided to bring (Harris) to limit some of the easy goals.
“I think it helped quite a bit.”
After not starting in a 14–8 win over then-No. 20 St. John’s on March 8, Harris jogged out alongside Brandon Mullins and Sean Young on Saturday, replacing sophomore Ryan Palasek.
In a complete performance, Harris picked up a team-leading four ground balls and scored a goal late in the third quarter. But most importantly, he anchored a zone scheme that stymied the Blue Jays’ production in the first half.
Faceoff specialist Chris Daddio was stifled by Johns Hopkins FOGO Drew Kennedy and would end up winning just 4-of-25 faceoffs in the game, which granted the Blue Jays extra possession and placed the defense under immense pressure.
Yet the Orange’s defensive approach was methodical and keyed Harris’ size and communication skills in the middle.
Syracuse mitigated the playmaking ability of Wells Stanwick — JHU’s dodging attack that feeds passes to diving teammates. The defense played a tight zone and face guarded all cutters, which forced tough-angle shots and put it in position to capitalize on every fumbled pass.
“I think our hustle kind of showed today,” Harris said. “I haven’t seen the groundball stats, but I feel like every time the ball was on the ground on our end we picked it up and made a successful clear. And especially when we’re having a tough day at the X, that’s huge for us.”
If Desko didn’t trust his long-stick midfielders, he’d be more hesitant to pencil Harris in as a close defender for the foreseeable future. But that’s exactly what the head coach did in his postgame press conference.
“Our poles are probably our deepest position,” Desko said. “To put one of our poles down on close defense, it’s a no-brainer for us when we have three poles that we’re still comfortable playing. I think we’re going to continue to do that.”
Two of those other poles are freshman Scott Firman and redshirt junior Peter Macartney. Harris has all the confidence in his teammates, and even seemed a little jealous after the game when he quipped about them being the ones to attack from the midfield moving forward.
That’s something Harris enjoys — his third-quarter goal came after he carried the ball 60 yards — but won’t be doing much of as he settles into the middle of SU’s revitalized defense.
Said Harris: “They’re no drop-off from me up top.”
Published on March 17, 2014 at 11:42 pm